Well, well. It’s almost Thanksgiving in America. Time to cook a lot of food and go eat it with relatives while trying not to fight about the election. Good luck with that! I’m afraid I can’t help you there. What I can do, though, is show you how to roast a turkey.
The version I made uses Mediterranean flavors, but there are many, many options available to you. So lets dive right in and lean how to roast a turkey for Thanksgiving.
I’m getting pretty basic with this recipe, so those of you who are seasoned and skilled cooks please bear with. This will be too basic for you. Bear in mind, however, that some people really only cook once or twice a year. Thanksgiving–at least for Americas–is one of those times. Some of them are trying to cook a giant fowl for the first time.
Is that you? If so, welcome! Hey, no pressure. You’re only feeding your entire family, and maybe your in-laws. Not the best time to learn how to roast a turkey, but it’s going to be okay. If you follow these steps, your turkey will be better than your aunt Martha’s. So here we go!
Stuff You’ll Need to Roast a Turkey
I’m going to dive right into the ‘how to’ bit first. We can address some Thanksgiving turkey FAQs afterwards. Here’s a checklist of stuff you’ll need to roast your turkey.
- A roasting pan with a rack. The rack is important. It keeps the turkey from sitting in the roasting liquid and getting soggy.
- A turkey. They typically come frozen, do get this a few days ahead and let it thaw in your refrigerator.
- A cooler big enough to hold the entire turkey.
- A clean, new, trash can liner.
- A bag of ice.
- A box of kosher salt.
- Some aromatics, citrus, fat, herbs, and spices.. These are variable according to taste. Onion, carrots, garlic, some lemons or oranges, some olive oil or butter. Sage is nice. So is rosemary or thyme. Maybe cinnamon and fresh ginger.
- Some fat (olive oil or butter).
- Some tasty liquid (white wine, water, chicken stock).
- A thermometer (preferably instant read).
- An oven big enough to hold your turkey.
- Something to make a shiny glaze with (e.g., some citrus juice and honey, or some raspberry or apricot jam and a bit of wine).
- A pastry brush, for shellacking the turkey with shiny glaze.
How to Brine and Roast a Thanksgiving Turkey
Before learning how to roast a turkey we need to learn how to brine a turkey. We’re going to wet brine our turkey. That means it’s going to soak overnight in a salty solution. This is why your first time ever turkey is going to be better than the dried out bird your aunt Martha makes. There is some disagreement as to how brining turkey makes it moist (there is the denatured proteins school and the osmosis school). We don’t care about that today. What we do care about is that it works.
How to Brine a Turkey
Brining can be tricky, because your refrigerator is probably packed like never before with pies, sweet potatoes, and stuffing, and dinner rolls, and side dishes, and wine bottles, and groceries to, you know, make all the Thanksgiving stuff. How are you supposed to fit a giant bucket of turkey in salt water in there? It’s going to require removing shelves and stuff. Nightmare!
That’s what the cooler is for. We’re going to do it in a cooler so it doesn’t take up space in the ‘fridge. So here’s what you do:
- Take your thawed turkey out of the packaging (it was probably frozen, so hopefully you bought it ahead of time and gave it a few days to thaw in the refrigerator).
- Reach inside the skin hole that used to hold the turkey’s neck. You’ll find a bag of guts in there. I know It’s disgusting. Just get that bag out of there so you don’t cook it. The neck might be in there too. Take it out. Unless you’re one of those “giblet gravy” aficionados, you can throw that shit away.
- Place the clean, new, unused trash can liner in the cooler, and place the turkey inside the bag. Now pour a cup of kosher salt in the bag. Now open the bag of ice and dump it into the bag with the turkey. Now add cold water until the turkey is submerged when you close up the trash bag.
- Tie off the top of the bag and close the top of the cooler. Let the turkey sit in the brine overnight. The cooler will keep it icy cold so it doesn’t get warm and breed e-coli or salmonella bacteria (very important!).
How to Roast a Turkey
- Preheat your oven to 325F (163C).
- Take your turkey out of the brine solution and dry it off.
- Put ½ cup of fat (olive oil or melted butter) into a bowl. Add a few cloves of minced garlic, some chopped herbs like sage or rosemary, the zest of a few lemons or oranges (or both), and some fresh pepper. Mix it up. Don’t add salt because your turkey has been in a salty bath all night.
- Put a quartered onion and a few whole carrots in the bottom of your roasting pan. You can throw a few whole cloves of garlic in there too if you want. This will be the base of your gravy eventually, so you want it to be flavorful. Now dump a cup of wine and/or some stock in there and put the rack in there.
- Put the turkey on the rack in the roasting pan, breast up. Tuck the little wing tips behind the back so they don’t burn. Now massage the herb infused fat all over the surface.
- Put the turkey in the oven and set the timer for an hour. Ovens often don’t heat evenly, so after an hour, spin the turkey pan around and cook until it’s done (see steps 7).
- Determining how long to cook your turkey depends on how much it weighs. But I’d say that for any turkey 12 pounds or heavier, start checking the temperature after 1.5 hours. Check the temperature by sticking a thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh. Not the drumstick. The thigh. Try not to hit bone, because it’ll give a high reading. The turkey is done when the temperature is 165F (74C). DON’T OVERCOOK IT.
- Take the turkey out of the oven and let it rest for at least 20 minutes to let the juices set. People usually make gravy with the pan drippings at that point. I don’t have steps for that, so you’ll have to Google it.
- While this thing is cooking, make the glaze. Either reduce a cup of citrus juice and a few tablespoons of honey in a pan until it reduces by ⅔ and becomes syrupy, or do the same with a few tablespoons of jam and a ½ cup of wine. Now shellac the surface of the turkey with a pastry brush. This’ll make it shiny and pleasing to the eye. It tastes good too.
Congratulations! Now you know how to roast a turkey! Before we wrap up, I’ve answered a few frequently asked questions (in no particular order) below. You may find them useful. If you don’t find them useful, you might at least find them entertaining.
What About Fried Turkey?
You might be thinking to yourself, “Hey, shouldn’t I deep fry my turkey?” It’s been all the rage for like a decade now. The theory is that the menacing hot boiling oil cauterizes the entire surface of the bird, sealing in the juices. The turkey comes out so moist and juicy! It’s like cooking in a volcano!
Don’t do it. Just don’t. Here are a few reasons why you shouldn’t:
- It requires like five gallons of oil, which you’ll never use again (don’t fool yourself). That’s expensive and wasteful. Where are you going to store it? Are you going to make 50 pounds of french fries in December? I doubt it. Half of it will end up slopping out onto your driveway or your carport floor anyway, leaving a giant grease slick for you to trip on until spring.
- A turkey deep fryer is basically a five gallon Molotov cocktail. One false move and you’ll burn your house down (or your apartment, or you condo, or your garage, or your cabana, or whatever structure is near your deep fryer). Then you’ll be homeless for the holidays, with little to give thanks for.
- Recall that boiling oil is actually a medieval defensive weapon. When an army starts battering the front door of your castle, you pour cauldrons of boiling oil on them. Then they all die. This is instructive. It should remind you that if you deep fry your turkey you may very well burn yourself to death, along with your children, pets, neighbor, and uncle Frank.
If you want the thrill of playing with fire without the danger, do what I do. Watch deep fried turkey fire videos on YouTube! They’re amazing. It seems like half of them involve a barefooted man (always a man) in shorts. That may be because most American turkey deep fryer accidents occur in Texas. Put some pants and shoes on guy from Texas! You’re freaking me out!
Why Aunt Martha’s Turkey is so Dry
I realize you probably don’t have an aunt Martha. Aunt Martha here is a stand-in for whomever the traditional Thanksgiving cook is in your family. Maybe it’s your grandmother. Maybe it’s your dad. You get the idea. What I have here is a list of the main reasons Americans traditionally eat dried out turkey on Thanksgiving. Each one is a variation on a common theme: overcooking.
- Stuffing the bird. Its traditional to stuff the body cavity of the turkey with stuffing (thus the name). The problem? The very center of that stuffing, which is in the very center of this very large bird, must reach 165F to be safe to eat. Anything less is a bacterial risk. By the time the stuffing is 165F the breast meat is horribly overcooked and dry.
- Basting the bird. The old school instructions on how to roast a turkey suggest that you need to frequently baste the turkey with fatty pan drippings to keep it moist. But think about that. The drippings would need to soak through the skin to get to the breast meat. It doesn’t happen. Instead, you end up opening the oven door constantly, which lowers the temperature and lets all the moisture out. It ends up taking a lot longer to cook, allowing it more time to dry out.
- Failing to cook to proper temperature. Back in the day Aunt Martha didn’t own a meat thermometer. So she relied on some time-to-weight ratio table from the Betty Crocker cookbook or someplace. A turkey that weighs x pounds takes x hours to cook at x degrees. That’s pretty imprecise, and it surely errs on the side of caution (i.e., overcooking). Or maybe she used the “leg wiggle” method. When the thigh gets ‘wiggly’ (meaning the turkey is so well done that all of the collagen in the bone joints has melted), it’s (over)done.
- Overly Cautious USDA. For many years the United States Department of Agriculture recommended that you cook your turkey until it reaches a temperature of 180F (82C) when measured in the thickest part of the thigh. That’s already just about overcooked. The USDA has revised this number to 165F after further research revealed that e-coli and salmonella die above 160F. Sadly, the Butterball Turkey advice website still uses the 180F number. Don’t listen to them!
Many turkeys come with a “pop up” thermometer these days. It’s a little plastic rod jammed into the breast of your raw turkey. Pull that thing out and throw it away. It’s useless. It’s not exactly a machine tooled precision instrument manufactured at the BMW factory in Bavaria. No, it’s a bit of cheap, mass-produced plastic with a spring inside. A little plastic plunger “pops” up when your turkey reaches a temperature between 140F -1050 degrees Kelvin, indicating to you that your turkey is either raw inside and will sicken your entire family, or that it’s now a bird shaped block of carbon.
Get a meat thermometer. It’s got a pointy end so you can stab it into the bird. Some take a while to read, and some are instant read. Instant read is the way to go if you’re going to buy one.
You can also get a digital probe thermometer, which is really slick. I used one for the first time last year. It’s got a probe that you stab into the thick part of the turkey’s thigh. The probe is connected to a cable going to the thermometer, which you keep outside of the oven. What’s nice is that you don’t have to freak out about checking the temperature. You just set the thermometer to go off when it reaches 165F. Then you go drink with your relatives. When the bird comes to temperature, an alarm sounds. Et voila! A perfectly cooked turkey even if you’re half drunk! Now that how to roast a turkey!
Happy Thanksgiving. If you don’t live in the United States, give thanks that you don’t have to go to Thanksgiving and fight about politics this year. If you do live in the United States, good luck to you. Be brave! If you cannot be brave, be kind.
- 12 pound turkey
- 1 Cup Kosher Salt
- 12 Lemons
- 1 Orange
- ¾ Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 2 Tablespoons Fresh Chopped Rosemary
- 1 Tablespoon Fresh Chopped Sage
- 1 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
- 4 Cloves Garlic, Chopped
- 1 Medium Onion
- 2 Carrots
- 1 Cup Dry White Wine
- 2 Tablespoons Honey
- Brine the turkey in the cup of kosher salt and four of the lemons sliced in half in water overnight as described in the post above.
- Preheat the oven to 325F (163C).
- Add the garlic, rosemary, sage, and pepper to the olive oil. Add to that the zest of the orange and two of the lemons. Mix well and set aside.
- Quarter the onion and add to a large roasting pan along with the carrots.
- Place the turkey on a rack in the roasting pan. Coat the entire surface of the turkey with the citrus zest and herb olive oil mixture.
- Roast the turkey for one hour. Then turn the roasting pan 180 degrees.
- Continue cooking until the turkey temperature is 165F measured in the thickest part of the thigh.
- Meanwhile, squeeze the remaining lemons to obtain a cup of lemon juice. Add the juice and the honey to a sauce pan and bring to a gentle boil on the stove top Simmer until lemon juice is syrupy and reduced by about ⅔.
- Remove turkey from the oven and allow to rest at least 20 minutes. Coat with the lemon glaze. Carve and serve. Congratulations! You know how to roast a turkey!