Turkey Tips

Martha Stewart's Roast Turkey with Quince Glaze
Martha Stewart's Roast Turkey with Quince Glaze

The food magazines love Thanksgiving and turkey, but offer differing recommendations for how to prepare it. So I examined five magazine approaches to cooking turkey, and discovered there's really no consensus about how to roast the big bird.

Cook's Illustrated
Cook's proposes a Roast Salted Turkey (reg. required). Long proponents of brining, this year (because of space constraints in a packed holiday fridge) they "rethink [their] brine-at-all-costs philosophy." They prepare and test a salt rub and find the meat nicely seasoned and pretty moist. They also state "while a brined bird shed 19 percent of its initial weight in the oven, a salted bird shed 22 percent of its out-of-the-package weight." To prevent over cooking of the breast while getting the legs up to temperature, they experimented with icing down the bird's breast. The breast and leg start at 41° when removed from the fridge. After an hour on ice, the breast was down to 36° while the leg was up to 43°. "That 7-degree head start for the leg meant the turkey could stay in the oven long enough to fully cook the dark meat without drying out the white meat." Very interesting.

Roasting temperature: 425° for 45 minutes, then 325° until breast registers 160° and thigh 170°

Martha Stewart Living
Martha prepared a Roast Turkey with Quince Glaze. She brined for twenty-four hours. Her technique to prevent the breast from over-cooking (which I've used before and it worked wonderfully) is to soak a cheesecloth in a melted butter and wine mixture and lay the cheesecloth over the breast for about half the cooking time. Martha insists on basting, which you must do if you use the cheesecloth. Otherwise it could dry out and catch fire. Basting every thirty minutes with butter/wine mixture is called for until a quince glaze is applied in the last ten minutes of cooking.

Roasting temperature: 425° for 30 minutes, then 350° until thigh registers 165°

Saveur went with a Brined and Roasted Turkey. The recipe is not online. They are brining proponents and recommend eight hours to overnight of brine time to break down proteins and seal in flavor and moisture. They rub the turkey with butter and call for regular basting with butter every 30 minutes. Note their lower roasting temperature. Sadly, they don't explain why. Saveur doesn't seem that into Thanksgiving compared to the other mags.

Roasting temperature: 325° until thigh registers 165°

Food & Wine
Food & Wine wins the Renegade of the Year award for their Classic Roasted Turkey. Not only do they not brine, they also urge against basting! "Put it in the over, but don't baste it; repeatedly opening and closing the oven door makes it cook unevenly." Just season the bird with salt and pepper and put it in the oven in a pan filled with some vegetables. They recommend covering the breast with foil when you've got about 75 minutes to go, I suppose to keep it from drying out.

Roasting temperature: 350° until thigh registers 170°

Gourmet goes with a straight-forward Simple Roast Turkey with Rich Turkey Gravy this year. Calling it the "ultimate turkey lover's turkey" they claim a "succulent bird with crispy skin." There's "no fussing with brines" and since it roasts unstuffed, it cooks in under four hours. I'm an ultimate turkey lover and I have to say, that doesn't sound very good to me. I love the flavor of stuffing roasted in the bird! And in the brine vs. no brine camp, I firmly land on the side of brining. You could convince me not to brine for a scientific reason (see Harold McGee on brining's dilution of the meat’s own juices and flavor), but not out of sheer laziness.

Roasting temperature: 450° until thigh registers 170°

My Thanksgiving Recipe
Ever since I read The Basics of Brining (warning: link is a .pdf) in the December 2001 Cook's Illustrated, I've been a briner. I use the CI basic brine recipe and then have used Martha's Perfect Roast Turkey. I stuff my bird with our family recipe for Grandma Pete's Stuffing. And it's always accompanied by Grandma Pete's Gravy and My Mother's Cranberry Chutney. No matter how many other recipes I read, this is the one I always want to prepare.

Roasting temperature: 450° for 30 minutes, then 350° until thigh registers 180° (This now strikes me as too high, after reading all the other recipes above.)

Do you brine? Baste? Roast at high heat? Share your turkey tips!

31 thoughts on “Turkey Tips

  1. Definite briner here. Three Thanksgivings in a row, with a perfect turkey every time.
    I basically use Alton Brown’s method. At his turkey frying seminar at the Opryland Hotel a while back, he used a much simpler brine than he did in his original Thanksgiving show–just salt, brown sugar, and water. He said that this reflects his changed philosophy of food over the years; he used to ask “What can I do to this?”, and now he asks “How can I not mess this up?”

  2. three words… brine, inject, smoke. i brine it overnight, inject each breast and each thigh with a 3:1 combination of stock and melted butter, and then smoke it over a water smoker fired with charcoal and hickory. super juicy, and super flavorful. although we usually have two turkeys, and the other one is always a regular old roast turkey for the oldschoolers in the family (plus the everyone gets to enjoy stuffing baked in the turkey, which you can’t do in the smoker.)

  3. For the past few years I’ve brined the turkey. I add a lot of whole star anise, cloves peppercorns and cardamon to a pot over high heat with chicken stock, a bunch of salt, and brown sugar. I let it boil for about 30 minutes. Then I add it to a large, clean plastic bucket with ice cubes and cold water.
    After the turkey has brined for about 24 hours, I let it drain and then pat it down. It gets a good amount of butter over the skin. Stuff with halved lemons, apples and a few whole star anise. For a moist breast, I do two things. First, I start at a really high temp with the breast covered in tinfoil. Then I lower the temp after about 30 minutes and let it cook without the foil tent.
    The flavor of the star anise is subtle but obvious. It makes it seem a little more exotic. I’ve had excellent results with this recipe.

  4. I’ve always wondered about D’Artagnan’s “turkey in the style of Bresse” recipe, which is so different from any other method I’ve ever seen (poaching in stock, long rest, followed by brief high-heat roasting) that I’m almost scared to try it. Maybe next year.
    Here’s the link:

  5. I’ve never brined a turkey and don’t plan to do it this year. But I’ve heard that with a local (ten miles away), sustainably-raised, heritage turkey, brining isn’t necessary. If brining is about flavor, I’m hoping my bird is already packing.

  6. I usually start with a kosher turkey, which doesn’t need brining. When I get turkeys from the local farm, though, I definitely brine. Once you brine, there’s no going back.

  7. Last year I did the simple high heat, quick roast method, no brine. Similar to the Gourmet one. Kind of like the Safeway 2-hour Turkey to be honest.
    Also similar to Thomas Keller’s Favorite Simple Roast Chicken.
    But high heat is definitely only good for a smaller bird b/c the temperature gradient is so high. With a bigger bird the outside will be overcooked before the inside reaches temperature. (Thus most recipe’s recs to start high then go low.) But high heat only can be delicious and juicy (without brining) if you have a good, small bird like the one I commented about here:
    This year I’m doing the same, b/c it’s simple and we’re doing Thanksgiving at a friend’s place in LA (we’re near Stanford) who wouldn’t be up for the extra work before we fly down on Thursday morning.
    Also a few points that McGee plus lots of physics, math, and geology have taught me. At low temp the meat cooks very slowly and evenly. The temperature gradients are much lower, thus the inside and outside will be very close to the same temperature the whole time. This is exactly how sous vide works, and why things need to be cooked so long with the technique. Saveur probably wants a lower roasting temp for this even cooking.
    High temp means big gradients, thus overcooked outsides and undercooked insides if the piece of meat is too big. I’m doing a smaller bird, so high temp is probably okay. High temp is also great for brown, crispy skin, thus another reason to start at high temp. But you don’t want the skin to burn, thus some recipes call to cover it with foil. Foil prevents the direct infrared heat from hitting the breast and burning the skin. The infrared energy would also heat the meat up too much (before the dark meat is done), and dry it out.
    Interestingly, basting also does the same thing as the foil! It cools down the meat and prevent really big temperature gradients (i.e. makes things juicy by cooking evenly not b/c the basting liquid gets inside). The fluid evaporates and cools down the breast, preventing it from overcooking. The downside is potentially soggy skin, and that’s a no-no.
    So my guess is that the best bird is one that is brined, prepped with ice packs on the breasts, cooked first at high heat then at low heat, probably flipped at some point, and the breast protected with foil. But that’s a hell of a lot more work then buying a small, good quality bird and just cooking it quickly at high heat. So maybe I’m lazy, but I’m also less stressed on Thanksgiving.

  8. Russ Parsons at the LA Times (latimes.com) has convinced me to switch from brining to salting the bird this year.

  9. I always brine overnight with a solution of salt, brown sugar, apple cider, whole peppercorns, some sage and bay leaves. I use a giant enamel canning pot and boil the liquid to disolve and blend the flavors. Then I let it cool (sometimes with the addition of ice, if I’m in a hurry.) I submerge the washed fresh turkey, breast side down, and put a heavy ceramic dish on top to keep it submerged. Then the whole thing goes into the fridge. I once used a well-scrubbed ice chest for two birds and submerged the turkeys with bags of ice.
    In the morning I remove the turkey from the brine and pat it dry with paper towels. I then place it on a V rack in the roasting pan, uncovered, breast side up, in the frige so the skin dries a bit. About three to four hours before I want to serve I remove the turkey from the fridge and let it warm a bit near the stove while the oven preheats to 400.
    I then rub the skin all over with soft butter seasoned with rubbed sage, black pepper and paprika. Then I put it in the oven and let it roast for 45 minutes. Then I baste and reduce the temperature to 350 (325 for a 20+ pound bird). When the bird has been in the oven for 90 minutes, I enlist the assistance of my son for the “hard part.” Using a set of turkey lifting forks and (of all things) a sharpening steel in the cavity, we flip the turkey over and continue roasting breast side down. This does make some odd indentations in the breast meat, but looks are less important to us than taste and a juicy texture.
    I continue roasting until the juices run clear and the thigh temperature is 170. This always makes a juicy, tasty, well-seasoned bird.
    For the gravy, I use the pan drippings with the fat removed and set aside. I deglaze the pan with apple cider because a brined bird can create a very salty fond. In a large sauce pan I place the drippings, the fond/cider blend and about a quart of homemade (unsalted) turkey stock. While this comes to a boil, I make a blonde roux using four T of reserved turkey fat and four T flour in a small pan Then I chill it in a bowl of ice. When the gravy mixture boils I add the chilled roux and stir while it thickens. Check for seasonings and adjust if necessary. Usually I boil and mince the heart, gizzard and neck meat and add it to the gravy. The cats get the liver.

  10. I used the Gourmet method last year and will never go back. It was by far the juiciest, most flavorable turkey I had ever eaten. My guests are still raving about it almost a year later. If you’re looking for a super simple, really delicious turkey then I can’t recommend the Gournet recipe enough.

  11. I’m a big fan of the Alton Brown brine and foil tent over the breast method. His brine from Bon Appétit, November 2003 is a bit simpler than from his show.

  12. Following CI (I’m a fanatic), I brine. If I have time, I dry the turkey in the fridge.
    Then, I butterfly!! This cooks the meat twice as fast, doesn’t require turning, and seems to solve the breast/thigh problem. You can also mound stuffing in the bottom of the roaster and put the butterflied turkey on top (they did this on Americas Test Kitchen, not sure if it was repeated in CI). This solves lots of problems.
    I don’t find that basting adds significantly to the outcome although I haven’t done comparisons. It is certainly a pain in the butt though.
    I suggest you look at Julia Child’s “The Way to Cook” method:
    Butterfly the turkey. Separate the legs/thighs and breast. Bone the leg/thigh then truss with twine. You can also flavor/stuff the thighs, then slice them when cooked, which makes for a beautiful presentation. You can then start the thighs a few minutes earlier than the breast. Since you don’t get a whole turkey to present, it’s best to carve in the kitchen and present the breast slices and the stuffed thigh rounds.

  13. I have brined and not brined, but can’t with all confidence say that one is better over another as the auxillary treatments to each bird were so different, but will brine this year, with a fennel and coriander rub (going with an old Bon Appetit Italian inspired menu) but one thing I can say is that in my experience, injecting liquids into the flesh creates pores for moisture to escape. Rubbing butter on the exterior just leaves pools in the pan, but if you lift the skin and rub butter not just over the breast but entire bird, Tis heavenly.

  14. This recipe for roast turkey with herb rub and shiitake mushroom gravy has never failed me…I’ve been making it since 1994. And I am with Harold McGee—I hated the brined turkey I tried, using the San Francisco Chronicle’s “swear on the Bible it’s the best turkey you’ll ever have” recipe. It tasted like deli meat.
    That recipe produces a bird that is moist throughout. I’ve never had a dry breast from it.

  15. Jocelyn,
    I forgot, I do the butter and herb thing under the skin, not on the outside. I think sitting here typing I just blocked that part out because I really hate that part. It’s cold, clammy, greasy and a potential salmonella festival. However, the excellent results are worth the “ick factor.”
    I love, love LOVE the butterflied and roasted atop the stuffing idea, but I’d miss the pan gravy too much, I think. If I ever need to do two turkeys again, I will do one that way (with the stuffed thighs) for sure!

  16. We’re trying a smoked turkey this year as well! Still haven’t decided on what sort of stuffing (we’ll have to do it separately) really goes with a smoked bird… and, yes, we’ll be brining overnight in our little cooler with a whole bunch of ice packs.

  17. Frugal, they did, but they got caught up in the spam catcher. I’ve fixed it, so they should appear now, as well as one of yours, Tana.
    I’m really enjoying this discussion, especially points on whether brining works. My first turkey I did by myself, I didn’t brine. The next year I did, and everyone (including me) thought it was much better. But maybe it was a better bird? Or roasted less? I’ll never know. As much as I trust McGee on almost everything, I’m not sure I can go so far as to accept his anti-brining stance. 😉

  18. i saw those flames on the grilled turkey and had to comment. Grilling a turkey is probably the best way to cook it, but it’s got to be done very slowly and as meg’s picture shows, never over direct heat. It’s a good half day activity, but very easy and fun.
    i’m a great advocate of brining but the brine has to taste good so it doesn’t taste like tana’s deli meat.
    i wouldn’t roast in a bag; that would be steaming, no?

  19. Hmm…decisions, decisions. I’m sorry I ever read this because now I have to re-think my turkey technique. I am amazed to see only one poster uses the upside down method-I thought everyone in the know did it this way. I use Joy of Cooking (older 60’s edition) instructions for brining and roasting upside down for the first half or so roast time. This has always produced a turkey to write home about, all the foodies in my family (large) pick my house for Thankdgiving.
    I’m reminded of an old cartoon in the New Yorker, under a sketch of a table full of people wearing disgusted expressions on their faces, captioned “Now will Janet learn that Thanksgiving is NOT the time to try a new stuffing recipe?”
    I’ll stick with Joy this year, but do a small trial bird or two before next year, with some of the methods listed here.

  20. I am truly bummed that my parents are using the roasting bag again this year. (Steamed, ugh.) If I could make it home in time to take over the turkey operation (like I did last year with the side dishes) I’d be much happier, and probably try some of these brining/flipping/tenting techniques. Ban the bag!

  21. I’m another upside-downer, briner, Heritage turkey roaster. I was thinking of trying the cheesecloth this year, which probably means no flipping the bird (er, you know what I mean!). One suggestion I saw was strips of bacon across the breast, under the cheesecloth, to help keep it from cooking too fast (and, I suppose, the fat helps keep it moist). Haven’t made up my mind yet…
    I don’t cook stuffing in the bird, though I do put herbs and root veggies in and under it.
    Great discussion!

  22. Oh Katie! Don’t do the bacon thing! Let some of my “Family Wisdom” save you from yourself.
    My mother did that bacon thing her first Thanksgiving as a “grown,” married lady of 17 and she said the entire turkey, the gravy and all of the stuffing tasted just like bacon. She quipped, “French toast with maple syrup would have a been better side dish than gravy and stuffing!”

  23. Well, Cali, we don’t necessarily think bacon is a bad thing around here… especially since the stuffing will have pork sausage. But I’ll keep your warning in mind, and thanks!

  24. We love bacon too, Katie! Turkey/bacon club sandwiches are a family favorite, but do you really want your whole Thanksgiving dinner to taste like bacon?

  25. I brine, followed by high heat/low heat, with salt pork over the breast– never substitute with bacon. I butter under the skin with ground rosemary and sage.

  26. What an interesting discussion! I’m considering using an old Chris Kimball method from “The Cook’s Bible,” and wondered if anyone had tried this? For a 21lb bird, he starts it at 350 degrees for an hour, and then roasts for six hours (roughly) at 200 degrees, turning once. Finishes at 400 degrees for 5-10 minutes.
    The really slow-roasting is supposed to eliminate the need for brining, and he swears this will make the best turkey in the world. Anybody have any thoughts on this method?

  27. I am hesitant to trust 6 hours with a turkey, since it contains so little fat (as opposed to most typical cuts of meat used for slow-roasting), but I remain as curious as you are.

  28. Keeping the bird below 212 degrees should help keep it from drying out with slow cooking, but I would think that it’d take more than six hours (depending on the size of the bird) to fully cook. I’ve done geese at 225, which have taken 11-12 hours.
    I’m intrigued by the poaching/rest/roast method mentioned above. I’ve done similar with chickens, where I’ve coated the bird under the skin with pork sausage, poached it in a chicken/leek stock, then roasted in a hot oven to brown– very tasty.

  29. What a great bunch of cooking tips!
    I’ve never ‘brined’ a turkey, but am leaning towards it next time I roast one. I basically just mess around with the bird differently each time. Not too scientific, but I love trying new tips & tricks.
    I’ve noticed that squishing herbed butter under the skin works like a charm. Other than that I don’t think I’ve ever cooked a bird the same way twice.
    I think it all boils down to how much fun it is to cook & of course the aroma!

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