This hands-off, foolproof way to achieve tender, juicy white meat can be fully prepped the night before if desired, and there are two spectacular gravy options－or you can simply make use of the pan juices. The aroma of Thanksgiving wafting from your kitchen is an added bonus!
I created this recipe back in 2012 for several reasons. First, for every really big family get-together on Thanksgiving Day, there always seemed to be a correspondingly small, intimate gathering. The former often required a second turkey, while a single whole turkey was more than some needed for the latter.
Similarly, some readers wanted a backup turkey to slice for leftovers, preferred only white meat, or were seeking to free up oven space.
This year, more of us are looking ahead to a smaller holiday gathering. But whatever the reason, this hands-off, virtually foolproof method delivers tender, juicy meat with ease.
For added efficiency when needed, the turkey may be fully prepped the night before. I’ve gotten everything ready in the slow cooker and then refrigerated the cooker’s insert overnight. (Helpful hint: You may find this fits in your refrigerator more easily if you cover the top with foil instead of using the lid－without the lid I get a few extra inches of clearance space.)
Over the years, I’ve tweaked a few details and added options, such as an incredibly simply dry brine that may be sprinkled over the turkey breast up to three days in advance. From there, you simply refrigerate it until ready to cook. The rub is far less messy than a wet brine and adds more flavor and moisture to the meat.
In the gravy department, you have three choices depending on mood and preference. First, you could drizzle the sliced turkey with the flavorful pan juices as they are. No extra work required. Second, you could strain the solids from the broth and thicken as you would a traditional gravy.
I came up with the third alternative recently and was so pleased with the outcome. Instead of straining out the solids, I simply blended them into the abundant broth. For ease, I did this with an immersion blender, although a traditional blender could be used.
When blended into the broth, the solids (carrots, celery, onions, garlic, and herbs) impart additional flavor and thicken the broth into a velvety gravy. It’s delicious spooned over turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing. I even froze some for future enjoyment.
For those who typically skim off the fat before making gravy, I have made this recipe and transferred all of the pan juices to the refrigerator overnight to see how much fat rises to the top. There was very little－to the point that I barely skimmed any off the top.
What about the leftovers?
One of my favorite ways to elevate leftover turkey is to remove it from the bone, add the sliced or shredded meat to the leftover pan juices or gravy, and refrigerate. The turkey will marinate in the gravy overnight and become even more tender and delicious the second time around.
The broth-steeped turkey is delightful served over mashed potatoes or egg noodles, even in a puff pastry. Of course, turkey sandwiches and my favorite Turkey Tetrazzini with Mushrooms and Kale are rather tasty, too. Without fail, I also make this harvest-inspired salad every year, often adding roasted sweet potatoes or winter squash.
Making homemade stock with the remaining turkey carcass offers an easy, inexpensive way to create wholesome broth to have on hand for your favorite recipes or when someone is feeling under the weather.
A great stock-making tip: over time, place veggie odds and ends in a zip-top bag and freeze until needed. In addition to vegetables and herbs like onions, garlic, celery, carrots, leeks, shallots, parsnips, parsley, and thyme, which you may not use before they pass their prime, you can toss in scraps like the cut ends and peels of these vegetables, which would typically be discarded. Onion skins lend a deep, golden brown color to homemade stock, mushrooms supply meaty flavor, celery leaves are fair game, and I’ve even added kale stems.
Don’t like the giblets that come in a whole turkey or chicken? Add them to the freezer bag as well. They’ll be strained out at the end but will enhance the flavor in the meantime. Over time, you may accumulate enough scraps to make a big pot of stock without having to purchase extra.
Keep in mind that my stock recipe works beautifully with both chicken and turkey. Also, if you’re not ready to make stock after you’ve finished all the meat, you can freeze the bones, too.
What not to use in stock? Aside from the occasional kale stems as mentioned above, I avoid cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower, as well as strong-tasting herbs like cilantro, all of which can overpower the stock. Zucchini can turn bitter, beets will likely make your stock taste a little sweet and look a lot red, and potatoes and turnips have a tendency to turn stock cloudy and gummy.
I’ve never added tomatoes, but I have a friend who does so regularly. Feel free to weigh in with any and all opinions where homemade stock is concerned.
Stay tuned for more Thanksgiving recipes coming soon, and search the blog for other tried-and-true main dishes, sides, and desserts. To get you started, Slow Cooker Stuffing is a family favorite, and despite what it seems, this stuffing will get crispy. Stuffing Balls are fun and portion-controlled, and if you have leftovers of either, savory Stuffing Waffles are a must to try. 🍗
- 1 whole bone-in, skin-on turkey breast (mine have been about 5½ pounds)
- Kosher salt and pepper
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
- 1 carrot, peeled and chopped
- 1 celery rib, chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, smashed
- ⅓ cup (42g) all-purpose flour (may use gluten-free if needed)
- 3 cups low-sodium chicken broth, divided use
- ½ cup water
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- For optional dry brine: Up to 3 days in advance, pat the turkey dry with paper towels; rub the turkey all over with ½ teaspoon kosher salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper per pound of turkey. Transfer the turkey to a 2-gallon zip-top plastic 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).
- Up to one 1 day in advance, heat the olive oil in a large (10-inch) skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic and cook until the veggies have softened and the onion is beginning to turn golden, about 8-10 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook for 2 minutes. Add 1 cup of broth, scraping up any brown bits and smoothing out any lumps. At this point, transfer the contents of the skillet to the slow cooker. (Helpful hint: If you have a slow cooker with a sauté option, this can all be done right in your cooker.) Stir in the remaining 2 cups broth, water, thyme, and bay leaves.
- At this point, if you didn’t dry brine the turkey, season it liberally with salt and pepper, making sure to season the cavity. Place the turkey in the slow cooker, skin side up. (Prep ahead tip: At this point, if your slow cooker has an insert, you may cover it and refrigerate overnight.) Cover and cook on low until the internal temperature of the turkey reaches 165℉, or about 5 hours. Check temperature around the 4-hour mark and allow extra time, if needed, based on size of turkey breast and individual slow cooker.
- When done, remove the turkey to a platter to rest for 15-20 minutes, tenting lightly with foil to keep warm.
- For gravy, option 1: For a traditional gravy, strain the broth mixture into a saucepan, discarding the solids, and simmer until thickened, about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, if needed. Option 2: For a wonderfully thick, creamy gravy, purée the remaining contents of the slow cooker with an immersion blender until smooth, adding seasoning to taste. (Helpful hints: you may remove the bay leaves and thyme stems, but I usually leave them and they purée right in. Also, if you don’t have a handheld blender, you may transfer the contents to an upright blender.)
- Carve turkey and serve with gravy.
Slow cookers won’t brown and crisp the turkey skin. If you’d like to accomplish that, you may broil the turkey briefly, watching carefully to avoid burning. I can put my slow cooker insert in the oven, which allows for a bit of browning right on the top…although I usually forego this step.
Original recipe posted November 19, 2012
…and because it’s always helpful to remind ourselves that we can and do improve at anything with practice, following is the lead photo from my original 2012 post. 😉