When it comes to the perfect turkey, more work doesn’t mean a better bird. With the following step-by-step instructions, a perfectly seasoned turkey with crisp skin and white meat that’s just as juicy as the dark meat truly is possible. And it isn’t difficult. If you already have a tried-and-true recipe, you may simply like to incorporate the easy dry rub or the night-before tip for crisper skin!
Early in our married lives, my husband and I, along with all of our siblings, worked out “on years” and “off years” for the holidays. To illustrate, one year my siblings and I would celebrate Thanksgiving with our parents, and the next year we’d go to our in-laws. Then we’d flip-flop for Christmas so the whole family could be together for one of the two holidays every year.
The arrangement ensured that everyone had equal time with both sides of the family without having to double up on meals or rush one visit to get to another. (We’re lucky in that most of us live in the same town.) Miraculously, the system has worked for more than two decades!
Most years, one of the grandmothers hosts Thanksgiving, so I’m never tasked with cooking the turkey. But to ensure plenty of leftovers, I often roast one the day before.
After mistakenly cooking a chicken upside down several years ago－and reaping the unexpected benefit of exceptionally tender and juicy breast meat－I actually did the same with a turkey one year. When you’re cooking primarily for leftovers, it’s okay If the bird looks funny. (Of course, an upside-down turkey would be a great conversation starter or tension breaker if needed around the holiday table!)
Over the years, I’ve read up on best, and sometimes unconventional, methods of preparing the Thanksgiving bird. In the process, I’ve discovered a few new techniques to add to (or perhaps replace😉) the breast-down approach. I’ve also applied techniques I’ve used when roasting whole chickens and making crispy-skinned chicken wings.
So what are the best tricks for achieving a perfectly cooked turkey with crisp, golden skin and white meat that’s still tender and juicy by the time the dark meat is done?
The bottom line
- Forego wet brining in favor of dry brining－essentially a super simple dry rub. (And trust me, it’s far less messy and works so well.)
- My favorite tip is to refrigerate the turkey, uncovered, the night before roasting. This simple step removes moisture from the skin, ensuring the crispiest possible outcome without compromising the quality of the meat.
- No stuffing or trussing allows the bird to cook more quickly, with the white and dark meat finishing closer to the same time.
- When cooking, adjust the oven temperature one time to further facilitate crisp skin and tender, juicy meat.
- And finally, if you oil the turkey but don’t baste it, you’ll get crisp skin that locks in the juices without repeatedly opening the oven.
- Use a quick-read thermometer to ensure a perfectly cooked turkey. (I recommend against using the pop-up timers, as they tend to be inaccurate. A Consumer Report study claimed that most led to overcooked meat, although some popped up too early.)
Several years ago, I stumbled upon New York Times writer and cookbook author Melissa Clark’s recipe for roasted turkey. At first glance, it appeared easy and included a compelling twist or two. Conveniently, the step-by-step recipe spread the prep over several days.
I could almost smell the aroma as I thought about it.
And the results were stellar. Dare I say the best turkey ever?
The following recipe is an adapted version of that memorable Thanksgiving turkey, spiced with helpful hints and techniques that I’ve learned over the years.
To accommodate the adventurous among us and to provide as much ease of preparation as possible, I’ve included some of Clark’s twists (like her use of hard apple cider) with substitutes that work equally well.
For those who are currently raising an eyebrow at the mention of hard apple cider in what ultimately becomes gravy, note that it works well – as long as a dry cider is selected. However, a dry white wine or light beer are reliable stand-ins, with chicken broth working well for an alcohol-free alternative.
What size turkey should I buy?
The basic rule is one pound of turkey per person. However, if you’d like leftovers or have big eaters, plan on 1½ to 2 pounds per person.
Refrigerator thawing times for a whole turkey:
- 4 to 12 pounds — 1 to 3 days
- 12 to 16 pounds — 3 to 4 days
- 16 to 20 pounds — 4 to 5 days
- 20 to 24 pounds —5 to 6 days
Place the turkey in a container to prevent the juices from dripping on other foods.
According to the USDA, frozen meat or poultry left to thaw on the counter more than 2 hours is not at a safe temperature. While the center of the meat may still be frozen, the outer layer is in the “danger zone” between 40 and 140 °F, a temperature where food-born bacteria multiply rapidly.
Your Turkey Cheat Sheet
- This method works best for a turkey in the 12 to 16 pound range.
- Plan on 13 minutes of cooking time for every pound of turkey if roasting empty and 15 minute per pound if stuffed.
- Use two oven temperatures: start cooking at 450℉ and then reduce the heat as directed.
- The turkey is done when it registers 165℉ in the thickest part of the thigh.
- Rest the turkey for a minimum of 15 minutes before carving.
- I recommend leaving your turkey unstuffed and untrussed, both because it’s easier and because the turkey will cook more evenly.
- Use the time guideline above, but start checking the temperature of your turkey about halfway through the scheduled cooking time to gauge how fast it’s cooking. Helpful tips aside, the internal temperature is what ultimately dictates a perfectly cooked turkey with tender, juicy meat, and a thermometer or oven probe is the only way to precisely measure that.
Since I mentioned my silly foray into roasting a turkey upside down (which, though delicious, is not included as a part of the following recipe), I should mention a few things in case you, like me, enjoy testing out these quirky ideas. First, flipping a hot, heavy bird isn’t easy. What’s more, if you flip the turkey, the beautifully crisp skin will no longer be on top. (I will also note that, had I not announced my unconventional technique, few people would have noticed. The bottom and the top look surprisingly similar.) Carving an upside down bird, however, is slightly more challenging. To get to the breast meat, my husband tilted the turkey to the side and did his best.
The bottom line: Any time you’re inclined to experiment with a new technique, it’s wise to do a trial run before serving to company. Of course, I’ve disregarded this advice a time or two over the years. Happily, when among family and friends, any attempts that come up short are more than balanced by a few good laughs!
Feel free to use your family favorite gravy or dressing recipe with this foolproof method of turkey preparation－and don’t miss the tip for extra gravy or stock for later in the recipe notes.
Happy Thanksgiving! 🦃
- 1 (10-12 pound) turkey (thawed if frozen; time adjustment provided for larger turkey)
- Kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 lemon, zested and quartered later
- 1 bunch fresh thyme or rosemary
- 1 bunch fresh sage
- 12 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled (divided use)
- 1 (12-ounce) bottle beer or hard apple cider OR 1½ cups dry white wine*
- Low sodium chicken broth (you’ll likely use about 2 cups; have extra on hand)
- 2 yellow onions, peeled and quartered
- 3 bay leaves
- Softened or melted butter, as needed (I use 2-3 tablespoons; may substitute olive oil)
2-4 days before roasting turkey: Remove the neck and the giblets from the cavity and reserve for stock or gravy. Pat the turkey dry with paper towels; rub the turkey all over with ½ teaspoon salt per pound of turkey, the pepper and the lemon zest, including the neck. (Put the zested lemon back in the refrigerator for later use.) Transfer the turkey to a 2-gallon (or larger) zip-top plastic bag. Tuck the herbs and 6 of the garlic cloves inside bag. Seal the bag and refrigerate the turkey on a rimmed baking sheet (or wrapped in another bag to catch any leaks) for at least 1 day and up to 3 days, turning the bird over every day (or after 12 hours if brining for only 1 day).
The night before or earlier in the day of cooking: Remove the turkey from the bag and pat dry with paper towels. Place the turkey, uncovered, back on the baking sheet. Return to the refrigerator for at least 4 hours and up to 12 hours to dry out the skin (this helps crisp it).
When nearly ready to roast: Remove the turkey from the refrigerator and allow it to come to room temperature for one hour.
Preheat the oven to 450℉. In the bottom of a large roasting pan (with a rack that the turkey can sit on), add the beer, cider or wine and enough broth to fill the pan to a ¼-inch depth (in my roasting pan, this is about 2 cups of broth). Add half the onions, the remaining 6 garlic cloves and the bay leaves. Stuff the remaining onion quarters and the lemon quarters (using the reserved zested lemon) into the turkey cavity. Brush the turkey skin generously with the melted butter, or smear it on if you opted to soften the butter.
Place the turkey, breast side up, on a roasting rack set inside the roasting pan. Transfer the pan to the oven and roast, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Cover breast with aluminum foil, reduce the oven temperature to 350℉, and continue roasting until an instant-read thermometer or an oven probe inserted in the thickest part of a thigh reaches a temperature of 165℉, about 1½ to 2 hours more (or approximately 13 minutes per pound of turkey — adjust accordingly for larger turkey). Allow the turkey to rest for 30 minutes (or a minimum of 15 minutes) before transferring to a cutting board and carving.
*If you prefer not to use alcohol, you may use additional chicken stock instead. If using beer, do not use an IPA or anything hoppy, as it will become bitter as it cooks. If using hard cider, make sure it’s on the dry side (not sweet) and doesn’t have additional flavors you don’t want. (For example, a ginger-infused option may not be desirable here. I ask for suggestions when purchasing hard cider, as I don’t regularly drink it.)
Helpful hint: You can adjust the amount of liquid according to the size of the turkey and add more wine, broth or water if the roasting pan looks dry midway through the cooking process.
Extra gravy or stock and what to do with the giblets and neck?
My grandmother and mom, who never let anything go to waste, always used the turkey neck and giblets to make extra broth to add to the pan juices used for gravy. It’s a small extra step that allows for more gravy – and more flavorful gravy at that. Simply simmer them in a pot with 4 cups chicken broth, water or a mix, along with 1 quartered yellow onion, 2 chopped celery ribs, 1 teaspoon black peppercorns and 1 sprig each fresh sage, thyme, rosemary and parsley (or whichever you have on hand). Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and then cover and simmer on low for 1 hour. Pour through a mesh metal strainer to remove solids.
This step is relatively hands-off and easy to do while the turkey is roasting. The broth may be combined with the turkey pan drippings to make gravy, as mentioned, or it can be used to moisten stuffing or saved for soup. Store in the fridge for 3 days or freeze for several months.