A stunning roast turkey is always the star of the holiday table. Learn how to make a juicy, flavorful, and golden brown bird to wow your guests. Whether you pick up a fresh, frozen, pre-brined bird, or maybe you want to give dry-brining a try, it’s all covered in this guide.
Table of Contents
- Fresh vs. frozen
- Time needed for defrosting
- Turkey size
- Self-basted or unbrined
- Dry brining under the skin
- Surface seasoning
- Dry the surface for crispier skin
- Trussing a turkey
- Add vegetables to the roasting pan
- Start roasting breast-side down
- Flip and roast breast-side up
- How long to cook a turkey
- How to check for doneness
- Let it rest
- Carving the turkey
- Save the drippings to make gravy
- What to serve this with
- Roast Turkey Recipe
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.
All delicious, but they each need slightly different preparation techniques to nail tender and flavorful slices. You’ll find my step-by-step guide helpful no matter which method you want to try. I’ve broken the process down into simple steps, so let’s get started!
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’re planning 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.
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 a beautifully browned skin. Any larger, then the bird could dry out, and you may also need to cover the breast if it darkens too much. Honestly, I would consider roasting two smaller birds instead of 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, retain moisture, and 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 some 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 (salt) the turkey a day before roasting, but you can also wet brine if you prefer.
Dry brining under the skin
For unbrined turkey’s, place a mixture of kosher salt and sugar underneath the breast and leg skin and inside the cavity. 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 the concentrated seasoning. This makes it incredibly savory. If you’ve never done this method before, it’s a game-changer.
To add flavor and crispiness to the skin, sprinkle on a mixture of kosher salt, baking powder, and black pepper. I use this combination 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. Avoid drying over 24 hours, or the texture becomes very chewy.
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 then tie the legs together with 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 make it take longer to cook inside the cavity.
Add vegetables to the roasting pan
I like to add a mixture of onion wedges, carrots, celery, and thyme sprigs to the 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 I like to puree them into a soup.
Start roasting breast-side down
For the first part of roasting, cook the turkey breast-side down. 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 foil and grease it to create a nonstick surface.
Poke some 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.
Flip and roast breast-side up
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, 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 cook 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 turkey’s size, it will take a total time between 1 hour 35 minutes to 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
Use an instant-read thermometer to check for doneness. For the breasts, insert the probe from the neck-end parallel to the meat, check both sides. For the thighs, check the thickest part, which is located between the breast and drumstick. Avoid hitting the bones; otherwise, you’ll get a false high reading.
Let it rest
The roast turkey 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. Follow this simple carving guide.
Save the drippings to make gravy
There are flavorful drippings at the bottom of the 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
- Green bean casserole
- Homemade mashed potatoes
- Sweet potato casserole
- Cranberry sauce
- Buttermilk biscuits
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. It’s crucial to maintain around 425ºF (218ºF) after flipping and brushing 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.
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Dry Brine (For non-basted turkey)
- 3 tablespoons kosher salt
- 4 teaspoons granulated sugar
- 4 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 12 to 14 pound turkey
- 2 yellow onions, cut into 16 wedges
- 2 cups carrots, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 2 cups celery, cut into 2-inch 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
- ¼ cup reserved fat, from pan drippings or unsalted butter
- ¼ 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
Remove Giblets and Neck
- Place turkey on a sheet pan. Remove the giblets and the turkey neck from the cavity, reserve if using to make gravy. Use paper towels to thoroughly dry the outside surface and inside the cavity.
Dry Brine (For non-basted turkey)
- In a small bowl, combine 3 tablespoons of kosher salt and 4 teaspoons of sugar. Lift up the skin from the breast and the thigh. Rub 1 tablespoon of the mixture underneath each breast. Rub 1 ½ teaspoon underneath each leg. Rub the remaining mixture inside the cavity.
Surface Seasoning and Drying
- 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. The mixture can be doubled for larger birds.
- 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 hours. Do not exceed 24 hours, or the skin will become chewy instead of crispy. Pour off any juices remaining in the pan. Transfer turkey breast-side up to a sheet pan.
Roasting the Turkey
- Adjust the oven rack to the lowest position. Preheat to 425ºF (218ºC).
- 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 with nonstick cooking spray or grease with vegetable oil to prevent sticking. Use a knife to poke 30 holes in the foil.
- With the turkey breast-side up on a 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 a self-basting (basted) turkey, 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.
- 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 for 45 minutes. For a turkey smaller than 12 pounds, roast for 30 minutes. Remove the turkey from the oven, but make sure to immediately close the door. Make sure that the oven comes back up to 425ºF (218ºC), you may need to increase the heat for a few minutes, then reduce it back down.
- Carefully remove the foil and discard. Use two large wads of paper towel, tilt the turkey so that the juices drain from the cavity. Then flip over, so the bird 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 up to 425ºF (218ºC).
- Melt 1 tablespoon of butter, mix and brush over the breast, wings, legs, and thighs. Transfer back to the oven and rotate the pan for even cooking. 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), about 20 to 30 minutes depending on size. Check every 10 minutes for doneness. When it gets 5 degrees below the above doneness temperatures, especially for the breast, check after 5 minutes.
- Transfer turkey to a cutting board and rest for about 45 minutes before carving. Make the gravy and then slice the meat right before serving so it stays warm.
- Discard the thyme and transfer the roasted vegetables to a bowl or serving platter. 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 ¼ cup reserved fat and ¼ cup of flour. If you don’t have enough fat, use butter. For a thicker gravy, use ½ cup fat and ½ cup flour. Heat the pan over medium heat, whisk, and cook for 1 minute.
- Turn heat to medium-high. Gradually pour the juices into the pan, continually whisking until a thickened gravy is achieved, about 3 to 5 minutes or longer for a thicker consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste. If desired, strain for a smoother texture. Serve hot with sliced turkey.
- Air Drying: I find that 20 to 24 hours yields the most flavorful meat as the salt has more time to dissolve.
- For the crispiest skin: At the very end of cooking, broil the turkey breast-side up in the roasting rack. Check every minute to ensure that the skin doesn’t burn.
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