This Is the Best Way To Cook a Turkey This Thanksgiving
The world was completely turned on its axis during 2020, and so were our usual Thanksgiving plans. While I typically attended a massive Thanksgiving hosted by my parents, during a year of social distancing and forced solitude, I was assigned the task of hosting a small Thanksgiving for my immediate family. This, of course, meant that I was roasting the turkey for the very first time, which I thought I would inevitably screw up like most first-timers. Yet thankfully, after countless hours of research for the absolute best way to cook a turkey, I came across a method that is practically full-proof.
The origin of this best way to cook a turkey came from Tieghan Gerard from Half Baked Harvest. I followed her method for a Herb and Butter Roasted Turkey that, to quote my father, was “the best turkey I ever had.”
After roasting this beautiful turkey, I made a few tweaks to simplify the process and found that the method was still the best way to cook a turkey, and I now use it constantly when I roast a bird. Turkey, and yes, even chicken!
From buying the right bird to properly getting it ready, here’s my easy guide on how to cook the best turkey for Thanksgiving that won’t have you waking up at 4 a.m.
Aim for a 10 to 16-pound turkey.
For the size of the turkey, I would aim for anything between 10 to 16 pounds. Technically this will serve eight to 12 people, but with all of the other Thanksgiving sides you’re serving, your guests likely won’t take as much turkey that equates to a serving. So I still recommend cooking a smaller bird for a crowd.
This particular cooking method works well for a turkey that size, and won’t take all day to cook in the oven (taking up precious oven space, might I add).
Start with a room-temperature bird.
If you bought your turkey days (or weeks) in advance of the big day, you likely decided to freeze your turkey — or perhaps even bought it frozen — to keep it fresh. To properly defrost your turkey, the USDA recommends doing so in the refrigerator. It will likely take one day for every four to five pounds of turkey, so if you’re dealing with a 15-pound bird, it will need to defrost in the fridge for at least three days, maybe four.
Now for the best results, you want your turkey to be at room temperature for roasting. Take your turkey out one hour before roasting to bring it to room temperature (placing it in your roasting pan for prep), giving you time to properly get your turkey ready to roast.
Season it with homemade lemon herb butter.
While some like to brine their turkey days in advance, I skip this laborious step and instead, find that a generous layer of lemon herb butter on the turkey helps immensely with the flavor. To make, mix together two sticks of room-temperature unsalted butter with two tablespoons each of fresh thyme, fresh sage, fresh rosemary, zest of one lemon, three teaspoons of salt, and one teaspoon of pepper.
Now I recommend spreading the butter underneath the skin of the turkey as well as on top of it, so with clean hands, carefully lift the skin on the breast of the turkey and spread some of that butter using a small spatula. Then spread the rest of the butter on top of the skin all along the turkey; the breast, the legs, the wings, all of it.
Add onion, lemon, garlic, and herbs into the cavity.
While some experts say that adding anything to the cavity can cook the bird unevenly, unless you are working with a bronze turkey, a conventional white turkey from the grocery store will likely need a little something added to it to give it more flavor. Don’t worry, with this method, the turkey will still cook perfectly.
Before stuffing the cavity of the bird, be sure to remove the giblets and the neck; this is typically where these parts are stored when buying a turkey. You can either discard them or, if you’re feeling ambitious, you can use them to make a tasty gravy.
Stuff the bird with a quartered onion, a quartered lemon, a few garlic cloves, and a handful of your leftover herbs.
While trussing the bird (tieing the legs together) isn’t necessary for roasting, it can help with keeping these items stuffed in the bird. Plus, it makes the turkey look nice when you serve it at the table. Again, it’s not necessary if you don’t have the proper string.
Pour broth into the pan.
Now that the bird is ready, you’ll want to pour some chicken broth into the pan so the turkey has some moisture to work with and won’t dry out. Again, the amount of broth is another topic of debate among experts, but many say that covering 1/2-inch of the bottom of the roasting pan with chicken broth will work. This could be anywhere between one to four cups, depending on your bird and roasting pan size.
Roast at 450 for 45 minutes.
For crispy outer skin and a juicy interior, you are going to want to start roasting your bird at a high temperature. I follow the cook times exactly to Gerard’s method, starting the bird at a 450-degree oven for 45 minutes.
I recommend leaving the bird uncovered while you roast. Gerard does mention covering your bird with a damp cheesecloth covered in butter. While this can help with flavor and texture, I don’t find it necessary. I’ve roasted beautiful birds without this method, so leave your bird as is.
Reduce heat to 350 for 2 hours.
To ensure that your bird cooks evenly, reduce the temperature to 350 degrees for the rest of your roast. This usually takes two hours, but you can check the temperature periodically to ensure that it cooks through. Remember, the cooking time may not be exact; it will likely vary based on the size of your bird. So be sure to be armed with a meat thermometer (and other helpful Thanksgiving kitchen tools) to ensure your bird doesn’t overcook.
Baste the bird a couple of times.
Basting the bird helps to bring flavor back to the meat and keep it moist. I would baste it when you change the roasting temperature, as well as at the halfway mark of your two hours. You could also squeeze in a third time if you want a half hour before taking out the bird.
Allow the bird to sit for 30 minutes — and do not cover it.
Now the USDA says that poultry, such as turkey and chicken, should be properly cooked to 165 degrees to avoid food-borne illness. However, this does not mean that your bird has to be 165 degrees exactly for you to take it out. In fact, you should avoid waiting this long. Unless you prefer an overcooked, dry turkey, but I highly doubt that.
A roasted turkey will actually continue cooking at room temperature after you take it out. So removing the turkey from the oven between 155 to 160 degrees is wise so you avoid overcooking it while it sits on the counter. Plus, because the turkey still retains heat, covering it will also create a mini oven and also overcook the turkey. So avoid covering it with aluminum foil as well.
Resting the turkey on the counter before slicing and serving is key for the meat to retain that flavor and juiciness. When the turkey has cooled, begin to slice and serve with all of your favorite sides.