Here is the bottom line for everything you need to know about preparing that turkey! How much to buy, how to defrost, how much time to allow, and the basic methods for brining, oven-roasting, and cooking on covered barbeque grills (gas and charcoal) are all outlined below. Using these techniques, you can design your own flavor combinations and perfect your personal technique to produce your “one-of-a-kind” magnificent result.
HOW BIG A TURKEY? Female or “hen” turkeys traditionally weigh 8 to 16 pounds, male turkeys, or “Toms” are bred to yield the most breast meat, and weigh 14-16 pounds. These days, however, either type seems to be available up to 24 pounds! Hens and Toms are equally tender and moist, so pick whichever you prefer, allowing at least 1 1/4 pounds per person – 1 1/2 pounds if you want leftovers. If feeding hungry men, I’d even allow as much as 2 pounds per person, just to make sure to have leftovers!
DEFROSTING: Never defrost a turkey at room temperature (it is not safe). For best results, defrost turkey in the refrigerator (in the turkey’s original wrapping, on a tray to catch juices). Allow 24 hours for each 5 pounds of turkey – plus a little extra time (up to one day more) “just in case.” If the turkey is not completely defrosted when you are ready to roast it, place the bird in a sinkful of cold water, change the water every half hour – or more often, if the kitchen is warm – to be sure the water remains cold and fresh, for safety’s sake. Allow 30 minutes to defrost each pound of turkey this way.
HOW LONG TO ROAST: The roasting time varies depending on the temperature at which the bird is cooked, the structure of the bird, how tightly it is trussed (tied compactly) and whether or not it is stuffed. An unstuffed, untrussed bird can be roasted in as little as 7-9 minutes per pound at high heat, while a stuffed bird, roasted at a moderate heat may take up to 20 minutes per pound. The important test of doneness for an unstuffed bird is the temperature of the inner thigh meat (that part takes longest to cook). Tested in several places with an instant read thermometer, it should read 165 degrees. If the turkey is stuffed, it must be cooked somewhat longer for safety’s sake. In that case, the temperature is measured in the center of the stuffing and should reach 160 degrees. [See detailed roasting instructions below.] In either case, the finished turkey must be allowed to stand for a good 20 minutes before carving, so juices are evenly distributed, and cooking is completed.
COOK’S NOTE: Any turkey will cook most evenly if it is removed from the refrigerator an hour or two (two hours or so for larger birds) before being placed in the preheated oven.
ROASTING A TURKEY BREAST: A bone-in turkey breast is a wonderful substitute when you do not need an entire turkey. A whole breast, weighing 5 pounds or more, will serve eight generously. Simply place the turkey on a roasting rack (or on a few carrots and celery stalks) in a shallow roasting pan. Rub it with oil or butter, season generously with salt and pepper, and roast it for about 45 minutes at 450 degrees – basting two or three times. The turkey breast is ready when a thermometer inserted in the thickest part reads 160 degrees. Allow the turkey breast to stand for 15 minutes before serving.
Cook’s Note: The turkey breast can also be roasted over a mound of prepared stuffing. The stuffing and turkey exchange flavors.
For a Boneless Turkey Breast: The breast may be stuffed and rolled, or simply rolled and tied without stuffing. Brown the rolled, tied breast in oil, turning to brown all sides, then finish in the oven at 325 degrees, for about 35 minutes. Test with thermometer for doneness, as described above. [See recipe on this site for Rolled Turkey Roast with Vegetable Garden Stuffing]
COOK’S NOTE: About the “pink tinge” – color of cooked turkey: Free range turkeys (because of the way they are raised) will typically have a pink coloration in about 1/3 of the breast meat, particularly that meat closest to the ribs. That’s because they develop a stronger and healthier circulatory system than do caged birds, and there is a resulting greater supply of blood to the muscles – which can tint the meat like a blush. Even after being fully cooked, it is common to notice this “blush” or pink-tinge in the meat.
In addition, when a freshly-killed bird is flash frozen, the freezing process will drive any residual blood into the interior of the carcass. This may result in pink or reddish colored ice pieces in the cavity of the defrosting bird.
The bird is done at the temperatures specified above. Overcooking it will not remove this pink coloration, and will only serve to dry out the meat.
Wash the bird, inside and out, in cool running water. Combine 2/3 to 1 cup kosher salt (or more, depending on recipe) with 1 gallon of water and stir until salt dissolves. [Optionally, you may add 1/2 cup or so of sugar (white or brown) which will balance the saltiness, help with the browning, and aid the moisture-absorption of the brine, then bring the whole thing to a boil for 5 minutes to blend flavors - along with (as desired) cracked black pepper, a pinch of thyme, some cloves, allspice, bay leaves, peeled garlic cloves, crushed juniper berries - and/or other seasonings to your taste.] Think about the stuffing to be used, if any, and other components of the meal when choosing seasonings to be added to the brine mixture. The flavor the seasoning will impart to the turkey will be mild. If you make this flavored brine, heating it to combine flavors, be sure to allow it to cool before immersing the turkey.
Pour the brine over the turkey in a bucket or pot (plastic, stainless steel or enamel – not aluminum or other “reactive” metal) just large enough to hold both. If the turkey is completely covered with brine, discard any extra brine. If it is not covered, make and add more brine as needed to immerse the bird, or top the bird with a heavy weight to keep it under the liquid. Cover the pot and refrigerate for 6 hours – or up to 24 hours, turning 2 or 3 times, making sure each time that the brine completely covers the turkey. Remove the turkey from the brine, rinse, pat dry with paper towels, and roast as usual. Brining makes an exceptionally moist and juicy (but not watery) turkey.
Note: Some people just do not have enough room in the refrigerator to put the brining turkey in its pot. In that case, we have found that using an insulated cooler, placing the turkey and brine in a heavy plastic bag in the cooler, and surrounding the closed bag with blue ice or regular ice can work just fine. IMPORTANT: Use a thermometer to be sure that the temperature of the brine never rises above 40 degrees – for safety’s sake!
Extra Step For Crispiest Skin: Remove the turkey from the brine, pat dry with paper towels, and return the turkey to the empty pot. Allow the turkey to stand, refrigerated, for 6 hours or overnight. This resting period has the added advantage of evening the degree of brininess throughout the meat (it will be less salty on the surface of the meat, more evenly brined throughout), and resting produces a slightly more tender result.
1 1/2 cups, Kosher salt**
**See notes below regarding amount of salt
1 1/4 cups, brown sugar
10 whole cloves
3 teaspoons, black peppercorns
1 1/2 gallons (6 quarts) apple juice or cider (non-alcoholic)
the peel from one orange or one tangerine (colored part only – not white pith)
[optional: 3 teaspoons, dried thyme and/or 3 teaspoons, dried sage]
Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive pot, bring mixture to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes (partly covered). Allow brine to cool completely.
Rinse turkey under cool running water, inside and out (remove giblets from body cavity). Pat turkey dry with paper towels, then immerse turkey in cooled brine.* Turkey should be completely submerged in liquid (place a plate on top of the bird if necessary to keep it covered with the liquid).
Cover the pot and refrigerate for 8-10 hours or up to 24 hours. Remove turkey, rinse, pat dry, and roast as usual. [See note under “basic technique” for extra step to get crispiest skin.]
*Be sure the container used for brining turkey is non-reactive: use enamel, glass or crockery or stainless steel – never cast iron or aluminum. The pot should be just large enough to contain the turkey (so the brine will be sufficient to cover the bird).
** NOTE REGARDING THE AMOUNT OF SALT IN BRINE: A milder brine may be made, which may have a less flavorful result – but if salt is a concern (the entire turkey will absorb only 10-15% of the brine) the amount of salt may be reduced. For the desired chemical effect to take place, however, the proportions cannot be less than 2/3 to 1 cup of salt per gallon (4 quarts) of water or other liquid.
**TYPES OF SALT: Kosher salt is the ONLY type of salt to be used in making brine (it is sweeter and more pure than ordinary table salt). Kosher salt is available in two varieties. The most common is flaked salt (example: Morton Kosher Salt) which has been pressed into flakes by rollers. The other type is a four-sided crystal (example: Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt). The crystal-shaped salt measures differently because of its shape. Use about 25% (one quarter) MORE crystal salt than flaked salt when measuring for brine or other recipes. The formula is: 1 tablespoon of regular table salt is equivalent to 1 ½ tablespoons flaked kosher salt, or 2 tablespoons, diamond crystal kosher salt.
***NOTE REGARDING BRINING TURKEYS TO BE “DEEP FRIED:”
When a turkey will be deep fried (Cajun style or otherwise), too much sugar will cause the bird to blacken on the outside. It is best, therefore, to use water, rather than apple juice or cider, and to greatly reduce the amount of sugar called for in the above listing of brine ingredients.
Wash the turkey in cool running water (remove bag of giblets from inside body cavity) and pat bird dry with paper towels. Allow the turkey to stand at room temperature for up to 3 hours (loosely covered with a towel) so it will not be icy-cold in the center, and will cook evenly.
If stuffing, stuff the turkey lightly – don’t “pack in” the stuffing (all, or extra, stuffing can be baked in a casserole and moistened before serving with turkey drippings). If not stuffing the turkey, place a quartered onion or orange (or both) in the cavity of the bird, or put chopped celery, onion and carrot in there (see more suggestions under “covered grill method,” below) – any of these will gently perfume the bird, without risking overcooking for the sake of the stuffing. SAFETY ALERT: DO NOT STUFF THE TURKEY UNTIL JUST BEFORE ROASTING IT – AND REMOVE THE STUFFING FROM THE CAVITY OF THE BIRD BEFORE REFRIGERATING LEFTOVER TURKEY.
Use a shallow roasting pan (about 2 inches deep) so that the sides of the turkey will brown properly, and not be pale and flabby from steam. Roast the turkey breast-side down, so juices will keep the breast meat moist. Use a non-stick, or well-greased, V-shaped roasting rack to hold the turkey over the roasting pan. If desired, tie the ends of the legs together (not too tight, for even roasting) with kitchen twine, but bird will cook fine without additional trussing.
Brush the entire breast side of the turkey with melted butter before placing the bird (breast side down) in the V-rack. Then brush melted butter over the rest of the turkey.
Place the oven rack in a low position (the larger the turkey, the lower the rack should be) so the breast meat will be less likely to overcook. Place the turkey in the oven legs-first (the dark meat takes longest to cook, and the back of the oven is hotter than the front).
For a 10-pound turkey: Roast in the breast-side-down position, at 400 degrees, for about 1 hour, then turn breast-side-up for the remaining 1/2 hour or so of cooking time, basting twice or more.
For a 12-14-pound turkey: Roast breast-side-down at 350 degrees, for about 1 1/4 hours, then turn breast-side-up for remaining 30 to 45 minutes, basting frequently. Roasting times are approximate (and are estimated for unstuffed turkeys), test for doneness as described below. If the top skin seems to be getting too dark, cover it with a doubled piece of aluminum foil. Remove the foil 10 minutes before removing the finished turkey from the oven.
For larger turkeys: Simply estimate 10 minutes per pound roasting time, but begin checking the turkey with a thermometer after about 3/4 of that time.
Unstuffed turkey is done when a meat thermometer, inserted in the thickest part of the thigh meat (without touching the bone) reads 160-165 degrees. In case thermometer is imprecise, 165 degrees is a good reading, offering a margin for safety. Test the thigh meat in several places, to be sure. Stuffed turkey is done when the thermometer reads 160 degrees in the center of the stuffing (note: cooking a stuffed turkey to 160 degrees, measured in the stuffing, will take longer than roasting an unstuffed bird, so the turkey will be slightly overdone if stuffed with stuffing). Allow the turkey to stand for 20 minutes after removing it from the oven to complete cooking and re-distribute internal juices – that way, the meat will be juicy. (You may tent bird with foil to keep it warm.)
Remove the wing tips from the turkey (reserve them for making stock, if desired).
Be sure the oven is clean, to avoid excessive smoking (this will be a smoky process, however).
Do not place the oven rack in too high a position (the skin on the top if the breast may over-brown. Place foil over this area during cooking, if it seems to be browning too much.
Place the turkey, on a rack in a roasting pan, into the oven legs-in-first for most even cooking.
Move the turkey once, after about 20 minutes of roasting to be sure it doesn’t stick to the roasting pan/rack.
Cook until done (temperatures above) and allow bird to rest for 20-30 minutes before carving.
A 9 pound turkey will require about 1 hour, 15 minutes (1 hour, 45 minutes if stuffed); a 12 pound turkey, about 1 hour 20 minutes; a 15 pound turkey, about 2 hours – adding 1/2 hour more to each of those last two times if bird is stuffed.
Source: Roasting by Barbara Kafka (Morrow)
Using a charcoal grill: place 27 charcoal briquettes (or other pieces of charcoal) on each side of a drip pan (disposable aluminum pan, or any metal pan of your choice) in the bottom of a covered grill – such as a “kettle” grill. Prepare the coals by lighting them in the manner of your choice, and allowing them to burn until they are mostly covered with a thin layer of gray ash. Wood chips may be used, if desired – add about one cup of soaked and squeezed-out chips to the fire just before beginning cooking, and again each time the coals are replenished.
Place the grill over the hot coals and drip pan, allow the grill to become hot, and place the unstuffed* turkey on the grill over the drip pan. [Note: you may use a V-shaped roasting rack, or simply tie the legs of the bird loosely together, and place the turkey directly on the grill. If placing the turkey directly on the grill, it’s a good idea to lightly oil the part of the grill on which the turkey will be placed, just before positioning the bird.] Do not allow any part of the turkey to rest directly above the fire (it will burn). If any parts, such as wingtips, look like they’re browning too much during cooking, simply wrap them with aluminum foil.
Cover the grill, leave the vents mostly open for higher heat, and cook the bird in this indirect method for about 10-15 minutes per pound. No basting is necessary, but an additional 10 briquettes must be added to each side of the burning coals, at the end of each hour. The turkey is done when a thermometer, inserted in the deepest part of the thigh meat, not touching bone, reads 160-165 degrees – or when the thigh juices (pierce the thigh deeply with a skewer, a long-tined fork or the tip of a sharp knife) run clear yellow. Allow the turkey to rest for 20 minutes or so before carving.
*Cook stuffing separately for best results – for added flavor, place a cut onion, orange, apple or combination of these, and/or a few garlic cloves, stems of fresh herbs, or roughly chopped carrot, celery and onion with a few herbs added, in the cavity of the turkey before roasting (perfumes the bird – you do not serve these aromatics).
Using a gas grill: For a two-zone grill, preheat the grill to “high,” then reduce the heat on one side of the grill to medium high, and turn OFF the other side of the grill. Place the turkey on the OFF side of the grill, cover and cook as above.
For a three-zone grill, set the front and rear (or left and right) burners to medium-high, leaving the middle burner OFF. When grill is thoroughly preheated, place the turkey in the center (OFF) section, and proceed as above.
Wood chips may be used, if desired – add about one cup of soaked and squeezed-out chips (in a smoker-box, or as per grill manufacturer’s instructions) just before beginning cooking, and again each time the coals are replenished.
COOK’S NOTE: About Convection Cooking of Turkey: Our best research indicates that cooking any turkey larger than 12 pounds in a convection oven may cause the bird to become too dry. For turkeys smaller than 12 pounds, two methods have been suggested: Cook the turkey in a preheated 450 degree oven for 5 minutes, then reduce the heat to 300 degrees and continue roasting until a thermometer indicates doneness OR roast the turkey in a preheated 325 degree oven for the entire roasting time. In either case, the turkey should NOT be stuffed.