Thursday, November 19, 2009

Let's Talk Turkey - Roast Turkey for Thanksgiving

Is there anything that strikes fear in the heart of home cooks more than the thought of preparing Thanksgiving Turkey?

I mean, really, how are you supposed to go from something that looks like this:

Okay, maybe something that looks more like this:

To something that looks like this:

To complicate the matter, there are literally hundreds of websites dedicated to roasting the perfect turkey. For every mother or grandmother out there, there are probably 500 websites that will recommend the absolute REVERSE of what they have been doing for generations.


What's a Good Cook to do?

Let's start with the irrefutables.

Thawing: if you purchase a frozen turkey, you will need to thaw it.


You can thaw it in the refrigerator or you can use the cold water method.

Refrigerator method: Place the frozen bird in a pan to catch melt. Drain off daily.

Allow 5 hours of refrigerator defrost time per pound of meat. Use my handy guide below.
8 - 12 pounds = 1 to 2 days
12 - 16 pounds = 2 to 3 days
16 - 20 pounds = 3 to 4 days
20 - 24 pounds = 4 to 5 days

Cold Water Bath method: allow 1/2 hour of defrost time per pound of bird

Place the frozen turkey in the sink. Fill with cold water. Change the water every 1/2 hour. Repeat until you reach the 1/2 hour per pound of bird time allotment.

Microwave method:


Now that your bird is thawed you have to start thinking about roasting it. Take it out of the refrigerator 60 minutes before you are going to pop it into the oven.

You need to time roasting the bird with your dinner hour. Twenty minutes per pound cooked at 325 degrees is a good rule of thumb. Let's do some math:

A twelve (12) pound, unstuffed turkey will take approximately 240 minutes. 240 minutes = 4 hours. PLUS 40 to 60 minutes resting time.

A 12 pound bird is going to take about 5 hours from oven to table. This is true for a heritage turkey, a fresh turkey, a frozen (now thawed) turkey, whatever type of turkey you can come up with.

Okay. Got that?

Now, you have to decide what to put on / in / or around your turkey. Again, variations abound. Citrus, herbs, root vegetables, I have tasted turkey with pomegranate molasses glaze and another with maple syrup... but my family's favorite traditional Thanksgiving turkey is the tried and true, butter and herb roasted turkey - so that is what I am offering you.

Butter and Herb Roasted Turkey with herb gravy:

I make a 12 to 14 pound turkey - think 1 pound of meat per person. I prefer to make 2 turkeys if I need more - but members of my family have made 20 - 24 pound birds that have been absolutely delicious.

1 stick (1/4 pound butter, softened)
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped fine
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped fine
1 tablespoon fresh sage, chopped fine
1 onion, unpeeled, cut in quarters
1 carrot, unpeeled, cut in half
1 stalk celery, washed, cut in half
Kosher Salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Run cold water into the cavity of the turkey (remove giblets, reserve), rinse, and pat inside and outside dry with paper towels.

Mix the chopped herbs with the softened butter. With your fingers, gently separate the skin from the breast meat and rub about 1/3 of the butter/herb mixture under the skin. Be careful not to tear it. Salt and pepper the cavity. Spread remaining butter herb mixture all over the bird. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Place the vegetables all around the bottom of a roasting pan fitted with a rack. Place neck, heart and gizzard among the vegetables (do not use the liver, it will make the gravy bitter) Fill with about 1 inch of water. Make sure the rack does not touch water. Place turkey on rack, tie legs together with kitchen twine. Cover with lid or aluminum foil. Place in center of oven on rack.

Roast - basting every 30 to 45 minutes AFTER the first hour. The last hour of roasting, remove lid and continue to roast until temperature registers 165 degrees on an instant read thermometer inserted into thickest part of thigh and skin is golden and crisp. Remove from oven. Transfer turkey (and rack) to large cutting board or platter and tent with foil. Let rest 40- 60 minutes.

While turkey is resting, make the gravy. Remove the vegetables, neck, heart and gizzard from roasting pan. Strain if necessary. Place the pan on two burners of your stove - turn up to medium high and bring to boil. Reduce the stock to about 3/4 of original volume. Dissolve 2 tablespoons flour and 1 tablespoon cornstarch in 2 cups cold water. Stir, whisk or shake to remove any lumps.

*optional: add about 1/2 cup white wine, whatever you are serving with dinner (Riesling is perfect for turkey) to stock.

Slowly add flour / cornstarch mixture while whisking to hot, simmering stock. Adding only enough to slightly thicken. Continue to simmer for about 2 minutes. If not thick enough, add a little more and continue to whisk and simmer. Check for seasoning. Add salt and pepper if necessary. Turn off heat, whisk in 2 tablespoons unsalted COLD butter. Sprinkle with fresh chopped parsley if desired. Transfer to gravy boat and serve immediately.

A Cook's Notes: I like to buy the very best fresh turkey I can afford. I DO NOT buy anything that is labeled "prebasted" or "self basting" which means the producer has injected fat and/or some type of broth solution - usually a salt water solution into the meat to keep it moist.

A word about herBoldbs. I like to use fresh herbs when I can but realize they can be very pricey if you don't have your own herb garden. Because you are roasting your turkey for so long it is perfectly fine to use dried herbs. Just cut the recipe amounts by 2/3 - in other words, if a recipe calls for a tablespoon (equal to 3 teaspoons) of fresh herbs, use 1 teaspoon of the dry.

Tomorrow, and the next day and the next... :
Stuffing - 3 ways!! (I call it stuffing whether you are stuffing the bird or not) Family Tradition aka My Dad's Stuffing (stuffed), Sour Dough and Cornbread dressings
roasted vegetable gravy (for my vegan friends)
peas with crisp turnips and bacon and dill
roasted butternut squash with spinach, cranberries and walnuts
fresh cranberry, orange relish
and more...

If you have any questions or requests, simply fill out the comment field and I'll answer (or die finding the answer) your Thanksgiving Feast questions....


  1. This is so awesome and detailed!! I have never had to make my Thanksgiving turkey (yet) because my dad has always done it, and now my mother-in-law... but I will totally remember this for when I do my own!

    I am excited to hear about STUFFING! The stuffing is my favorite part!!

  2. One of these days I'll try frying a turkey. Thawed, of course.

  3. Jen - ahhh.. stuffing. Be sure to check back as my family's favorite (my dad's) is vegetarian!!

    Badass - you can't do that in an apartment and I have tried the deep fat fried turkey - delicious - but you loose so much by not having the aroma of a roasting turkey wafting through your home for hours... and then there's that oil thing....

  4. Sounds yummy! We were thinking about trying the Fried Turkey this year too, but I'm with you, I may have to roast one earlier just to have that wonderful smell!

  5. TGC Do you ever brine your turkey? We had to use a cooler one year because the bird was so big. It turned out so moist and flavorful.

  6. Cousin B - I make two turkeys anyway... so why not mix things up?

    Marci - Yes! I have brined a turkey in the past.. we eat turkey year round so I've grilled, rotisseried, fried and roasted... anyway, a cooler is an excellent receptacle for brining. Keeps it cold and is big enough to hold a lunkin' bird. The only thing I dislike about brining is the salt content. You usually can't use any juices from the bird because they are just too salty. Have you found that to be true?

  7. You don't brine the bird? That is the one step that makes all turkey better!

  8. Buffalo - I have brined in the past and found it a good method- but since I now buy only heritage and/or fresh (this year I'm doing one of each... ) there is no need for this step. Since the birds I buy are killed just a few day prior to cooking, don't suffer the stress of shipping to slaughter and are never frozen, they are naturally moist.

  9. Yum, yum. I love the addition of fresh herbs. My husband uses fresh sage in his stuffing, but I think we will use the fresh herbs to baste as well.

  10. PS - Buffalo - by spreading butter between the skin and meat, you are also adding moisture.

    Nancy - Oh, what is a bird without sage?? One of my favorite aromatics!

  11. Love the instructions for the Microwave Method. When I first got to it I thought "Really? There is a microwave method?", but then I read the instructions.

  12. Hi Good Cook! I love your instructions here; very uncomplicated and easy to follow. I agree with Unknown Mami re: "microwave instructions" lol. I was a bit worried, then relieved to see your answer.
    Although I am a professional cook, I have shied away from roasting these bad boy turkeys. I never seem to be able to get all of the dishes on the table at the same time, and while I like a good feed of turkey every couple of years or so, it's really not my favorite bird.
    Having said that though, I'm going to bite the bullet (instead of feeding it forcefully to the turkey)and roast a turkey for Christmas this year.
    Thankyou for the confidence booster!


Wow. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I love feedback... what with being a cook and all. I will respond to your comments via email (if you do not have a "noreply" address or here, below your comment) As always, Bon Appetite!

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