After 25+ years of roasting turkeys for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year meals, I’ve tried pretty much everything. I’ve bought turkeys that were fresh, frozen, pre-brined, self-basting, young, organic, big, small. You name it–I’ve tried it. I’ve brined, basted, not basted, cooked the whole bird in a bag, stuffed, unstuffed, dry rubbed–always in pursuit of the perfect roast turkey.
I’ve tried methods recommended from famous chefs. I’ve learned from them all, but at the end I just did it my own way. My turkey comes out moist while being completely cooked throughout. Even after 25+ years of roasting turkeys there is a few tweaks I’ve learned along the way.
Admittedly, there is more than one way to successfully roast a turkey. If you’re a turkey cooking pro with a method for roasting consistently great turkeys, well, kudos to you–keep doin’ what you’re doin’! This post is for beginners who’ve never cooked a turkey and for those who have roasted turkeys in the past with unsatisfactory results and don’t know why. I’m sharing in this post the simple method I’ve used numerous times that results in awesome, juicy turkeys every time.
Here are my simple, no-fuss tips. They’re a combination of lessons learned from mom, various chefs, and lots of trial-and-error in my own kitchen through the years.
- Don’t wash the turkey. Really? I know you are going to make sure I am telling the truth but its the truth. Washing the turkey can contaminate your kitchen as water and turkey germs spray. This advice comes straight from the USDA. It’s no joke. Cooking the turkey to the right temperature will kill any bacteria that may be lingering in your turkey–you can’t wash it away; so don’t even try.
- Don’t brine. To brine or not to brine? You’ll find chefs who stand passionately on both sides of this issue. I’m not even going to try to settle it here. If you’re a briner, go for it. Me? I don’t find it to be worth the trouble. I get great tasting, moist turkeys using my simple steps. I’ve tried brining and I didn’t find a big difference except no one liked at my home. Honestly it tasted different and I stopped brining.
- Don’t stuff the bird. Again, there are people strongly for and against stuffing a turkey. I’m against it. By the time the stuffing is cooked to a safe temperature, the turkey meat is likely to be overcooked. I do add my stuffing in the bird but I keep it covered throughout the roasting then remove the aluminum foil to crisp it up. If you prefer a drier stuffing with crispy edges, cook it in casserole dish or bundt pan outside of the oven. The turkey cooks faster and remains moist when it isn’t stuffed.
- Don’t cook it low and slow. The outside packaging of every turkey I’ve ever purchased recommends roasting the turkey at 325 degrees. Not me. I cook mine at a higher heat, and the happy result is that the turkey is juicier and cooks in much less time. It doesn’t have to take all day to roast a turkey to perfection.
- Don’t baste the bird every hour. Every time you open the oven door to baste, the oven loses heat, and the total cooking time required increases. Basting does nothing to moisturize the meat–it never penetrates the skin. The only thing that basting does is give the turkey skin more unified browning, although even that is debatable. I do baste after 3 hours to give the skin a browning look which my family goes hog wild for it.
After years of experimenting, here’s what I believe to be the keys to a perfectly moist and flavorful roast turkey:
- Do test your oven’s temperature accuracy. All recipe cooking time and temperature recommendations will be unreliable if your oven temperature reading isn’t accurate. If you aren’t certain whether or not your oven is calibrated accurately, check it well in advance of roasting your turkey. Use an oven thermometer to test your oven. If you set the oven for 350 degrees and the thermometer reads higher or lower, raise or lower your temperature setting until you know where you need to set it in order for it to actually cook at 350 degrees. Also determine the correct setting for an actual temperature of 400 degrees. Those are the 2 temperatures used in this recipe for roasting a turkey. If your oven isn’t heated to an accurate temperature, my time and temperature recommendations may not work for you.
- Do thoroughly thaw the turkey. Perhaps the biggest rookie mistake in preparing a turkey is not allowing enough time for it to thaw in the refrigerator. If you buy a frozen turkey, allow at least one day in the fridge for every 4-5 pounds. Never thaw it at room temperature, because the outside will warm to an unsafe, bacteria-friendly temperature before the inside is thawed. Plan on having it completely thawed the day before you’ll cook it to guarantee no last-minute frozen turkey panic. (Been there!) If not completely thawed, it will take the turkey longer to cook completely, and the turkey won’t cook evenly. It will likely be overcooked and dry near the outside before it is completely cooked inside.
- Do add flavor from the inside out. Add seasonings, onion, and lemon to the inside cavity of the turkey. They infuse flavor and moisture into the meat and drippings, resulting in tastier turkey and gravy (made from the drippings). If you are stuffing the turkey than its a great trick to add butter between the skin and meat of the breast cavity.
- Do cook the turkey at higher heat for the first hour. This seals in the juices and crisps the skin.
- Do cook the turkey breast side down in the beginning and flip it over for the last hour. This way gravity sends some moisture in the naturally juicier dark meat above into the breast meat below. Also, the bottom of the turkey gets nicely browned & cooked from being on top in the beginning.
- Do use a thermometer to cook the turkey to exactly the right temperature. This is hugely important and perhaps the most important of all of these tips. There isn’t another reliable method for knowing exactly when your turkey is fully cooked, because there are too many variables that determine the necessary cooking time–turkey size, type (heritage and organic turkeys can cook faster), starting temperature; anything added to the cavity (dressing or aromatics), type of rack/pan, oven heat (some heat unevenly or have unreliable thermostats, etc.). A remote probe thermometer is recommended–it stays in the turkey while it cooks and sounds an alarm when it has reached the perfect temperature. This eliminates the risk of over- or under-cooking the turkey. (An instant-read thermometer will suffice if you don’t have a remote one.)
- Do let the cooked turkey rest for at least 30 minutes. I let mine rest for as long as an hour. This allows the juices to settle in the turkey meat. If you carve it too soon out of the oven, the juices will run out and leave you with a dry turkey. Plus, during the resting time you can use the oven for cooking the stuffing, veggies, or rolls that accompany the meal.
Step-by-step for The Best Roast Turkey
Step 1. Assemble What You Need
Everything will go more smoothly if you take inventory of what you need to have on hand before you begin preparing the turkey.
- A roasting pan and rack. I know some use aluminum pans but I really feel that when you roast a turkey of size, it easy to handle. It eliminates the awkwardness of lifting a heavy turkey off of the rack and onto a platter or cutting board and cooks more evenly.
- High heat, water-proof gloves. Its so easy to use it on my turkey over during the roasting process especially when its time to flip it over. I used to do that using folded paper towels, but I had to work quickly before the grease and heat soaked through and burned my hands. The gloves make it so easy. The gloves are washable in sudsy water or in the dishwasher.
- Kitchen twine. To tie the turkey legs together.
- Silicone pastry brush. For coating the turkey with olive oil (or melted butter) before it goes into the oven. I prefer this to a natural bristle brush and it’s dishwasher safe for easy clean up.
- A good thermometer is a must. It’s virtually impossible to know when your turkey is perfectly cooked without taking its internal temperature. There are two kinds of thermometers that is on the market- A remote probe thermometer and An instant-read thermometer. I use the instant-read thermometer. It gives a great reading on the breast and thigh area and never failed for me. I use this one and I use it on my griddle too.
Step 2. Assemble the Ingredients
The night before, I prep the thawed turkey by add seasonings with the turkey rub and butter. You can get the recipe HERE.
- A thawed, room temperature turkey. Take it out of the fridge 30-60 minutes before it goes into the oven to bring it to room temperature and facilitate even cooking.
If you are not adding stuffing to the turkey then these ingredients to put into the turkey cavity.
- Olive oil (or melted butter, if you prefer)
- Salt & pepper
- Fresh herbs: parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
- 1 onion, peeled & quartered
- 1 lemon, quartered
Step 3. If your turkey comes with one of those red pop-up thermometers, pull it out and throw it away. They are very unreliable, and they can give you a false sense of security about cooking your turkey the right amount of time. In my early days of turkey roasting, I relied on them to tell me when the turkey was done, because I didn’t know better. The usual results: overcooked, dry turkey. Sometimes, the turkey thighs were so undercooked, they were still bloody. One time, that thing didn’t ever pop up. Just say NO to those useless gadgets.
Step 4. Your turkey probably has a plastic or metal clamp thingie holding the legs together. If so, press down on the legs to release them from the clamp. You can leave the clamp in the bird, or remove it. I prefer to remove it. I use twine instead of the plastic or metal clamps.
Step 5. Turkeys usually have necks and giblet bags inside. Remove the neck from the main cavity on the tail end.
Step 6. Remove the giblet bag from the cavity on the neck end.
- What to do with the neck and giblets? The easiest option is to throw them away–you don’t need them for roasting the turkey. However, I like to use them to make broth. Start cooking the broth when the turkey goes in the oven, and the broth is finished long before the turkey comes out. Use the broth to combine with pan drippings to make gravy. Or, it can be used to moisten stuffing before you add to the cavity or on your casserole dish. Personally, I use the neck part with the water I add to the pan. It gives such an amazing taste to make the gravy.
Step 7. Remove the tail, and add these to the inside cavity to flavor the turkey from the inside out as it cooks. Rub salt and pepper inside. Add lemon, onion, and herbs, reserving one of the onion quarters.
Step 8. Overlap the turkey skin to close the cavity opening as much as possible (this keeps moisture inside the turkey as it cooks). Sometimes the skin will seal together without help, but you may need to use toothpicks or turkey skewers to hold the skin in place.
Step 9. Tie the legs together with a piece of cooking twine.
Step 10. Pull each wing tip back and tuck them under the turkey. This keeps the wing from burning and the tips also help to hold the neck cavity skin in place.
Step 11. Dry the turkey with a paper towel and brush the top (breast side) all over with olive oil. (You may use melted butter, if you prefer). Flip the turkey over into the roasting rack and pan. Brush with olive oil so that the entire turkey has been oiled. You can sprinkle on some salt, pepper and/or dried herbs, if you want the skin seasoned. I don’t bother with that–just olive oil on the skin for me.
Step 12. Put the turkey into a 400 degree oven (still breast side down) for 1 hour, then reduce the temperature to 350.
Step 13. (This an option if you all around browning and flipping the turkey breast back up) After the turkey has been in the oven for a total of approx. 2 hours since it first went into the oven, remove it briefly from the oven. It should be nicely brown. Now flip it over so that it is breast side up for the remainder of the cooking time. This is where having heatproof, waterproof gloves come in handy. Just grab the bird and flip it over. If you don’t have gloves, use folded paper towels on each end–flip quickly before the heat and grease penetrate the paper and burn your hands.
Step 14. Before returning the turkey to the oven, insert the remote thermometer probe into the thickest part of the thigh. It’s important not to put the probe against a bone or inside the cavity. Set the thermometer to sound an alarm when the thigh has reached 165-170 degrees.
Step 15. Remove the turkey from the oven and use an instant read thermometer to make sure the turkey is fully cooked throughout. Check the temperature in the thigh on the other side (some ovens cook unevenly). Also, be sure and check the thickest part of the breast (as pictured below)–it’s best at 160 degrees out of the oven. The internal temperature will continue to rise approx. 5 degrees more after the turkey is removed from the oven.
- How long does it take the turkey to cook? Cooking times can vary. 13 minutes cooking time per pound is a good estimate. It should take a 14 lb. turkey 2- 1/2 to 3 total cooking hours, a 16 pound turkey 3 to 3 -1/2 hours, and an 18 pound turkey 3-1/2 to 4 hours. These times are ballpark; that’s why using a thermometer is important for determining exactly when the turkey is done.
Step 16. While it rests, cover the turkey loosely with foil. If you don’t need the pan drippings for making gravy, you can leave it in the pan while it rests. Otherwise, transfer the turkey to a platter or cutting board before covering it. Let the turkey rest for a minimum of 30 minutes to let the juices settle into the meat. I usually rest mine for 45-60 minutes–it’s still hot and juicy inside after that long. The long rest gives me time to use the oven for baking other dishes like dressing, veggies, and rolls.