Treat it right and a Thanksgiving turkey can be a centerpiece worth celebrating. Just be sure to avoid these mistakes.
What would the Thanksgiving feast be without a beautiful burnished bird at the center of the spread? Any other holiday, if you ask me. But turkey’s gotten a bad rap: it’s dry, it takes too long, it’s hard to carve. Can't we just have ham? But if you roast your Thanksgiving turkey with the respect it deserves, you'll realize why it became a tradition in the first place. Sidestep these snafus for the best bird yet.
1. You Don’t Brine Your Turkey
I know it can sound like a drag, I mean, who has a spare bucket laying around? Or a walk-in fridge that can house said bucket over night? A wet brine is great at creating succulent, well-seasoned meat but it’s really hard to pull off in a home kitchen. But that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. A dry brine is a solid second bet. An intensely seasoned combination of salt, sometimes sugar, herbs and/or spices, rubbed all over the turkey imparts big flavor, helps create an extra crisp skin by drawing out excess moisture, and doesn’t require sanitizing any special equipment (see above bucket). If you’re new to the game, give our easiest dry brine recipe a go.
2. You’re Roasting a Cold Turkey
Turkeys are big. Even a small bird weighs somewhere around 10 or 12 pounds, likely the biggest beast you’ll roast all year. Putting a big cold turkey in the oven means it will take longer for the interior of the bird to warm up and start cooking than the outside resulting in dry white meat (that protruding breast gets the most direct contact with the oven’s dry heat). Letting your bird sit on the counter for an hour will ensure more even roasting and more moist meat. Roasting a room temperature turkey also drastically reduces roasting time: I’ve never roasted a turkey—even a big one—that took longer to roast than two and a half hours, maybe three.
3. You Don’t Add Aromatics to Your Roasting Pan
Pan drippings are what gravy is made of. Literally. But you might be skipping an easy step that will take your gravy from good to gold. Adding a few carrots, a couple stalks of celery, and a quartered onion or two instantly turns turkey-ish flavored drippings into richly flavored turkey stock—exactly what you want to build your gravy with. Keep the carrots and celery stalks whole and slice or quarter the onions for a DIY oven rack you can place the turkey directly on top of.
4. You’re Roasting Your Turkey Without Fat
Most roast turkey recipes call for adding a cup or two of stock or water to the roasting pan to help encourage the creation of pan-drippings (see above). Some of the turkey’s fat will render into the pan but it’s still a mostly lean liquid: good for basting but, in my opinion, better for gravy. Instead of basting with the pan drippings alone, which ultimately washes off any seasoning you’ve added, I like to baste with a flavorful herb-infused olive oil or butter. Better yet, create a self-basting bird by smearing a punchy pepperoni butter under the skin. As the butter melts it bastes the meat and helps create that golden crispy skin we always hope for.
5. You’re Over-Cooking Your Turkey
Look in the kitchen drawer right now. Does your meat thermometer say that poultry should be roasted to 180°F? If so, please discard it. (And while you're at it, go ahead and invest in one of these thin-probed digital models.) According to the USDA, and any seasoned cook worth their salt, poultry should be cooked to 165°F. To take the turkey’s temperature, insert the thermometer in the center of the thickest part of the thigh and the breast. And if you don’t have a thermometer—or you don’t trust the one you have—here are some tips for taking the bird’s temp without one.
6. You’re Carving Your Turkey Before It Has Time to Rest
A turkey, like any big piece of meat, will keep cooking even after it comes out of the oven (or off the grill, skillet, etc). Giving it time to rest allows the juices time to settle back into the meat, whether it’s a steak, a chicken breast or a big roast Turkey. Carve your turkey too soon and those precious juices will flood your cutting board. I like to give my turkey about 30 minutes to rest, plenty of time for the juices to redistribute but not so long that the meat gets cold.
And if the turkey does cool off, don’t worry: As long as your sauce stays hot, so will the rest of your food. From there, it’s all gravy.