When this time of year rolls around, it seems like everybody is on a quest for the perfect roast turkey. Thanksgiving wouldn’t seem complete without a gorgeous, golden turkey on the buffet. To our modern perspective, turkey and Thanksgiving are inseparable, but in reality, this tradition didn’t begin until the eighteenth century. The first Thanksgiving celebration in 1621 featured roast deer, duck, and other waterfowl– no turkey. While not much is known about 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.
Today, I thought I’d share with you the roast turkey that I make every year for Thanksgiving. I can’t claim credit for the original version of this recipe; it was created by Alton Brown from the Food Network’s show Good Eats. Alton’s roast turkey recipe is wildly popular, with good reason. I’ve been making and adapting this turkey recipe for the past four years. Each year, I make a few adjustments to the aromatics and the brine. Today I’m sharing with you the version I made last year, which was terrific. The brining and cooking process is basically foolproof, as long as you plan ahead and make sure your turkey is defrosted in plenty of time for an overnight brine. The brine is important, particularly for the breast meat– it adds moisture and flavor to the 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.
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.
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. I usually choose an organic un-brined bird, not kosher, and brine it myself. Even if you’re using a kosher bird, you can still use the aromatics and roasting method outlined below– just skip the brine!
Alton suggests heating the meat to 161 degrees… I usually take it out at 165 degrees. Don’t let it heat above 165 or the breast meat will start to dry out. Other than that, everything should be pretty self explanatory. 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 turkey, this tutorial should keep you right on track. Enjoy!
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Classic Roast Turkey
- 14-16 lbs frozen young turkey
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1/2 cup light brown sugar
- 1 gallon vegetable stock
- 1 tbsp black peppercorns
- 1 1/2 tsp allspice berries
- 1 1/2 tsp whole cloves
- 1/2 tsp 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. Place the bird on roasting rack in a roasting pan and pat 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.
- Add steeped aromatics 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.
- Serve and enjoy!