When this time of year rolls around, it seems like everybody is on a quest for a classic roast turkey recipe. Thanksgiving wouldn’t seem complete without a gorgeous, golden turkey on the buffet. But how exactly do you make a perfect roasted turkey? Turkeys are easy to overcook or undercook. And they can also be flavorless, if you’re not using a solid roasting technique. Never fear! I’m here to help.
To our modern perspective, classic roast turkey and Thanksgiving are inseparable, but in reality, this tradition didn’t begin until the eighteenth century. At the first Thanksgiving celebration in 1621, historians note that roast deer, duck, and other waterfowl were served.
While not much is known about some of the earliest Thanksgiving dinners, a few descriptions have survived. According to the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, “one description dated 1784 mentions drinking and eating in general and implies that pigs, geese, turkey, or sheep were served.”
It seems that if you’re wanting a historically accurate Thanksgiving meal, turkey is optional. But that won’t stop most Americans from serving a turkey at their Thanksgiving feast.
Over the past few years, our family has shifted to a meatless holiday celebration. But in the years before that, we made this roast turkey recipe every Thanksgiving. I can’t claim credit for the original version of this recipe; it was created by Alton Brown.
Why Brine a Turkey?
I’ve made this turkey recipe many times, incorporating small improvements to the process each time. The brine is important, particularly for the breast meat– it adds moisture and flavor to this classic roast turkey. So don’t skip it, even if it seems like a lot of work. It’s actually a simple process, as long as you have some upper arm strength to heave that turkey in and out of the brining bucket (if not, have someone help you!).
Other than that, the cooking process here is basically foolproof. As long as you plan ahead, making sure your turkey is defrosted in plenty of time for an overnight brine, you’ll be good to go.
Alton’s directions are pretty clear; I’ve provided step-by-step pictures to keep you on track, and given more details where needed. I have taken a few liberties with Alton’s original recipe, changing the spices in the brine and adding herbs and garlic to the aromatics. Creativity is half the fun in my kitchen.
Should You Brine a Kosher Turkey?
A classic roast turkey can be kosher, too! If you’re using a kosher turkey, the meat will already be soaked and salted, so you do not really need to brine it at all. If you want to brine a kosher bird then cut way back on the salt (or eliminate it completely), since the turkey meat will already be salty. Even if you use a kosher bird, you can still use the aromatics and roasting method outlined below– just skip the brine!
Alton Brown suggests heating a turkey to an internal temperature of 161 degrees Fahrenheit. I usually take it out at 165 degrees. Don’t let it heat above 165, or the breast meat will start to dry out.
A lot of people are afraid of roasting turkey, particularly those that have never done it before. Never fear! If this is your first time cooking classic roast turkey, this tutorial should keep you right on track. Enjoy!
Classic Roast Turkey
- 14-16 pounds frozen young whole turkey
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1/2 cup light brown sugar
- 1 gallon vegetable stock
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 1 1/2 teaspoons allspice berries
- 1 1/2 teaspoons whole cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 gallon heavily iced water
- 1 apple, cored and sliced
- 1/2 onion
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 cup water
- 6 leaves sage
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme
- 3 sprigs fresh marjoram
- 2 sprigs rosemary
- 2 cloves fresh garlic
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 2 to 3 days before roasting, begin thawing the turkey in the refrigerator or in a cooler kept at 38 degrees F.1 day before roasting, combine the vegetable stock, salt, brown sugar, peppercorns, allspice berries, cloves and ground ginger in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally to dissolve solids and bring to a boil. Then remove the brine from the heat, cool to room temperature, and refrigerate.
- The night before you’d like to eat, combine the brine, water and ice in the 5-gallon bucket. I like to line the bucket with a brining bag that I can close up once the turkey is in; it keeps the turkey more evenly immersed.
- Place the thawed turkey (with innards removed) breast side down in brine. If necessary, weigh down the bird to ensure it is fully immersed.Cover the bucket with a thick towel or foil (or close up the brining bag) and refrigerate or set in cool area for 8 to 16 hours, turning the bird once half way through brining.
- Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F. Remove the bird from brine and rinse inside and out with cold water. Discard the brine. Stack two disposable aluminum pans or pie plates and place them in the center of the roasting pan. Place rack on top of the aluminum pans. This is a hack I picked up from Cooks Illustrated; it disperses the heat more evenly in the bottom of the pan, which helps to keep the drippings from creating smoke in your kitchen.
- Place the turkey on roasting rack, breast side up. Some people swear by putting it breast down – this will result in less even browning of the skin, but you can certainly do that if you wish. Pat the turkey dry with paper towels. If your bird has a popup timer inserted, leave it in (so juices don't leak out of the hole), but don't use it to measure the temperature– use a probe or meat thermometer instead. These are more accurate; if you follow the popup your meat may turn out overcooked and dry. Also, your turkey should have a metal or oven-safe plastic band around the legs to keep it trussed. If it doesn't, truss the legs together with some kitchen string.
- Combine the apple, onion, cinnamon stick, and 1 cup of water in a microwave safe dish and microwave on high for 5 minutes.
- Drain water from the steeped aromatics, then add them to the turkey's cavity along with the sage, thyme, marjoram, rosemary and garlic.Tuck the wings up and under the bird. Brush the turkey liberally with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- Roast the turkey on lowest level of the oven at 500 degrees F for 30 minutes, turning the roasting pan around 15 minutes through cooking to ensure even browning.Insert a probe thermometer into thickest part of the breast and reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F.
- Set the thermometer alarm (if available) to 165 degrees F. A 14 to 16 pound bird should require a total of 2 to 2 1/2 hours of roasting. Turn the roasting pan around after about 1 hour of cooking to ensure even cooking.
- Let the turkey rest, loosely covered with foil or a large mixing bowl, for 15 minutes before carving. This step is very important; it allows the juices to settle into the meat, making for a moister turkey.