the easy way to roast a moist, flavorful turkey
Alrightey, ya turkeys– I’m excited to finally start heading down Thanksgiving road! At this point I’m going to need to run down Thanksgiving road in order to share all the recipes we tried at our Fake Thanksgiving dinner before the real thing, but for now let’s just focus on first things first. The turkey!
There is no shortage of writing on the ins and outs of a turkey. As the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table, you want it to be moist, flavorful, and worthy of the space it takes on your plate, rather than something that you have to soak in gravy to appreciate, or eat out of tradition rather than, uh, turkey-lust.
Last year was my first time roasting a turkey, so like any novice faced with cooking a giant bird for an army of people, I floundered around quite a bit trying to figure out what to do with it. Should I brine it? Spatchcock it? Roast it breast side down? At what temperature, and for how long should I cook it? To stuff, or not to stuff? Finally, I called my mom, whose answer was simple, but, as it turns out, very useful. Use an oven bag! (If you can’t be persuaded to try using one, you can still follow this recipe– see note below).
At first I felt obligated to look down my nose at the idea of using a plastic bag as a turkey shortcut, but I swear that the turkey it produces (in combination with some other techniques) is simply the best turkey I have ever had. The bag keeps the moisture in, and it shortens the cooking time a little so that you can get a turkey out of the oven and on the table without spending five hours on the affair (and without drying out the meat). You don’t have to baste it, you don’t have to brine it (which is what all the test kitchens and experts would have you do, but I prefer to skip that extra step!). All you do is put it in a 350 oven and let it do its thing, and it will come out incredibly moist. And yes, the skin of the turkey will still brown and crisp while inside the oven bag. I don’t have a good after-shot of the whole cooked turkey because I was too crazed at Fake Thanksgiving to remember to take one, but if you check out the shot of the carved turkey below, you can see a nice big chunk with crispy brown skin right on top.
A few other processes have become crucial to my now-cemented turkey routine. First of all is the stuffing. Many people insist on stuffing that’s cooked inside the turkey, and I used to be one of them, but there are a few things to be said about the outside method. The biggest selling point for me is that leaving the stuffing out makes your turkey cook faster, and avoids food safety concerns– you don’t have to overcook (dry out) the turkey meat to ensure safe stuffing. Also, I always want to have more stuffing around than the amount I can fit inside a turkey’s body pocket anyway, so if I bake it in one or two large dishes instead of trying to cram it all in the bird, it means I’m limited only by how much stuffing I care to prepare. Lastly, stuffing baked outside of the turkey can be just as delicious, moist, and flavorful as the kind baked inside, provided you make the right kind of stuffing.
So, let’s say we’re on board with leaving the stuffing outside the bird. Does that mean we should leave our poor turkey with an empty cavity? No! I follow Elise’s method from Simply Recipes, wherein we rub the turkey cavity with salt and the juice of a lemon, then stuff it with some quartered onions, celery tops/bottoms, carrot chunks, and parsley. We also stuff a handful of parsley in the neck hole just for good measure. This way, the turkey gets infused with flavor from the inside out, and you don’t waste the space in the cavities.
Then onto the completion of our turkey routine, the adornment of the outside of the bird. We like to rub it in garlicky herb butter, then sprinkle it with salt, pepper, and paprika before garnishing it with sprigs of herbs. Sound good? It is! And if you want to use a different treatment for the outside of your turkey (like a glaze) you can certainly do that too– just make sure you take the time to put something tasty on the outside of the bird. When you’re satisfied with your turkey’s coating, pop it in the bag, and into the 350 oven it goes! Of course, how long it takes to cook your turkey will depend on the size of it, so you’ll have to consult the instructions on the oven bags to be sure of the time. We usually have a 12 pound bird, and it takes roughly two and a half hours to cook.
My mother instilled in me a paranoia about poultry safety, so I always check to be sure the turkey is done in a couple of ways. First, I stick a meat thermometer (not instant read) in the bird before it goes in the oven, and use it to monitor the temperature throughout the cooking. It should go in the thickest part of the dark meat (in the thigh) and the bird should come out when it reaches a temperature of 175 degrees. When I suspect the turkey is done, I also use an instant-read thermometer to double check the temperature in multiple places (again, the dark meat should read 175 and the light, 160-165). You can also check for doneness by stabbing the turkey with a fork or knife and making sure the juices that run are clear (not pinkish), but I often skip that when I’m using a bag since the bag gets in the way. However you test it, pull it out when it’s cooked, and all that’s left is the resting of the bird (cover it, and give it 15 to 30 minutes on the counter) to help it retain its juices and settle its temperature. You can use this time to give things a last blast in the oven before dinner so everything is hot. And then you just have to carve the bird! I’m a pretty miserable carver, but in my experience nobody cares how it looks if the turkey tastes good enough.
A note on the size of the bird: there are plenty of turkey calculators online to help you figure out how much to get, but my rule of thumb is to buy 1.25 to 1.5 times as many pounds of turkey as you have people, depending on how much turkey you’d like to have leftover (we bought a 12 pound bird for 10 people, and wished we’d had more). There’s nothing more annoying than making a whole turkey, dreaming of a pile of tasty leftovers sandwiches, and then realizing there’s hardly any meat left!
And a final note for any oven bag skeptics: if you can’t stand the idea of using an oven bag or don’t have one, yes, you can use these directions to make a turkey without an oven bag. If that is your plan, I would recommend using a brine and/or roasting breast side down to ensure a moist result, and perhaps paying more attention to basting while it cooks. You can (and, I think, should) still plunge ahead with the stuffing and coating instructions as written below. And as for the length of time and temperature for cooking, just follow the instructions on your turkey’s packaging.
Looking for something a little more small scale? Check out our late fall mini-Thanksgiving for two from last year! Sunday Dinner: Scaled Down Thanksgiving.
Recap: How to Roast A Turkey
Cooking instructions from the Oven Bag box, cavity stuffing from Simply Recipes, outside treatment a product of tasty experimentation!
1 turkey, fresh or defrosted (allow 5 hrs in the fridge per lb of turkey to defrost)
juice of 1 lemon
2 generous handfuls parsley
1 carrot, chopped into a couple of rough chunks
1 (small to medium) onion, quartered
1 handful tops and bottoms of celery, in rough chunks
1/2 stick (4 T) butter, softened (you can also use olive or canola oil if you prefer)
4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 generous tablespoon chopped herbs (I use a combination of sage and thyme)
several sprigs each of fresh thyme, rosemary, and sage
1 T flour
1 oven bag
1. Bring your turkey to room temperature before beginning (make sure to keep it in its plastic, on a rack in a roasting pan to catch any juice drippings). Remove the packaging and giblet bag, then rinse the turkey thoroughly (outside and inside) with water. Pat dry, and place on a rack in a roasting pan large enough to accommodate it.
2. Rub the inside of the cavity (I know, gross) with the juice of a lemon and a small handful of salt.
3. Stuff a handful of parsley in the turkey’s neck, then close it up– you can use turkey skewers or lacers if you want, but we usually just kind of fold/tuck it closed– if a sprig of parsley falls out (it usually doesn’t), it’s no big deal.
4. Stuff the quartered onion, some celery chunks, a handful of carrot chunks, and another handful of parsley into the main turkey cavity. Again, you can lace up the cavity when you’re done, or make a little aluminum foil cap to hold the stuff in, but we usually manage to keep it all in place without bothering– since we’re not eating this stuffing, it doesn’t matter so much that it be securely in there. If your turkey comes with a little metal or plastic bracket to hold the legs in place, make sure to keep them tucked in there, and if it doesn’t, use butcher’s string to tie the legs together. This will help hold the stuff in as well.
5. Combine your softened butter with the minced garlic and tablespoon of chopped herbs. Rub the garlic herb butter all over the surface of the turkey. If you can get it underneath the skin, even better. If you prefer to use oil instead of butter, brush the surface of the turkey with oil and then sprinkle it with the minced garlic and herbs.
6. Sprinkle the turkey with salt, pepper, and a little paprika, then tuck your sprigs of herbs around the bird– stick them under the wings, on top of the legs, and lay some on top.
7. If your oven bag instructions say to do so, place 1 T flour in the empty plastic bag and shake it around to prevent the bag from bursting. Then, carefully slide the oven bag over the turkey, like you’re putting a pillowcase on a slimy, raw pillow. A second person is helpful. Make sure the turkey is well situated in the bag and in the roasting pan, then seal the bag with the provided tie. The oven bag rules will probably instruct you to cut six 1/2-inch slits in the top of the oven bag to let air escape, so do that. I like to then insert my meat thermometer through one of those holes into the thickest part of the thigh.
8. Cook your turkey according to the directions on the oven bag by weight.
9. Test your turkey for doneness as it is nearing the estimated cooking time using a meat thermometer. The thickest part of the breast meat should register 160-165 degrees, and the thickest part of the thigh should register 175 degrees.
10. When the turkey is done, remove it from the oven, tent with foil, and allow to rest for 15-30 minutes (15 is perfectly adequate, but in practice I often end up leaving it longer because I’m finalizing the other Thanksgiving dishes, and you can go up to 30 without it starting to get cold). Then uncover, slice open the bag, and carve your bird!
A note on gravy: for most, a turkey dinner is not complete without gravy, and it is really a shame to waste all those lovely pan juices from the roasting. I love gravy, but I must admit that I seem to be gravy-challenged, so I’m not including photos or a special recipe. I like to use Elise’s recipe, since she gives two ways to do it and includes lots of photos. I’ve also used her recipe for turkey stock with my leftovers and giblets and had great success!