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Cooking the Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey
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Brining and a Butter Rub
As a kid gravy was very important to me during Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. Once again mom had produced a dried out turkey full of stuffing. Thankfully the gravy brought life back to the turkey and made it easier to swallow. If you watch a lot of cooking shows like I do you probably already know that it's virtually impossible fill a turkey with stuffing and not dry out the breast. By the time the stuffing reaches the safe cooking temperature of 160 degrees the turkey breast is overcooked. If the turkey is only cooked until the breast is done, then the stuffing is questionable to eat because it isn't hot enough to kill any bacteria from the turkey.
Over the years mom began to branch out and gave me a recipe for brining a turkey. I had never heard of such a thing, but since I love to cook and eat I thought I'd give it a try. In case you too are not familiar with the process, it is essentially soaking the turkey in a highly concentrated salt and/or sugar solution before baking. There are several brine recipes with various herbs and spices added, but really the sugar and salt are the star players.
Before creating a brine solution thaw the turkey and think about the flavors you want the turkey and gravy to have. Initially I'll saute a sliced onion and half a dozen cloves of garlic. Then I add the dry herbs and spices such as bay leaf, rosemary, peppercorns, and crushed red pepper to wake them up a bit. Some recipes call for apple cider and others chicken stock, I've used both with great success. After sauteing the onion and spices I fill an 8Qt stockpot about half full with my liquid of choice. After I add the liquid I add the fresh herbs: thyme, sage, and celery leaves. Many brine recipes call for slightly more salt than sugar, but my husband and I have decided we like equal amounts of both. I stir everything together and bring it to a boil. Turning down the heat I let it simmer for at least 30 minutes to let the flavors infuse into the brine.
While the brine simmers prep the turkey to soak. Some recommend a cooler or a large plastic tub that will fit in the refrigerator. The first time I brined a turkey I didn't have either and I needed to put the turkey in the solution right away . My resourcefulness kicked in and I used my roasting pan and a trash bag. Just be sure it isn't a scented trash bag. I put the turkey in the bottom of the bag and sat it in the roasting pan.
Now it's time to add the rest of the liquid to the brine solution, to cool it off and dilute it a bit. The liquid has to be cool so that the turkey isn't poached. Thankfully this time of year cold water from the tap is pretty cold but I also use a fair amount of ice (8-12 cups) to help cool down the brine solution. You will see some of the salt/sugar precipitate but don't worry. The ratio of liquid to sugar/salt is critical for the number of hours the turkey is brining. If the solution is too concentrated or the turkey is left to brine too long then it will taste salty. On the flip side if the turkey doesn't brine long enough or if the solution is too diluted then the benefits will be diminished. In my opinion it's still better to brine a little than not at all. It is also better to buy low sodium chicken broth and add salt to the gravy at the very end to make sure it isn't too salty.
I have a scratch piece of paper with a few recipes scribbled down. For a 12lb turkey and 12 hour brine one recipe calls for 8 cups of apple cider, 4 cups of ice, with 2/3 cup of salt, 1/2 cup of sugar, 1/2 cup of brown sugar, and 1/4 cup of maple syrup. Another recipe combines 8 quarts of liquid with 3/4 cup of salt with 1/3 cup of sugar and a brine period of 2-3 days for the same size turkey. So, depending on the length of time available you can adjust the concentration of your brine accordingly. I typically use 8 quarts of liquid and a cup of both salt and sugar. In the refrigerator I'll brine the turkey for 24 hours turning it over after the first 12 hours. I do still use the unscented trash bag sitting in a roasting pan.
After the turkey has brined discard the solution and all of it's contents. Then rinse the turkey and pat it dry with paper towels.
The brine will give the turkey an excellent flavor and help it retain moisture but in my opinion I think a butter rub takes it to a higher level. Depending on the size of turkey you'll need 1 or 2 sticks of butter softened. To the butter I add thyme, sage, parsley, rosemary, salt, pepper, and garlic and onion powder. Since raw garlic has a tendency to burn and become bitter I opt for the powder. Mix the herbs with the butter and rub the mixture all over the turkey, inside and out. Then, gently slide your hand between the skin and the breast and rub the butter all over the breast. Make sure to leave the skin in tact because it will help keep the breast meat from drying out. If needed, any remaining butter can be used to make stuffing or gravy, but whatever isn't used should be discarded.
In place of the traditional stuffing the bird cavity can be filled with onion slices, garlic cloves, apple or orange wedges, sprigs of fresh herbs, celery, or whatever flavor combination you desire. I think it helps keep the cavity moist while providing excellent flavor to the drippings you'll use for gravy.
Turkey Rubbed With Herb Butter and Stuffed With Vegetables and Herbs
It is recommended to bake a turkey roughly 18 minutes per pound of turkey. Some recipes recommend the first 30-45 minutes upside down at 400 degrees. That helps put a sear on the turkey without drying out the breast. The first turkey I ever made I put in the pan upside down because I didn't know any better. After a "Griswald" moment of trying to carve the bottom of the turkey we realized it needed to be flipped over. It was tremendously juicy. The inverted turkey technique works, but I've always found flipping over the turkey somewhat of a nightmare.
Other recipes suggest putting the bird in the oven at 350 and bake until it is finished. Since I don't like flipping the turkey I'll bake it the first 30 minutes at 400 and then turn the oven down to 350. If you're looking for a pretty turkey you might want to cover the wing tips to keep them from burning. As the turkey bakes, baste it periodically (every 20-30 minutes) with the pan drippings for a beautiful brown color. My favorite basting tool is a silicone brush because the bristles don't fall out.
Another great investment is a meat thermometer. Most grocery stores carry them in the baking isle for a few dollars. When measuring the temperature of the turkey insert the thermometer into the thigh away from the bone. At 165F pull the turkey out of the oven and cover it with foil and allow it to rest for 20 minutes before carving. If the turkey is cut immediately all of the juices will run out and the turkey will be dry.
I know this is a long post so here are the cliff notes:
- Brine solution: 8 quarts of liquid with 1 cup of salt and 1 cup of sugar. Add seasonings to your liking.
- Brine the turkey for 1 day turning over after 12 hours.
- Rub the inside, outside, and between the skin and breast with compound butter seasoned to your liking
- Bake for 30 minutes at 400 and reduce to 350 until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. Don't forget to baste.
- Cover the turkey with foil for 20 minutes and allow it to rest before carving.
Leave a comment and let me know how your turkey turned out. Enjoy the holiday season!
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