General & Historical>
The domestic turkey was developed by the Aztecs and their predecessors
in Mexico, but the roasting methods we are so familiar with were developed in
Europe, originally for roasting Peacocks. You will find a lot more
fascinating but useless information on our Turkey
In recent years a lot of research has been done on how to roast a turkey
with the least trouble, with a high probability the meat will be moist and
tender, and with a low probability the guests will die of bacterial
infestation. The method we present here is based on this research and is
current "best practices".
In 2006 the Los Angeles Times kitchen did a carefully controlled test of
four methods of roasting turkeys: salting, brining, high temperature roasting
and the traditional covered roaster. Salting finished first, brining
second and the covered roaster third, all with pretty good results. High
temperature roasting finished last due to uneven cooking. We cover salting
and brining here and the covered roaster method on the
Method #2 page.
Equipment You Will Need
- An oven with good temperature control and sufficient room for
the turkey and its roasting pan.
- A roasting pan. Highly preferred are shallow pans fitted with
a V rack, and with convenient handles on the pan and the V rack. These
are readily available at prices from $15 to $150. Disposable aluminum
pans are too flimsy for even a small turkey - a disaster waiting to
happen - and they have no rack.
- If brining, a pot, bucket or watertight brining bag of
sufficient size to hold the turkey and enough water to submerge it
- If salting, a watertight bag sufficient to hold the turkey.
- Salt, lots of it (If salting or brining the turkey).
- A refrigerator with enough room for the turkey submerged in
a brining bucket or in a brining bag.
- Aluminum foil, wide.
- Rubber Oven Gloves - these are for turning the turkey over part
way through roasting and removing it from the V-rack after roasting.
If you don't have them, or are as outraged by the price as I am, get the
thickest set of flock or fabric lined rubber dish washing gloves they
have at your local market, in size "extra large". These will do fine
if you are organized and work quickly. "Turkey lifters" and other
gadgets generally don't work well.
- A meat thermometer with a probe long enough to penetrate to
the center of the turkey. One with a long cable that allows you to
monitor the bird without opening the oven is great and some are quite
- Bamboo skewers.
- A basting brush (a clean 1" bristle paint brush will do).
- Butter, and something to melt it in.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
The first challenge is what turkey to buy, then the general plan of action
- there's a lot to consider.
This procedure is for a natural turkey that is fresh or thawed and will
be salted or brined. If you have a "self basting" or kosher turkey, skip the
brining steps. Not salting or brining a natural bird risks drier, less
flavorful meat. My recommendation is to use a fresh turkey if at all possible
instead of frozen - it's easier, safer and takes less planning.
Lead Times - these are the ideal times.
Pre-Prep - Four to One Days Ahead
- Thawing: 8 hours for cold water thaw (see notes under "Decisions"
- Brining: 24 hours.
- Salting: 3 days.
- Air Drying (optional): 1 extra day.
- Thaw your turkey - thoroughly de-ice fresh turkeys. Unpackage
the turkey, fish out the neck and the bag of giblets and set them aside.
- Brining: Submerge the turkey in a tub of cold brine and
place it into the refrigerator for the required time:
- For a 4 hour brine (not recommended), 1 cup of salt per gallon of
- For an overnight brine, 2/3 cup of salt per gallon of water and figure
about 1 hour per pound of turkey. Do not overbrine.
It is possible to brine a turkey outside the refrigerator in a covered cooler
with an ice pack but make sure the brine temperature never goes above
Salting: Figure 1 T of salt for every 4-1/2 pounds of turkey.
Grind the salt to powder in your spice grinder and spread over the
turkey, more salt in thicker parts. Put up in a water-tight bag and
refrigerate. The ideal timing is three days in the fridge, turning the turkey
at least once a day.
Air Drying: (optional) Place the turkey on a pan in the
refrigerator uncovered for one day. This step is to produce a crisper skin
but I've never had time for it.
- Prepare a Broth from the neck, giblets and wing tips. This
broth may be used for making gravy, moistening and flavoring dressing, or
any other broth use (see "Evening Before" steps for
Turkey Gravy for the procedure).
- Prepare your stuffing / dressing by whatever recipe you chose to use.
- Prepare your roasting pan. Cover the V-rack with aluminum foil and punch
a bunch of holes through it so it'll drain well.
- IF you are making gravy, put a cup each of chopped celery, carrots and
onions in the roasting pan along with 3 cups of water to keep it from
burning until the turkey starts dripping (rather late in the process).
- Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- Remove the turkey from the brine (if used). Rinse thoroughly under
running water, drain and pat dry with paper towels.
- Let the turkey rest on the counter for one hour to come close to
- IF your turkey did not come with the drumstick ends held by a clip,
you can tuck them through a hole cut in the skin under the tail. Failing
both, bind the legs together and down to the backbone with heavy string.
- If you cut off the wing tips, fasten the wings to the sides of the
turkey with bamboo skewers and break them off to length. If you did not
cut off the wing tips, tuck them behind the back. This looks real
uncomfortable but at this point the turkey probably won't notice.
- IF you are stuffing the bird, do so just before it goes into the oven,
not earlier. Give the cooking temperature a head start by first heating the
stuffing as hot as you can handle it. For complete details see our page
Turkey Stuffing & Dressing.
- If stuffing the bird, first stuff the front and use a bamboo
skewer to fasten the front skin to the back behind the neck. Then stuff
the main cavity. Do not pack stuffing too tight as most stuffings expand some
- Melt butter and paint the breast side of the turkey well with butter.
Place the turkey breast side down in the V-rack (you'll be turning
it over later), then paint the back side well with butter.
- Slide the roasting pan into the oven with the turkey still breast side
down. Keep the thigh end at the hottest end of the oven, usually the back.
Roast 45 minutes for a bird up to 18 pounds, 1 hour if over that.
- Bring the roasting pan out of the oven, put on the rubber oven gloves
(see equipment list), pick up the turkey and turn it breast side up.
- Brush the breast side again with butter.
- Tent the breast side loosely with aluminum foil (this will come off for the
last 30 to 45 minutes of roasting).
- IF making gravy, check if the vegetables need more water.
- Turn the oven down to 325°F for a bird over 14 pounds, or 350°F
for smaller or any size if it is not stuffed. Slide the turkey into the
oven, again with the thigh end to the hottest end of the oven.
- Remember to remove the foil tent when you think you have only 45 minutes
to go so the skin will brown nicely (you can put it back on if you guessed
wrong) Generally at 155°F/68°C works.
- Roast until done. It is done when the thermometer shows you are going
to meet USDA mandated temperatures of 165°F/74°C (thermometer
must not be touching bone). We pull at 5°F lower than the USDA
recommendations because the inside temperatures will rise about 5°F
while the turkey is resting. See Safety Notes below for more on
Pull when the thickest part of the thigh reaches
Total roasting time should be similar to the USDA 325°F chart.
|USDA Approx Roasting Time at 325°F|
|4 to 8||1-1/4 to 3-1/4 hr||2-3/4 to 3-1/4|
|8 to 12||2-3/4 to 3 hr||3 to 3-1/2 hr|
|12 to 14||3 to 3-3/4 hr||3-1/2 to 4 hr|
|14 to 18||3-3/4 to 4-1/4 hr||4 to 4-1/4 hr|
|18 to 20||4-1/4 to 4-1/2 hr||4-1/4 to 4-3/4 hr|
|20 to 24||4-1/2 to 5 hr||4-3/4 to 5-1/4 hr|
- Remove turkey from the roasting pan (rubber gloves, again) and place it
on a platter or baking sheet to catch juices that still come out (add
them to the broth).
- Cover the turkey lightly with aluminum foil and let it rest for
at least 1/2 hour (45 minutes wouldn't hurt). This gives the
juices time to redistribute and the meat to solidify so it is possible
to carve the turkey in an organized manner and without injury. See our
page Presenting and Carving a Turkey
for detailed instructions.
- Get any side dishes that need oven finishing into the oven.
- Finish up the gravy if making it.
- Dismantle the turkey for leftovers and refrigerate within 2 hours of
taking from the oven.
- Store stuffing, gravy and meat separately. The USDA says to use gravy
in less than two days, meat and stuffing within 3 days, but most people
consider this rather paranoid. I aim to use up the meat in less than a
week. You can extend the storage life of the stuffing and gravy by
bringing them up to a simmer.
- After cutting off all the meat, break up the carcass and put it in a
stock pot with any bones and other turkey debris. Add any leftover broth
you haven't used for gravy. Put in enough cold water to cover and simmer
for a few hours for turkey broth. Strain, remove the fat (gravy
separator again), let the sediment settle, pour liquid off sediment,
Freeze or pack in sterile jar (see instructions at the bottom of our page
Presenting and Carving a Turkey.
"Dressing" is the same as "stuffing", but baked in a casserole rather
than stuffed into the turkey. This gives better control of the turkey
(you need only meet 2 USDA temperature points, not three) and a shorter
Complete details and procedures will be found on our page
Turkey Stuffing & Dressing.
Traditionally, the neck, giblets and pan drippings are used to make
gravy to go along with the meat and potatoes. Gravy adds complexity but
can be managed if well planed and done as much as possible in advance.
Complete instructions will be found on the page
During life the turkey has natural processes for keeping bacteria under
control, but the moment it is killed those processes stop and bacteria
immediately start dismantling it. Some of these bacteria are harmful
to humans and some of them can survive rather adverse conditions, so
care is in order to protect your health and the health of your guests.
A turkey is so large that temperatures changes take a long time, so
it presents an unusually high risk of contamination. Consequently
exceptional care in handling is indicated.
- Do not refrigerate a turkey after stuffing, cook immediately.
Preferably stuff with very hot stuffing and get it into the oven at once.
- Observe cooking temperatures given above and take them seriously.
Harmful bacteria multiply very rapidly at temperatures between
40°F/4.5 °C and 140°F/60°C, a range your turkey will be
in for most of the cooking time.
Note: Thermometers and many cookbooks say poultry must
go to 180°F/82°C to be safe. The FDA backed off from this bunk in
2006 and came in line with the USDA's 165°F/74°C. The FDA failed
to find any evidence, even scribbled notes, to justify that ruinous high
temperature (perhaps they were paid off by the beef board to assure
turkeys were always dried out and flavorless).
- When handling an uncooked turkey, do not handle any other food until
you have cleaned up with soap and water.
- Do not let an uncooked turkey come in contact with any other food.
- Immediately upon moving an uncooked turkey, scrub the cutting board or
surfaces it was touching with soap and water and preferably a little
bleach. I generally scrub everything with an "institutional strength"
disinfecting cleanser which releases bleach in the process.
- Observe that leftovers should be in the refrigerator within 2 hours
of coming out of the oven. If there are large amounts store in multiple
smaller containers so the temperature will drop quickly.