Perfect Roast Turkey

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Learn how to make a juicy, flavorful, roast turkey to wow your guests. Whether you pick up a fresh, frozen, pre-brined bird or want to try dry-brining, it’s all covered here.

Beautiful roast turkey with golden brown skin.

If you’re in charge of making the Thanksgiving turkey this year, I know it can be a little daunting. But no worries, I’m here to help! Over the years, I have tested many popular methods, such as roasting frozen, basted, and unbrined varieties. This roast turkey recipe is the best!

Fresh vs. frozen

  • Frozen turkeys are quick-cooled, which prevents large ice crystal formation that could impact the meat’s texture when thawed. It gives you flexibility on when to defrost for the big feast. 
  • Fresh turkeys are chilled to around 26ºF (-3.3ºC) and should not refreeze. It’s best to purchase them closer to the week you plan to roast.

Time needed for defrosting

Just remember, defrost a frozen turkey in the refrigerator 1 day for every 4 pounds. For example, a 12-pound turkey needs at least 3 days. If wet-brining, salting (dry-brining), or air-drying in the refrigerator for crispier skin, defrost 4 to 5 days in advance.

Recipe Resources

Turkey size

It’s safe to assume you need 1 pound of turkey per guest. A 10-pound turkey is ideal for a smaller feast. I usually choose a turkey between 12 to 14 pounds in size. It cooks in a reasonable amount of time while achieving juicy meat and beautifully browned skin.

If any larger, the bird could dry out, and you may also need to cover the breast if it darkens too much. Honestly, I would rather roast two smaller birds than one mega one.

Self-basted or unbrined

For convenience, a pre-brined, self-basting (basted) bird is usually injected with a solution of salt, sweetener, seasonings, and sometimes phosphates for water retention. These are all meant to add flavor and retain moisture, so you can skip the brining process at home. Check the label for those ingredients.

Alternatively, you can buy an unbrined turkey, typically labeled as natural or organic. They may have water retention (around 6%) but no added salt. They require a little more work, but I prefer this option for more control over the flavor. I like to dry brine the turkey a day before roasting, but you can also wet brine if you prefer.

Dry brine for extra flavor

Seasoning underneath the skin of an unbasted turkey.
Step 2. Dry brine non-basted turkeys

For unbrined turkeys, place a mixture of kosher salt and sugar underneath the breast and leg skin and inside the unstuffed turkey cavity. Remove the neck and giblets. The ingredients are similarly found in basted birds to season and up the juiciness level. However, you don’t need any water, just some space in the fridge.

Dry brining works by osmosis, where the salt and sugar draws out the juices from the turkey and replaces it with concentrated seasoning. This makes it incredibly savory. If you’ve never done this method before, it’s a game-changer.

Surface seasoning

To add flavor and crispiness to the skin, sprinkle on a mixture of kosher salt, baking powder, and black pepper. I use this on my crispy baked chicken wings. The salt and pepper season the surface, while the baking powder makes the skin more alkaline, accelerating the Maillard browning reaction.

The baking powder also reacts with any moisture left on the skin, creating carbon dioxide bubbles that harden and make the skin crunchier. I add this mixture right after the dry brining process, but I also do this for a self-basting (basted) turkey for extra flavor while air drying the day before.

Dry the surface for crispier skin

Air dry the turkey in the refrigerator for at least 12 to 24 hours, uncovered, and elevated to remove any surface moisture. Steam is the enemy when roasting if you’re trying to achieve crispy brown skin.

Trussing a turkey

The process is a little different than what you do for whole roasted chicken. First, add the aromatic sage, rosemary, thyme, and a lemon slice to the cavity and massage. Tuck the wings back and tie the legs together with the butcher’s twine.

You can also tuck the wings under the skin at the tail to prevent the legs from being completely open. Tying the legs too tightly will take longer to cook inside the cavity.

Roast vegetables in the pan

Roasting pan filled with carrots, celery, and onions.
Step 7. Prepare the vegetables

I like to add a mixture of onion wedges, carrots, celery, and thyme sprigs to the roasting pan. The vegetables keep the turkey drippings from burning as it roasts. They also add lovely flavors to the juices at the bottom of the pan to make a gravy. You can serve the cooked veggies as a side dish or puree them into a soup.

Brushing melted butter on the surface of a raw turkey.
Step 8. Butter the surface

Start roasting breast-side down

Place the turkey breast-side down on the roasting rack for the first part of cooking. This position gives a jumpstart to the dark meat of the wings, thighs, and legs, which take longer to cook. I also find it helpful to line the V-rack with aluminum foil and grease it to create a nonstick surface.

Poke vent holes to allow the fat drippings to drain into the pan and prevent soggy skin. Roasting the turkey initially on foil prevents the breast skin from sticking to the rack.

Roasting procedure

Remove the foil after about 45 minutes when you flip over the bird. You want the hot air to be able to circulate underneath the thighs. Since the underside had a chance to cook, you don’t have to worry about the raw skin sticking to the V-rack. 

Brush the breast, wings, thighs, and legs with butter. The extra fat and milk solids will help deepen the golden brown color. After 30 minutes of cooking time, brush it once more with butter. If you notice the breasts changing color too quickly, especially with larger turkeys, loosely cover that area with foil.

How long to roast a turkey

The essential temperatures to shoot for are 160 to 165ºF (71 to 74ºC) in the thickest part of the breast and 170 to 175ºF (76 to 79ºC) in the thickest part of the thigh. Depending on the bird size, the turkey roasting time will be between 1 hour 35 minutes and 1 hour 45 minutes. 

If there are still raw areas (pink is okay!), you can roast longer in 5-minute increments. Sometimes the leg and thighs don’t finish cooking. If that happens, you can cut them off and cook them on a sheet pan while the turkey’s body is resting.

How to check for doneness

Taking the temperature of turkey using an instant-read thermometer.
Step 10. Check for doneness

Use an instant-read thermometer to check for doneness. For the breasts, insert the probe from the neck-end parallel to the meat and check both sides. For the thighs, check the thickest part between the breast meat and the drumstick. Avoid hitting the bones; otherwise, you’ll get a false high reading.

Let it rest

After cooking a turkey, it needs time to rest for about 45 minutes. This duration allows the hot juices to reabsorb into the meat. Cutting it too soon will cause the juices to run out, leaving you with drier pieces. Let the bird sit uncovered to prevent trapped steam from ruining the crispy skin.

Carving the turkey

Traditionally if you like to serve the whole turkey on a platter and carve the meat at the table, go for it. However, it can get a little messy, so I prefer to slice it up on a cutting board and not keep guests salivating.

Save the drippings to make gravy

There are flavorful drippings at the bottom of the turkey roasting pan once you scoop out the roasted vegetables. Make sure to scrape off any brown bits of fond, use hot water to release them if needed. Those bits will give the gravy its color. 

Transfer the liquid to a fat separator, and let the fat and juices move into two layers. Refrigerating will speed this process up. Use flour to thicken the juices, and adjust the consistency as desired. Plan for about ⅓ cup of gravy per person. You can reduce this recipe by half if serving a smaller crowd.

What to serve this with

Pouring gravy over slices of turkey on a white plate.

Recipe Science

Maintain a constant roasting temperature

After placing the turkey in the oven, it’s common for the temperature to drop by about 25 to 50 degrees. Maintaining around 425ºF (218ºF) after flipping and brushing is crucial to ensure the meat cooks through. I will turn the oven temperature up 25 to 50 degrees during transitions. Then turn it back down to 425 degrees to maintain the temperature.

Perfect Roast Turkey (Step by Step)

Be the hero of the holidays with this stunning roast turkey recipe! Wow your guests with a juicy, flavorful bird with golden brown skin.
4.83 from 23 votes
Prep Time12 hours 45 minutes
Cook Time1 hour 45 minutes
Total Time14 hours 30 minutes
Servings 12 servings
Course Entree
Cuisine American

Ingredients 
 

Dry Brine (For non-basted turkeys)

  • 3 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 4 teaspoons granulated sugar

Surface Seasoning

  • 4 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper

Roast Turkey

  • 12 to 14 pound turkey
  • 2 yellow onions, cut into 16 wedges
  • 2 cups carrots, cut into 2" pieces
  • 2 cups celery, cut into 2" pieces
  • 10 sprigs of thyme, divided
  • 5 sage leaves
  • 2 rosemary sprigs
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
  • 1 lemon slice, or orange slice
  • 9 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
  • kosher salt, as needed for seasoning
  • black pepper, as needed for seasoning

Gravy

  • ½ cup reserved fat, from pan drippings or unsalted butter
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 cups roasting juices, from pan drippings
  • 1 quart turkey stock, or chicken stock, as needed
  • kosher salt, as needed for seasoning
  • black pepper, as needed for seasoning

Instructions 

  • Remove Giblets and Neck – Place turkey on a sheet pan. Remove the giblets and the neck from the cavity and reserve them if using to make a gravy. Use paper towels to dry the surface and inside the cavity.
  • Dry Brine (For non-basted turkeys) – Omit this step if using a basted, salt-injected, or kosher turkey. In a small bowl, combine 3 tablespoons of kosher salt and 4 teaspoons of sugar. Lift the skin from the breast and leg area. Rub 1 tablespoon of the mixture underneath each breast. Rub 1 ½ teaspoon underneath each leg. Rub the remaining mixture inside the cavity.
  • Season the Surface – In a small bowl, combine 4 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, 2 teaspoons baking powder, and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Evenly rub the mixture on the surface of the breast, wings, legs, thighs, and back.
  • Refrigerate the Turkey – Place turkey breast-side up in a roasting pan with V-rack or on a wire rack set over a rimmed sheet pan. Refrigerate uncovered for at least 12 to 24 hours. If brining for up to 36 hours, loosely cover the turkey with plastic wrap after 24 hours. Transfer the turkey breast-side up to a clean sheet pan. Clean the roasting pan.
  • Preheat the Oven – Adjust the oven rack to the lowest position. Preheat to 425ºF (218ºC).
  • Truss the Turkey – With the turkey on the sheet pan, thoroughly dry the surface and the cavity with paper towels. Add 5 sprigs of thyme, sage, rosemary, garlic cloves, and lemon slice inside the cavity. For basted turkeys, add 1 teaspoon of salt to the cavity.
    Massage the inside of the bird with the aromatics to infuse the flavors. Tie the legs together with butcher's twine, or tuck the legs under the skin at the tail if still connected.
  • Prepare the Vegetables – On the bottom of the roasting pan, evenly spread onions, carrots, celery, and 5 sprigs of thyme. Place the V-rack inside the pan and then line it with foil. Spray the foil with nonstick cooking spray or grease with vegetable oil to prevent sticking. Use a knife to poke 30 holes in the foil.
  • Butter the Surface – Melt 6 tablespoons of butter. Then evenly brush it over the breast, wings, legs, and thighs. Place the turkey breast-side down on the foil-lined V-rack. Brush the remaining melted butter over the back, legs, and thighs.
  • Roast the Turkey – Roast for 45 minutes. For a turkey smaller than 12 pounds, roast for 30 minutes. Remove the turkey from the oven, but immediately close the door. Make sure that the oven comes back up to 425ºF (218ºC).
    Carefully remove the foil and discard it. Use two large wads of paper towel, and tilt the turkey, so the juices drain from the cavity. Then flip the bird so that it is breast-side up. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Then evenly brush it over the breast, wings, legs, and thighs. Roast for 30 minutes.
    Remove the turkey from the oven, and allow the temperature to increase back to 425ºF (218ºC). Melt 1 tablespoon of butter, and brush it over the breast, wings, legs, and thighs. Transfer back to the oven and rotate the pan for even cooking. Roast for 10 minutes.
  • Check for Doneness – Roast until the thickest part of the breast is 160 to 165ºF (71 to 74ºC), and the thickest part of the thigh reaches 170 to 175ºF (76 to 79ºC). If needed, continue to roast and check every 10 minutes for doneness. When it reaches 5 degrees below the temperature range, especially for the breast, check after 5 minutes.
  • Let it Rest – Transfer the turkey to a cutting board and rest it for about 45 minutes before carving. Discard the thyme and transfer the roasted vegetables to a bowl or serving platter and cover to keep warm.
  • Make Turkey Gravy – Scrape the browned bits stuck to the pan's bottom. A small amount of water or heating the pan over low heat can help loosen the bits. Pour the juices, fond, and fat drippings into a measuring cup or fat separator. Allow it to sit until the fat rises to the surface, about 10 minutes. Reserve the fat. Alternatively, chill in the refrigerator for quicker separation.
    Pour the juices into a measuring cup. Add store-bought turkey or chicken stock to reach a total of 4 cups. In a large saute pan, add ½ cup of reserved fat and ½ cup of flour. If you don’t have enough fat, use butter. Heat the pan over medium heat, whisk, and cook for 1 minute.
    Turn heat to medium-high. Gradually pour the juices into the pan, continuously whisking for about 3 to 5 minutes or longer for a thicker consistency. For a thinner sauce, add more stock. Season with salt and pepper to taste. If desired, strain for a smooth texture. Serve hot with sliced turkey.

Notes

  • Using Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt: This recipe was developed with Morton Coarse Kosher salt. Increase the amount by 50% for Diamond Crystal kosher salt.
  • For Larger Turkeys: Double the dry brining and surface seasonings for turkeys between 15 to 24 pounds.
  • Refrigeration Time: I find that 20 to 24 hours yields flavorful meat as the salt has enough time to dissolve, but you can dry brine for up to 36 hours for even juicier meat. However, loosely cover the turkey’s surface after 24 hours.
  • For the Crispiest Skin: At the end of cooking, broil the turkey breast-side up on the roasting rack. Check every minute to ensure the skin doesn’t burn.

Nutrition Facts

Serves: 12 servings
Calories 460kcal (23%)Carbohydrates 1gProtein 70g (140%)Fat 18g (28%)Saturated Fat 5g (25%)Cholesterol 232mg (77%)Sodium 361mg (15%)Potassium 721mg (21%)Fiber 1g (4%)Sugar 1g (1%)Vitamin A 180IU (4%)Vitamin C 1mg (1%)Calcium 36mg (4%)Iron 3mg (17%)

Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000-calorie diet. All nutritional information is based on estimated third-party calculations. Each recipe and nutritional value will vary depending on the brands you use, measuring methods, and portion sizes per household.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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Recipe Rating




17 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Ellen Veccia says

    OMG this is the most tender, juiciest turkey I’ve ever had. Absolutely perfectly cooked. Thank you Jessica! My daughter agreed – our best turkey ever!

  2. Rebecca says

    We followed your recipe and advice last year and it will now be a tradition for our family as long as I’m doing the turkey!!! It turned out so well and was delicious. Such fun to have a beautiful looking and beautiful tasting turkey! Thank you Jessica and Happy Thanksgiving ?

  3. Brent Abdullah says

    I’m going to try this technique, but really, no basting? Are you sure? Im guessing basting will limit the crispness of the skin, I get that, but the meat being juicy is so much more important.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      If you are brining the turkey the moisture should be more retained in the meat and not on the surface. I brush the surface a few times with melted butter to help brown the surface, add flavor, and prevent moisture loss.

      • BRENT A ABDULLAH says

        Followed your directions to a T and the turkey was perfect… juicy and delicious. Our guests ran late and I made a mistake putting foil over the turkey which softened the skin but it was perfect when it came out and the meat was still delicious. The flip is a game changer… but I have handles on my pan and I got myself a couple times. Ended up buttering the skin 4 times just to be on the safe side and it was perfectly golden brown. The gravy was really good as well. Thank you for the input.

        • Jessica Gavin says

          Thank you for your feedback! I’m thrilled to hear the turkey turned out well. Yes, covering creates steam on the surface. But I’m glad everything turned out well. Cheers!

  4. Tylie Petersen says

    Thank you Jessica for the recipe! The turkey turned out perfectly moist with a super crispy skin. Will probably make it again for our Christmas dinner!

  5. Cyndi Lew says

    I just made this and it was great! The skin turned out so crispy and delicious, I just wanted to eat all the skin. But I was good and let other people have some too. The meat was flavorful and moist as well. I would make this again!

  6. Carol Scully says

    Last minute question: I’m dry brining now. Do I wait to put the baking powder/salt/pepper concoction on tomorrow before I put it in the oven? That’s how I understand it when I read ‘right after the dry brining process.’ I am second guessing myself now. Thanks!

    • Jessica Gavin says

      I usually put it on right after I dry brine, so that same day. It air dries with the dry brine overnight. However, I have tested putting the baking powder mixture on the day I roast the turkey, and that would work just fine too!