My husband and I offered to host Thanksgiving at our new home a few months after we were married in 1995. We were young and naive, but we were excited to play house with all our new china and crystal. To prepare for the big day, my husband bought the firewood and I did absolutely everything else. (You can see who was the naive one.) I’ll never forget when he suggested I call the local Koo Koo Roo to order a cooked turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, “you know, just so we’re sure it’s good.” I was slightly insulted at the suggestion, but I knew where he was coming from. I had never cooked an entire turkey before and I was a bit intimidated. For most people, the turkey is the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal. If I screwed it up, I thought, the holiday would be a disaster. So my plan was simple — don’t screw up the turkey.
I called people I trusted — my mother, my mother-in-law and my aunt. You know what they say about asking people’s advice. I got three different opinions on how to cook a turkey which taught me that there’s no one right way to do this. However in the years that followed I learned that there is more than one way to mess it up. I’ve had my share of mishaps, which only reinforced to me that no matter what goes wrong, you’ve just got to roll with it because there’s usually a solution. Like in 1996 when I carved into the turkey and it was rather
raw undercooked in the center. So we just cut it into slices and pan-sauteed them with a little stock. Everyone complimented me on how moist the turkey was! Funny enough, my worst disaster came last year when I was really feeling like a pro, having cooked so many Thanksgiving dinners for my family and taught so many of the same classes. I had my two beautiful turkeys in the garage refrigerator and in the process of transferring 2 pans of stuffing the night before, I was distracted and inadvertently left the garage refrigerator door open. All night. When I came down the stairs in the morning and noticed one pan of stuffing still on the countertop, I knew what I did. My garage is usually about 80 degrees and so were the turkeys. I sat down and wondered if I had just ruined Thanksgiving. That’s what you get for being so smug, I thought. Instead I sent my husband to Whole Foods at 7:00 am where he was able to buy two 17-pound already brined turkeys. Thanksgiving was saved, although a little saltier than I would have liked. But you also know what they say about beggars.
Here’s what I’ve learned about turning out a fabulous turkey:
- Before seasoning, check both the neck and main cavities to remove extra turkey parts like the neck and giblets.
- Season it well and as early (like 2-3 days before) as possible for the best flavor and a very moist turkey; I use about 1 Tablespoon kosher salt per 5 pounds of turkey. See below for where to distribute the salt.
- Pull the turkey out of the refrigerator a minimum of 1 hour and maximum of 2 hours before roasting. Your bird will cook more evenly, especially in the center.
- The heat in most ovens comes from the top, so roast your turkey on the lowest oven rack to protect the breast meat from drying out.
- If you decide to baste, do so very quickly so the oven door isn’t opened for more than 30 seconds.
- Use an instant read thermometer to determine if your turkey is properly cooked. Do not rely on a timer!
- Start testing earlier than you think you should. Every oven is different and I’m noticing that the free-range birds are cooking more quickly than not free-range.
|Turkey Weight||Approximate Roasting Time|
|10 to 12 lb.||2 1/2 to 3 hours|
|12 to 14 lb.||2 3/4 to 3 1/4 hours|
|14 to 16 lb.||3 to 3 3/4 hours|
|16 to 18 lb.||3 1/4 to 4 hours|
|18 to 20 lb.||3 1/2 to 4 1/4 hours|
|20+ lb.||3 3/4 to 4 1/2 hours|
Ironically, Koo Koo Roo went out of business years ago, but my kitchen is still open and bustling on Thanksgiving and my husband thinks I make the best turkey in town.
- 12-14 pound fresh turkey, giblet bag and neck removed, rinsed, patted dry and seasoned with 3 Tablespoons* kosher salt as soon as you bring it home from the market (2-3 days in advance is best)
- *2 Tablespoons in the cavity, 2 teaspoons on breast and 2 teaspoons on thighs and legs. Whatever is left on your hands, rub on the breast meat underneath the skin.
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1 onion, quartered
- 1 celery stalk, cut into thirds
- small bunch of parsley sprigs, thyme sprigs and/or sage leaves
- 1 lemon, quartered
- 1 apple, quartered or cores from 2 apples
- 6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 1-2 cups stock or water
- ¼ cup white wine
- 5 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 3 cups chicken or turkey stock, preferably homemade
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- The day of roasting, take turkey out of refrigerator and wipe dry with paper towels. Bring to room temperature, about 60-90 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Position a rack in the lowest rung of the oven. Oil a V-shaped rack in a roasting pan.
- Sprinkle a little freshly ground black pepper in the cavity and then add in the onion, celery, herbs, lemon and apple. Truss the turkey by tying the legs together. Brush the skin all over with some of the butter.
- Place the turkey on the rack in the pan, breast-side down. Bend the wing tips behind the back. Roast for 40 minutes, basting with butter after 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 325 degrees, turn breast side up (I usually wear clean rubber gloves to do this) and add 1 cup stock or water to the roasting pan. Continue to roast, basting with the remaining butter until used up and then with the pan juices every 20-30 minutes. Add additional stock to the roasting pan if you notice there are no pan juices with which to baste the turkey.
- Roast until golden and cooked through. After about 2 ½ hours, start testing for doneness by inserting an instant-read thermometer in the thickest part of the breast away from the bone; it should register 165-170 degrees. You may also test the thigh – it should read 180 degrees. The turkey should roast a total of about 3 hours or 13-15 minutes per pound, but it can range from 2 ½ to 3 ½ hours.
- Transfer to a cutting board or warmed platter and cover loosely with aluminum foil until ready to carve, at least 20 minutes (I prefer longer.) Use the pan juices to make gravy.
- To prepare the gravy: Pour all the pan juices, including the fat into a gravy separator. Allow the fat to separate from the juices.
- Heat the roasting over medium heat on the stove and add the pan juices plus the apple brandy. Bring to a boil and lower heat to a simmer for 2-3 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon to dislodge any brown bits that stick to the bottom of the pan. Strain into a bowl or you can use the gravy separator again.
- In a saucepan over medium heat, warm the reserved fat from the gravy separator until it is bubbly. You should have at least 3-4 Tablespoons. If you don’t, add some olive oil or butter. Add the flour and whisk rapidly to cook the flour, about 2-3 minutes.
- Whisk in the strained pan juices and 3 cups of stock to the saucepan until smooth. Bring to simmer and cook until thickened, about 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm on lowest heat. Add additional stock as needed to achieve desired consistency.
Follow the same principles in carving a whole roasted chicken. Cut into the joints, in between the connecting bones and it will be a breeze. I carve in this order:
- Breasts, which I take completely off the turkey and slice crosswise against the grain.
Don’t forget to save the carcass and bones for stock!
I will be using this recipe to make a turkey that I am bringing to my Dad’s house for Passover.
Do you have a suggestion how to travel with the turkey so it stays moist?
I live 20 min from my Dads. I need to arrive for appetizers and the seder at 5pm and we won’t be eating until 6 or 6:30pm.
If I take the turkey out of my oven at 4:30pm is it bad to take it in my car and leave the turkey out on my Dad’s kitchen counter until 5:45pm or 6pm when it will be carved? Thanks
You didn’t mention how big the turkey is, but normally if it’s a big bird (more than 18 pounds,) I think it’s fine to let it rest for an hour. You need at least 20 minutes of resting time no matter what. But an hour and a half is kind of pushing it regardless of the size. Here’s what I would do: cook the turkey until it’s just done — no overcooking here — and bring about 1- 2 cups of chicken stock or turkey stock with you to your Dad’s. Keep the turkey tented with foil until you’re ready to carve. Warm the stock and then carve the turkey. If it seems dry to you, moisten all the carved slices on the platter with a little stock. It will be perfect. My only other piece of advice is that you technically shouldn’t keep the turkey out of the oven at room temp for more than 2 hours because bacteria can flourish. So try not to leave it on the buffet for too long. Happy Passover!
Thanks so much!! Great tips.
The bird is 15lbs so I imagine the advice is close to the same.
Thanks again and Happy Passover.
Hi Pamela- Happy Thanksgiving! I don’t have a lot of room in my frig so is if I pick up my turkey on Wednesday morning and salt it for 24 hours, will I get any effect or do I really need to make room and pick up on Tuesday? Thanks!!
Hi Debbie! 24 hours is good enough, not to worry. Remember, don’t rinse it after you’ve salted it. Another thought — you can store the turkey in a cooler with ice if you have space issues. Have a happy Thanksgiving!
Hi Pamela! Can you tell me where you found your glass gravy separator? The only ones I’ve run across are plastic.
I bought it at Williams-Sonoma many moons ago, but they still have a similar one which is glass!
I’m really loving the theme/design of your website. Do you ever run into any web browser compatibility problems? A handful of my blog visitors have complained about my blog not operating correctly in Explorer but looks great in Safari. Do you have any tips to help fix this issue?
Tonight as I was salting my turkey I think I got carried away. I used 4 tblsp for a 20 lb turkey. I put some in cavity, some on top of skin, but then some under skin. Did I make mistake by putting it under skin? Will it now be too salty?
Sounds perfect to me! I think you’re on your way to a delicious turkey!
Hi Pamela! How do you recommend covering the turkey in the fridge (it’s in a casserole dish) after brining if I don’t have a bag?
Even though I hate using plastic wrap in general, it’s what I use to cover the turkey in the fridge. Check out a picture here, 2nd image down: https://pamelasalzman.com/planning-a-happy-thanksgiving-2-weeks-and-counting-2/
I made the gravy Pamela for my chicken tonight and the kids raved over it!!
Love to hear that, Kelly! Thank you~
What substitution would you make for the butter to make the recipe Kosher?
Just use olive oil! The turkey won’t be quite as golden, however. Let me know if you have any other questions about making recipe substitutions 🙂
Thanks, Pamela! And what would you substitute for butter in pie crust, pie filling and sweet potato gratin. Oh, and stuffing! Thanks!
Use organic Earth Balance sticks in pie crust and filling. You can also use it for the sweet potatoes, but I love coconut oil and sweet potatoes and used it very successfully in the sweet potato casserole I posted the other day. For stuffing I would use organic Earth Balance or olive oil. Sounds like you’re going to be busy!! 🙂
We made this turkey for christmas dinner and it was fabulous and easy to do. Watched the video twice and it was very helpful.
Phew! Glad to hear this. Happy Holidays, Jane!
I’ve been meaning to take a minute to thank you for these wonderful Thanksgiving dishes. My turkey and gravy came out great and the cranberry dressing is delicious – I’m still eating it! The pictures and video were so helpful – I had no trouble at all. Thanks to you, everyone complimented me on my restaurant quality meal!
Karen, you are so very welcome. Thank you for letting me know you had a good holiday — makes my day!
I followed your recipe and instructions very carefully and I must say that my turkey this year was the BEST EVER! Tasty, flavorful, moist, cooked well all around and so beautifully golden. Everyone commented favorably. Even the finicky ones tried the gravy…so rich! Today it’s turkey stock day.
That’s so wonderful to hear! Thanks for letting me know.
The turkey was perfect, and the best gravy I’ve ever made! Also threw in your roasted veges and stuffing for good measure. Everything was great! FYI I added some Japanese Pumpkin to the roasted vegetables and it was delicious. A great meal!
This is good news, Eve! Thank you so much for the update. Enjoy the next few days off!
Seriously, you need to publish your own cookbook and get your own show! You make things seem so effortless and it proves to be true every time I try one of your recipes. Love the video… My daughter was in awe watching with me (she also took notes); and since she attends cooking class every Tuesday because it is one of her joys, she turns to me and first asks when are we going to make that and then stated she wanted to explain to her 2nd grade cooking class next week how to roast a turkey. Therefore, even though
I am not making the turkey this year, I will have to try this recipe at some point and have Eva help me. Plus, I will have to forewarn her cooking instructor that Eva will be sharing advanced turkey preparation ideas because she was inspired by our very talented cousin! Thank you for all your helpful tips and yummy recipes!
Cute! I was in second grade when I bought my first cookbook! Happy Thanksgiving~
How long can you let a Turkey rest before it gets cold??? I realize the bigger the bird, the longer it can rest. I have a 16-18 lb bird and what if we aren’t ready to eat/carve within an hour? I will def. wrap with foil, however, what if I need longer, would I have to put it in the oven at a low temp to keep it warm? Thx!
You can let a 16-18 pound bird rest an hour tented with foil. It will definitely still be hot, but I would rather you pulled it out of the oven closer to 165 on the breast than 170 since the bird will continue to cook when it’s out. Also, technically you shouldn’t allow animal meat to sit out at room temp for more than 2 hours, so don’t let it sit on the buffet longer than an hour. You can let it rest longer, if it’s necessary, but I would do your best to try have have your side dishes organized to go into the oven when the turkey comes out and start carving 10-15 minutes before the last side dish comes out.
I am cooking a roughly 20-pound turkey and am using your recipe. Is the timing the same for a bigger turkey on the front end of the recipe? Am I still cooking it breast side down for 40 minutes at 425 and then turning it breast side up at 325 for the rest of the cooking time? Or should I cook it breast side down for a longer amount of time?
Ah, good question! Even if you have a bird larger than indicated in the recipe, cook for 40 minutes breast side down at 425, then flip to breast side up and turn oven down to 325 for the remaining time. Check the chart in the post for your range. If you know your oven runs hot, I would start testing early.
You are truly a master teacher! I am so impressed by your knowledge and your skills ….. absolutely awesome. You are a natural and should have your own cooking show (and I am not a bit prejudiced). Keep up the good work; you have inspired so many people!
Mia, you are too kind. Have a happy Thanksgiving!
I learned this from a felolw firefighter friend . take out the nasty stuff ( I know some people like it NOT me ) then rinse and stuff with onion and celery all in his insides, bake uncovered till you can pull his leg off . Now thats a tasty turkey oh, and it definitely has to be a butterball !
I cannot use salt because of a salt restricted diet. Would you recommend using another seasoning? BTW I love your recipes and instructions!
Hi Patty, Salt is used here for flavor and to keep moisture in the meat. Other ways you can flavor the turkey are with aromatics inside the cavity, such as fresh herbs, lemon, crushed garlic cloves, celery and onion. I like thyme best, but a little rosemary and sage are nice, too. You can also make a compound butter with about 6-8 Tablespoons softened unsalted butter and chopped fresh herbs and spread it on top of the breast meat, under the skin. You can probably watch me in the first video doing that with a little salt. You should also baste regularly to keep it moist. I’m sure it will be delicious!