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How To Make The Best Roast Turkey
Add A Perfect Roast Turkey To The Thanksgiving Dinner Menu!
For many cooks, learning how to cook a turkey is the scariest kitchen challenge they can imagine - especially if they have never done it before! And even those who have taken on that giant bird sometimes find the result disappointing.
The fact that there are so many contradictory tips out there doesn't help - How long to cook a turkey? Do I need to baste it? How often should I baste it? Should I stuff the turkey or cook the stuffing separately?
Here are some answers to these questions that might surprise new-comers to the mysterious art of cooking a turkey:
- How long does it take? Cooking time should be less than 3 hours for a 14 to 16 pound turkey. You want to cook it hot and fast to maintain juiciness.
- How often should I baste? NEVER! There is no need to baste a turkey if you follow this recipe! All basting does is drain heat from the oven every time you open the door, and that just increases cooking time without improving the crustiness of the skin or the juiciness of the meat.
- Should I stuff the turkey? No. All that stuffing inside the bird just increases the cooking time, and all those delicious juices get sucked out of the meat and end up in the stuffing, where they just aren't needed.
- Fresh or Frozen? That's enough for a topic of its own...
Scared Of Cooking A Turkey?
How scary is the idea of cooking a turkey?
These Are NOT The Right Turkey Choices!
Choose the right turkey
Choosing the right turkey for your holiday meal is half the battle! For this recipe, it is imperative that you avoid pre-flavored turkeys!
That means not a Kosher turkey (they are salt-cured) and not a Butterball turkey (they are "flavor injected"). These pre-flavored birds already contain a good amount of salt, so brining them will result in a turkey that is way too salty!
As for fresh or frozen, there is no real difference for this recipe. Many folks argue that a fresh turkey is juicier and more tender than a frozen one, but the brining process we will be using will make even the cheapest frozen turkey moist and delicious!
If you do go for a frozen turkey, be sure to defrost it in the refrigerator as per the manufacturer's instructions on the packaging. Never defrost a chicken on the counter-top - unless you want to poison your guests with salmonella!
Have you cooked a turkey before?
How does your holiday turkey usually turn out?
A More Detailed Explanation of Brining
- Brining - Kitchen Notes - Cooking For Engineers
An explanation of Brining
What is brining? Why brine the bird? Won't it taste salty?
If you've never done it before, the idea of brining turkey may seem
counter-intuitive. How could soaking a turkey in salt water overnight
possibly be a good idea?
If you're wondering how to cook a turkey that's always juicy, brining is the key!
Brining is a very simple concept that has been around for centuries. It has long been used to make pickles, and is often a key step in cheese making. In the case of brining meat, salt and water are used increase the amount of water held in the cells of the meat, resulting in juiciness!
Brining works by way of osmosis and protein degradation inside the cells of the meat. Since the water outside has a higher salt concentration, the process of osmosis pulls the salt into the cells in an effort to achieve equilibrium.
For this recipe, you will need the following:
- A Vessel to Soak the Turkey
- A Stew Pot
- A Roasting Pan
- A V-rack
- Heavy Duty Aluminum Foil
- A Meat Thermometer
- A 14 to 16 pound Turkey (fresh, or frozen and defrosted - not Kosher Turkey or Butterball Turkey)
- Canola Oil
- 1 gallon Vegetable Stock (Homemade Vegetable Stock is Best!)
- 1 cup Kosher Salt
- 1/2 cup Light Brown Sugar
- 5 cloves Garlic, smashed
- 1 tablespoon Peppercorns
- 5 pound Bag of Ice
- 1 Large Onion, cut into quarters
- 1 Cooking Apple (Fiji, Granny Smith, e.g.), cut into quarters
- 3 Stalks Celery
- 3 Carrots
- 5 Sprigs Fresh Thyme
- 5 Sage Leaves
The brining takes several hours, and I like to do it
the afternoon before the big day...
- In a large stew pot, add the Vegetable Stock, Kosher Salt, Brown Sugar, Garlic and Peppercorns. Bring to a boil over High heat and stir until the Salt and Sugar are dissolved. Turn off the heat and let the Brine cool for several hours.
- Once the Brine has cooled, remove the Turkey from its wrapping - remove the giblets from the cavity. Save them for the Best Turkey Giblet Gravy.
- Rinse the Turkey thoroughly under cold running water.
- Place the Turkey inside the Soaking Vessel and pour the Brine over top. Add enough Ice to bring up the level of the liquid until the Turkey is completely submerged. Give the whole thing a good stir to distribute the ice and ensure that the cavity of the Turkey is full of Brine (so it doesn't float).
- Place a lid on the Soaking Vessel and put it in a cool place - if you have room in the fridge, that is best. If not, you can place the Vessel outside or in the garage if it's cold outside (below 45 degrees F), or in the basement if its cool down there. If none of these options are available, see the section at the end for an alternate method that uses a cooler and a roasting bag.
- Let the Turkey sit in the brine for about 6 hours, but no longer than 7 hours. About halfway through the brining, give the whole works another good stirring.
- Remove the Turkey from the Brine and rinse it thoroughly, inside and out, in the sink. If you don't rinse it, the salt on the outside will make the Turkey taste overly salty!
- Discard the Brine Solution.
- Wrap the Turkey thoroughly in plastic cling wrap or inside an oven roasting bag and place it BREAST-SIDE DOWN in the fridge overnight. I've found that placing it breast-side down in the fridge helps to make the breast meat even more juicy and tender!
Keep That Oven Door Closed!
Please note that if you open the oven during cooking you will dramatically increase the total cooking time.
Every time you open the oven, the internal temperature drops by about 10 degrees. In reality, I find that I do need to open the door while making Thanksgiving dinner - there's more to be cooked than just the bird! I also cook the stuffing and other side dishes at the same time, so my cooking time suffers a bit. If left alone in the oven, the turkey would probably be done in 2 1/2 hours instead of 3 to 3 1/2 hours.
That's why the Meat Thermometer is
essential for telling when the bird is finished. Without one, you'll never know how long to cook a turkey!
The cooking process I use may be quite different from what you're used to - cooking a 14-16 pound bird only takes about 3 hours!
When I was a kid, my Mom would wake up at the crack of dawn to start cooking the turkey and spend the whole day opening and closing the oven to baste and baste and baste. Those days are over!
This recipe cooks the bird hot and fast, and there is no need for basting! The high heat makes the skin crispy, and the brining makes sure that the meat will be tender.
I know this will be hard for some of you to believe, but try it
once and you'll see the light...
- Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.
- Remove the Turkey from the fridge and unwrap it. I like to give it one last rinse in the sink, then thoroughly pat it dry with paper towels to ensure a crispy skin.
- Place the Turkey on a V-Rack inside a Roasting Pan, breast-side up. The V-Rack's design will ensure that the bottom of the Turkey roasts instead of soaks!
- Fill the cavity of the Turkey with the aromatics - don't try to be fancy, just jam it all in there! It will be thrown out after cooking, so don't be fussy about it.
- Tear off a large piece of Aluminum Foil and fold it diagonally to form a triangle. Place the triangle over the breast of the Turkey so that it completely covers the breast meat. Once you have the desired shape, carefully remove the foil and set it aside. (We're doing this now because the turkey will be piping hot later and you'll burn yourself if you try to shape the foil cover later!)
- Rub the entire outside of the Turkey with Canola Oil.
- Place a Meat Thermometer in the thickest part of the breast, being careful not to hit any bones. Do not rely on that built-in pop-up thingy when cooking a turkey - they are calibrated way too high, and your Turkey will be overcooked if you rely on it instead of a proper Meat Thermometer!
- Place the Roasting Pan on the bottom rack of the 500 degree oven and cook for 30 minutes, undisturbed.
- After 30 minutes, remove the Turkey from the oven and reduce the temperature to 375. Place the prepared foil cover over the breast and return the Turkey to the oven. The foil will prevent the breast meat from overcooking.
- Keep an eye on the Thermometer and remove the Turkey when it reads 160 degrees. Just to be safe, I also like to use my Instant Read Thermometer in a few spots to make sure the bird is completely cooked!
- Let the Turkey rest about 20 minutes, loosely covered with foil.
Alton Brown Explains The Logic Behind This Recipe!
The Method Behind The Madness
- Why cook the turkey at such high heat?
- Why no basting?
- What's with that foil shield?
These questions and more are answered in this video From Food Network's "Good Eats"
Turkey Carving Essentials
This will be a very juicy bird, so be prepared! Cover your work surface with towels under a cutting board and have some extras on hand for clean-up.
I like to first remove the breasts with a chefs knife, then carve them across the grain with an electric knife before serving. The drumsticks and thighs should pull off easily with minimal cutting.
Everything You Need For Brining Your Turkey
Alternate Brining Vessel - The Cooler!
If you live someplace where it's too warm to let your turkey brine outside, or you just don't want to leave your bird out there for the critters to get into, here is an alternative.
You will need a large cooler (a disposable Styrofoam one will do, so long as it's big enough to hold the bird and the brine) and a Brining Bag or Roasting Bag large enough to hold the bird and the liquid.
You don't want to brine the bird directly in the cooler - raw poultry can contain nasty little things that can make you sick, and it's easier to use a bag inside the cooler than to try to sanitize it after you've finished.
Place the bird in the bag, then put the bag in the cooler. Carefully pour the Brine Solution into the bag, then cover with enough ice so that the Turkey is completely submerged. Close up the bag, cover the cooler and proceed as above!
A Great Side Dish
You've got the Turkey and the Gravy, how about some Delicious Garlic Mashed Potatoes to make the meal complete...
You Need Some Gravy!
Now that you know how to cook a turkey, it's time to make The Best Turkey Giblet Gravy!
The Best Stuffing Ever!
Add some Sage Sausage and Apple Stuffing for a complete Thanksgiving Dinner Menu!
"Good Eats" Inspired This Recipe!
This recipe was inspired by one I saw on Food TV. I've modified it a
bit over the years, and here is the original brining method from Alton Brown on "Good Eats":