I know the turkey can be the most daunting part of the Thanksgiving meal. There is a lot of pressure to have a delicious and beautiful turkey as it is the main event. And there are quite a few ways to go about roasting a turkey. Should you brine, dry brine, or not brine, fry, use a roasting bag, cover or no cover, hot temperature to begin and then lower or lower temperature and then higher at the end, fresh or frozen turkey, to baste or not, and so on. I am sure all of these methods have their pros and cons. But please, don’t be discouraged. I will share what I have learned and you will be serving your guests a delicious, flavorful, and moist turkey, just like the pros.
First, let’s talk purchasing your bird. You want 1 to 1 1/2 pounds per person. I recently made a 12 pound turkey for 12 people, 5 adults and 7 children, and we had very little turkey leftover. So if you are wanting some leftovers for turkey soup or turkey sandwiches, then buy 1 1/2 pounds per person.
I like to buy a fresh turkey when available. Fresh poultry is more tender and moist. That being said, buying a frozen turkey will be perfectly fine. When buying a fresh turkey, look at the sell-by date to be sure it will still be good by the time you roast it. If buying a frozen turkey, allow enough time to defrost before you will be roasting. The rule for defrosting is 1 day per 4 pounds of frozen turkey in the refrigerator. If you wake up the day before Thanksgiving and you realize you never defrosted your turkey, you can fill your clean kitchen sink with cold water and submerge the turkey which is still wrapped in its plastic packaging, changing the water for new, cold water every 30 minutes. This will take about 6 hours to defrost.
Now let’s talk brining. A few years ago I started brining my turkeys. This entails a boiled solution of water, salt, sugar, herbs and spices, which is then chilled and added to a enough cold water to cover the turkey in a large bucket or bag. I have a 5 gallon bucket with a lid on which I wrote “Brine”, so it would never be used for anything else, just to keep it clean and safe for food preparation. This brining process can be tricky for a few different reasons. 1-Making the solution, cooling it and adding the additional cold water takes extra time and effort during an already busing holiday time. 2- Finding a large enough bucket and a large enough space in your refrigerator for that large bucket to allow the turkey to brine for 24 hours before Thanksgiving Day can by nigh impossible. Still, the effort had been worth the result and I’ve done it for years. I say “had” been worth it because last Thanksgiving dinner as I ate the turkey I had to admit while it was very moist, it lacked flavor. It tasted watered down, if that makes sense. So, in preparation for this year and for this post, I researched the brining method a lot more and came across this fantastic article which explains the pros and cons and the science behind the brining process. To sum it up, when brining, the turkey takes in lots of the brining liquid and therefore is more moist, but that extra liquid dilutes the turkey flavor, even when using a flavorful brine. The dry brined turkey is rubbed with salt and the meat does suck in some additional liquid which makes it more moist than an untreated turkey but still with a delicious flavor AND there is no need to deal with the arduous task that comes with preparing, storing and rinsing the brine and turkey. I dried brined my most recent turkey and I loved it, lots of real, turkey flavor, still moist and SO easy to prep.
Let’s get to it, shall we? The defrosted or fresh turkey is sprinkled with kosher salt, all over the meat areas and refrigerated, uncovered for 24 hours. The picture below is after 24 hours of dry brining. There is no need to rinse, we used just enough salt to season perfectly and will not need any more salt later on. Remove the turkey from the refrigerator 1 hour before roasting, to take the chill off the meat for more evenly cooking. Next comes the herb butter. Click here for the herb butter recipe. Herb butter is a compound butter made by whipping butter until fluffy and then adding things like minced garlic, minced shallots, herbs and spices. I use this flavorful her butter for the turkey, gravy, homemade croutons for the stuffing and for the leftover turkey soup. It makes a world of difference and is really so easy and takes very little time to prepare. I feel like it takes these dishes to a whole new level and gives them that “WOW” factor. It is sure to be your secret ingredient too!
Starting from the bottom of the breasts of the turkey, separate the skin from the breast meat, legs and thighs using your hand or the end of a wooden spoon to create a space for the herb butter. The herb butter is made with butter, fresh herbs, garlic, shallots and pepper. It will self baste the turkey while it roasts and impart a delicious flavor. This self-basting in herb butter eliminates the need to baste, and saves you from having to tend so often to the turkey and lengthening the cooking time because each time you open the oven door you let heat out. Besides, in my experience, basting runs off the skin and to the pan, not penetrating the meat and preventing the skin from crisping up.
Using small pinches of a few tablespoons at a time, slip the herb butter under the skin to the legs, thighs and breasts. Then placing your hands on the outside of the turkey, rub the butter in, until it is distributed evenly and throughout.
If you prefer to stuff your turkey with stuffing, now is the time. I like to cook my stuffing in a separate pan for 45 minutes. I do this for a couple different reasons. 1- I like the stuffing moist on the inside but also with a little crunch on the top. 2- As the turkey cooks, raw juices drip into the stuffing which makes it susceptible to salmonella which means you must roast your bird as long as it takes for the stuffing to come to a temperature of 165 degrees as well. By that time your turkey may be over done and dry and you drippings for gravy have gone into your stuffing. If you are not stuffing your turkey, you can cut a lemon in half and place in the cavity of the turkey for more flavor and aromatics. Next, melt some of the remaining herb butter and rub all over the outside of the bird. If you don’t like the look of the roasted herbs on the outside, just use plain melted butter. Remember not to salt the turkey, since you already salted when dry brining. Place on a rack in a roasting pan and add 1 cup of chicken stock to the bottom of the pan.
There are many differing opinions of what temperature to roast the turkey at. I believe starting at 325 degrees and roasting until the thigh meat, next to the breast registers a temperature of 165 degrees is the best way. When roasting at 325, it will take approximately 13-15 minutes per pound. It is SO important, I’d say vital, for you to have a thermometer, I prefer a digital thermometer and an oven safe one, at that. This thermometer is my favorite and I’ve used it for years. It has a magnet to attach the base to the oven or the fridge nearby. You can set it the sound to alert you when your food is done, or getting close. It can be switched to fahrenheit or celsius and has a timer. If for some reason at the end of that time, you find you want the skin to be darker, crank up the heat to 425 degrees for 10-15 minutes at the very end. Once your thermometer alerts you that the bird is cooked, remove from pan onto a carving board to rest for 20 minutes, tented with tinfoil if you want, to allow juices to redistribute in the meat and to prevent them from running out of the bird and all over the floor. I love a board like this carving board because it will collect the juices and prevent the turkey from sliding around while carving. I carve by first, cutting the drumsticks off, then the thighs, wings and finish by cutting off each whole turkey breast. I then slice the breasts and remove the dark meat from the legs and thighs. Now you are left with all the bones and I immediately get them out of the way by placing them in a stock pot, covering with water and let simmer for 4 hours on the stove making delicious turkey broth. After that time, turn off the stove and allow the broth to cool down then place in a large container and refrigerate. This makes great broth for turkey soup in the next few days.