When it comes to holiday cooking, my father and I spend weeks deciding who is making the various side dishes. But when it comes to roasting the turkey, there’s no discussion. Of course that task falls to my mother.
Why? True, she has cooked our Thanksgiving turkey for over 50 years, so she knows what she’s doing.
But the real reason is that her roast turkey is always perfectly done, the breast never dried out, but tender and full of flavor.
how to cook a perfect turkey for thanksgiving
How does she do it? Here are her three keys to cooking a perfect turkey:
- Cook the turkey breast-side down. While the turkey roasts, the juices fall down towards the breast, resulting in the most succulent meat. The breast is also more protected from the heat, which helps keep it getting too dried out.
- Use a meat thermometer to take out any guess work of when the turkey is done.
- Cook the turkey stuffing separately, not in the cavity, which makes it easier to cook the turkey more evenly.
Cooking a turkey breast side down
The main difference between how my mother makes her turkey and everyone else is cooking it breast side down. By cooking the turkey this way, the juices from the cooking turkey fall into the breast while the turkey cooks, resulting in them most succulent breast imaginable.
The thighs are a bit more exposed to the heat in this method as well, which is good since dark meat takes longer to cook than white meat.
If you cook the bird breast down, the turkey skin over the breast will not brown well. If you want browning on the breast, you’ll need to turn the turkey over in the pan and to brown it in the last few minutes of cooking. We rarely bother with turning the turkey over, since we carve up the turkey in the kitchen before bringing it out, and there is plenty of crispy turkey skin on the rest of the turkey.
In the years since we first posted this recipe, my mother still cooks her turkeys breast-side down, and they’re still wonderful. When I’m cooking a turkey, if it is small enough, sometimes I’ll flip it over near the end to get the breast side browned, but usually like my mom, I’ll just roast it the whole time breast-down.
What Temperature To Cook A Turkey
165°F is the USDA recommended temperature for cooked turkey.
Not much has changed with our approach over the years, other than the USDA has finally officially lowered the recommended temperature for cooked poultry (it’s now 165°F), which means we don’t need to cook the turkey as long.
Cooking a turkey is pretty straightforward, but you do need to plan ahead, given that it can take several hours to roast, and needs time (days if you need to defrost) beforehand to lose the chill from the refrigerator.
If you are buying a frozen turkey, you’ll need to put it in the refrigerator to defrost. The turkey will need about 5 hours of defrosting time for every pound of turkey. So if you have a 15 pound turkey, it should take about 75 hours, or 3 days, to defrost in the refrigerator.
Use a meat thermometer
If you don’t have a meat thermometer, please get one! Using one will make your life a lot easier, otherwise there’s just too much guesswork.
I prefer to use a remote thermometer, that way you can track the progress of the turkey as it cooks, without opening the oven door. But any instant read thermometer will do. (I use two ChefAlarm remote thermometers, one inserted into the breast, one inserted into a thigh.)
Mom’s Roast Turkey RecipePrint
Handle raw turkey the way you would raw chicken, with care. Use a separate cutting board and utensils to avoid contaminating other foods.
Wash your hands with soap and water after touching raw turkey and before you touch anything else in the kitchen. Wipe down surfaces with dampened paper towels.
- 1 turkey, approx. 15 lbs.*
- Juice of a lemon
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil or melted butter
- 1/2 yellow onion, peeled and quartered
- Tops and bottoms of a bunch of celery
- 1 to 2 carrots
- 1 bunch of parsley
- Several sprigs of fresh rosemary, thyme
* Need help figuring out how big a turkey to get? Butterball has a turkey calculator that helps you figure out just how many pounds you need. In general, plan for:
9-12 lb turkey for 6-9 people
12-15 lb turkey for 10-12 people
15-18 lb turkey for 14-16 people
18-22 lb turkey for 20-22 people
1 Defrost and De-Chill
If you are starting with a frozen turkey, you will need to allow several days to defrost the turkey. You'll want to defrost it in the refrigerator so that the turkey stays chilled during this process.
Put the wrapped frozen turkey in a pan to prevent leaks and then place it in the refrigerator. It will take about 5 hours of defrosting time for every pound of turkey. So if you have a 15 pound turkey, it should take about 75 hours, or 3 days, to defrost.
If you need to defrost it more quickly than that, you can place it in a large tub of cold water, and keep changing the water to keep it cold.
Remove the turkey from the refrigerator 2 to 3 hours (depending on the size of the bird) before cooking to allow it to come closer to room temperature. The turkey will cook more quickly and more evenly that way.
2 Remove Giblets and Rinse Turkey
When you are ready to cook the turkey, remove it from its package. Usually turkeys come packaged with the neck and giblets (heart, gizzard, liver) in the main cavity or the neck opening (make sure to check both!) Pull them out, they are often wrapped in a small paper package.
If you want, you can chop up the heart and gizzard to make stock for the stuffing or dressing (put the chopped heart and gizzard into a small saucepan, cover with water, add salt, bring to simmer for an hour or so.)
You can either cook the neck alongside the turkey, or use it to make turkey stock. You can also use all of the giblets for making giblet gravy.
Rinse the turkey inside and out with water. If you see stray turkey feathers, pluck them out. Use paper towels to pat the turkey dry.
Many turkeys come with a plastic tie holding the drumsticks together. Check the instructions on the turkey package; it is likely that you will not need to remove the tie unless you are cooking the turkey at a very high temperature.
3 Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
4 Insert Aromatics and Truss Turkey
Slather the inside of the cavity with a tablespoon or so of lemon juice. Take a couple teaspoons of salt and rub all over the inside of the turkey. (Skip salt if you are using a brined turkey.)
Put half an onion cut into wedges, several sprigs of parsley, a couple of carrots, and some celery tops into the main cavity of the turkey. These are aromatics that will flavor the turkey from the inside as it cooks.
Cover the entrance to the main cavity with aluminum foil, or close it with metal skewers or kitchen string (not nylon string!), so that the aromatics don't fall out while you are roasting the turkey.
By the way, we don't cook stuffing (or dressing as it is known in many parts of the country) in the turkey anymore. Stuffing the turkey adds to the overall cooking time, and not packing the turkey with stuffing will allow the turkey to cook more evenly. We do make our stuffing with stock made from the turkey giblets so the stuffing has plenty of turkey flavor.
To truss or not to truss? We truss our turkey, though some people choose not too. The point of trussing is to keep the legs and wings close to the body so they don't spread out while cooking.
To truss, make sure that the turkey's legs are tied together, held close to the body, and tie a string around the turkey body to hold the wings in close. (Here's a good video on trussing: how to truss a turkey.)
Put a few sprigs of parsley into the neck opening, cover the opening with the surrounding turkey skin, and close the opening with skewers or string.
5 Rub with Olive Oil or Butter, Salt and Pepper
Rub either softened butter or olive oil all over the outside of the turkey. Sprinkle salt generously on all sides of the outside of the turkey (do not add salt if you are using a brined turkey). Sprinkle pepper over the turkey as well.
6 Place Turkey Breast Down on Rack
Place the turkey BREAST DOWN on a rack over a sturdy roasting pan big enough to catch all the drippings. How do you know the turkey is breast side down? The wings are up and the legs are down.
Note that you can also place the turkey directly on an oven rack with a large roasting pan to catch the drippings on the rack below. That method helps create a convection-like environment, helping the heat circulate more evenly around the turkey.
Add several sprigs of fresh (if possible) thyme and rosemary to the outside of the turkey or tucked under the wings.
7 Roast the Turkey
Before you put the turkey in the oven, do a rough calculation of how much overall time it should take to cook the turkey. Usually they say to assume 15 minutes for every pound of meat, but I have found in practice that it's usually less than that, more like 13-14 minutes per pound.
Cooking time will vary depending on the size of the turkey, if it has been allowed to come to room temperature before cooking, and the shape and particulars of your specific oven. So come up with a rough estimate for the overall cooking time, and then make sure to check how the turkey is doing well before it is supposed to be done!
Put the turkey in the oven at 400°F, uncovered. For the 15 lb turkey, start the cooking at 400°F for the first 20 minutes to brown it. Then reduce the heat to 325°F for the next 2 hours. Then reduce the heat further to 225°F until done, anywhere from a half hour to an hour or more.
If you want the breast to be browned, when the turkey is close to being done, you'll need to turn the turkey over so that the breast is on top, and put it in a 500°F oven or under the broiler for 4 to 5 minutes, just enough time to brown the breast.
Note that by browning the breast you may end up over-cooking the turkey breast a bit. We usually don't turn the turkey over. Also, turning it over can be a hot, messy job, so if you do it, take care and use oven mitts or clean kitchen towels.
Start taking temperature readings with a meat thermometer, inserted deep into the thickest part of the turkey breast and thigh, an hour and a half before the turkey should be done.
You want a resulting temperature of 170°F for the dark meat (thighs and legs) and 165°F for the white meat (breast). The temperature of the bird will continue to rise once you take it out of the oven, so take the turkey out of the oven when the temperature reading for the thigh is 165°F, and for the breast 160°F. If you don't have a meat thermometer, spear the breast with a knife. The turkey juices should be clear, not pink.
The USDA recently lowered its recommended cooking temperatures for poultry to 165°F. I've often found that at that temperature the thigh meat near the bone still isn't cooked, so I aim for 170°F for the thighs.
8 Let Turkey Rest, Then Carve
Once you remove the turkey from the oven, transfer it to a cutting board, tent it with aluminum foil to keep it warm, and let it rest for 15-30 minutes, depending on the size of the turkey. Turn the turkey breast side up to carve it. (See Alton Brown video on how to carve a turkey.)
Making Turkey Gravy
Make the gravy while the turkey is resting covered on the carving board. If you have used a thick metal roasting pan, you can often put it directly on the stovetop burner, if not, scrape off the drippings and put them into a skillet. If you are using the roasting pan, use a metal spatula to scrape loose any dripping that might be stuck to the bottom of the pan.
Use a metal spoon to ladle off some of the excess fat from the pan (leave about 4 Tbsp or so of fat and drippings in the pan) and reserve for another use.
In a separate small bowl place a quarter cup of corn starch and just enough water to dissolve the cornstarch and make a thin slurry. Beat the cornstarch and water with a fork to remove any lumps. Heat the roasting pan or skillet on medium heat on the stovetop.
Slowly add the cornstarch mixture to the drippings, stirring constantly. Only use as much of the cornstarch mixture as you need to get the desired gravy thickness you want. As you stir, the gravy will slowly thicken.
Add salt and pepper, ground sage, thyme or other seasonings to taste. (See gravy recipe for more step-by-step instructions.)
Save Bones for Stock
When you are finished with your turkey, save the bones from the carcass to make a delicious turkey soup.
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