Classic Post: The Ultimate Roast Turkey Recipe

Note: Writing holiday posts has always been a challenge, because for a number of years, even before starting The Best Food Blog Ever, I have always stayed true to the same recipes.  And while tradition once again trumps innovation for this holiday season, when I started to consider how many new followers on Twitter and new readers I’ve gained over three years, it just made sense to repost my entry for roast turkey because, hey, it’s going to be new for someone out there.  First published here in 2008, and you’ll probably see it come around again at this time next year, and the year after that.

I promised to post the Thanksgiving recipes in time for Christmas, so here’s the final, and probably the most critical, one.  As I’ve already mentioned, this roast turkey recipe is a blend of different preparations that I’ve used over the past few years.  I’ve taken the best aspects of every preparation that I’ve used, and this is the result.

When I first decided on a recurring holiday turkey recipe, I started out by using a liberal application of herbed butter under the skin of the bird, which does a better job of flavoring the meat than basting or cavity aromatics would.  If you think about it, basting merely flavors the skin, and no matter how often you ladle pan drippings over the roast, those drippings do nothing but run down the outside of the bird back into the pan.  Psychologically, it’s satisfying, but technically basting accomplishes nothing since the skin acts as a barrier.  The same is true for stuffing things into the turkey’s cavity – no matter what you put in there, the meat will still be shielded from the aromatics by the bone structure of the bird, so the effect is minimized.

Using an under-the-skin application of herbed butter achieves two goals – it flavors the skin from beneath, and it also imparts a wonderful flavor to the meat below.  So, that’s the approach that I used for years, until I discovered brining, and now I use a brine-and-butter approach.

Brining takes the notion of flavoring the meat one step further, by immersing the bird in a salt and sugar solution for approximately 1 hour per pound.  Take note, though, that you should never attempt to brine what is sold as a “self-basting” turkey – which has already been injected with a saline solution, and which will turn out inedibly salty if you elect to brine it further.  Additional flavors are added to the brine according to the results that you’re seeking – the brine carries these flavors deep into the meat of the turkey.  From a scientific standpoint, the brining solution breaks up the fibers of the meat, resulting in increased tenderness, and the retained moisture from a good, long brine will translate to juicier meat.  I highly recommend using a brining bag, but you could use any food-safe heavy duty plastic bag if you need to.

So, here is the holiday roast turkey recipe.  The butter mix comes from a past issue of one of my cooking magazines, which I can’t recall after so many years, and the brining solution is sourced from Saveur, with a few modifications.  Remember that you need to begin brining the turkey the night before you plan on roasting it, so if you want to make this for Christmas, you need to start on Christmas Eve.

The Ultimate Roast Turkey Recipe by The Best Food Blog Ever

1 turkey

For the Brine

1 cup kosher salt
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup chili powder
2 cups apple cider
1 head garlic, separated into cloves, peeled
2 apples, cored and chopped
6 cups apple cider (separate step)
4 quarts cold water

For the Butter

1 stick of unsalted butter, room temperature
Sea salt
Ground black pepper
Fresh thyme and sage, chopped

Start by making the brine.  In a food processor or blender, puree the garlic, the apples, and the 2 cups of apple cider, and set aside.  In the brining bag, set inside of a large stockpot, pour the salt, sugar, and chili powder, then add the 6 cups of apple cider and the 4 quarts of cold water, using your hand or a whisk to mix it all together so that the salt and sugar dissolve.  Add the apple/garlic puree and stir to mix again.

Prepare the turkey by first pulling out the utterly useless self timer plastic dart and throwing it away, being careful not to tear the skin as you do so.  Remove the giblet bag and reserve for stock (this can be frozen, whole, in a plastic bag in the freezer).  Carefully lower the entire turkey, breast first, into the brining solution, making sure the brine fills the cavity, and submerge as much as possible.  Seal the bag and place in a cold place – your refrigerator if you have room, or the garage or deck if the outside temperature is low enough.  You should anticipate brining the turkey for 1 hour per pound, thereabouts.

The next day, take your butter out of the refrigerator and let it soften.  Finely chop a few slices of bacon and fry them until crisp.  In a small bowl, mash the butter with the salt, pepper, bacon, thyme, and sage and set aside.  Set your oven to 350 degrees.

Pull the turkey out of the brine and set it in a roasting pan on a rack, making sure to drain the cavity.  Using paper towels, pat the turkey dry, then use your fingers to loosen the skin from the meat of the breast.  Take a spoon and spread the herbed butter under the skin of the turkey – you can use your fingers to push the butter off of the spoon through the skin, and smush it around until you’ve got an even coating of butter throughout.  Apply salt and pepper liberally to the surface of the skin.  If you’re using a probe thermometer, which I highly recommend, insert the probe now into the thickest part of the thigh without hitting bone.

Roast the turkey until the temperature of the dark meat reaches 165 degrees.  You may want to check the bird after about an hour or so, because the residual brown sugar from the brine will caramelize, causing the skin to become brown more quickly than you are accustomed.  If this happens, take the turkey out and tent it with foil before putting it back to finish cooking.  When you take the final temperature of the roast using a probe thermometer, it’s best to poke it in various discreet locations – all parts of the bird should register at least 160 degrees, which is done but not dry.

Remove the turkey from the oven and set it aside, tented with foil, for at least 30 minutes.  If you hazard cutting into any roast before it has had proper time to rest, you risk spilling valuable juices and ending up with dry meat.  The resting period allows the juices, which are pushed to the surface during cooking, to recede back deeper into the flesh.  Don’t worry about the turkey getting cold – depending on its size, the roast will retain heat for close to an hour or more, and your kitchen, if it’s anything like ours, will be plenty hot anyway from all of the other cooking that’s going on.

November 21, 2011   Comments

Second Thanksgiving, Where Butter and Bacon Make Everything Better

My wife and I have never considered Thanksgiving cooking to be a chore, a task, or in any way a burden.  On a day where millions of people consult the internet, friends, and family to determine how best to tackle the immense ball of bird sitting on their kitchen counter, we’re always willing to gladly step up and happily serve the cause.

Which is why, on Thanksgiving last week, we had no idea what to do with ourselves, because we weren’t in charge of the cooking.  We had gone to my wife’s aunt’s place, and the only thing that we were responsible for were the potatoes.  Thanksgiving turned out fine, but we still left there feeling a little unfulfilled.  That night, while driving home through Lancaster County, we both decided that a second Thanksgiving dinner would be entirely appropriate.

On Friday, we set out to the supermarket and picked up a 13 pound fresh turkey and everything we needed to create our own private followup Thanksgiving.  We called friends and neighbors and invited them over on Saturday, with the explicit understanding that no matter how many people accepted, the two of us were having Thanksgiving again for our own selfish purposes.  That evening, I concocted a brine of salt, brown sugar, chili powder, apple cider, apple brandy, pureed apples, and garlic and submerged the turkey, making sure that the fragrant mix welled up inside the cavity and that no part, save for a nubby end of a single drumstick, poked out from the surface.  I started using this brine two years ago, and, instead of replacing my traditional holiday turkey recipe, it’s kind of merged with it, with amazing results.

On Saturday morning, my wife let me sleep later while she roasted sweet potatoes, prepared homemade cranberry sauce (made easily with cranberries, sugar, and an entire orange, rind, flesh, and all), and baked a pumpkin pie.  When I finally roused myself out of bed, I drained the turkey from its brine and set it into a pan, patting it dry with paper towels and letting it warm up a bit to cut down on the roasting time.  I softened a stick of butter, fried up some diced bacon, and went to the garden to fill a small plastic bag with snips of thyme, flat leaf parsley, chives, and sage.  I’m enjoying the fact that my herb garden has grown so resistant to the cold weather.

I incorporated finely chopped sage, some sea salt, ground pepper, and the bacon into the butter, mashing and stirring until I had achieved a uniform mix.  Using first my fingers, then my entire hand, I loosened the skin from the turkey’s breast meat and applied the butter mixture liberally underneath, wiping any excess on my hands across the surface of the breast, the thighs, and the legs, then applying more salt and ground pepper to the entire outside surface of the bird.  Now, sitting royally in its pan, brined throughout, well-seasoned both under and over the skin, and stuffed with a single chopped apple, the turkey was ready for the oven.

In keeping with the tradition of having a lazy day devoted to nothing but kitchen duties, I roasted the turkey at a steady 350 degrees, anticipating a total cooking time of nearly four hours or so.  I have a religious devotion to my probe thermometer, so the oven temperature is not as crucial to me as the rate at which the internal temperature of the bird rises.  About an hour and a half into cooking, I realized that my temperature was rising way too quickly – a relocation of the probe deeper into the thigh meat registered a full 40 degrees cooler.

With the turkey now set and roasting away, we turned our attentions to turning out the numerous traditional side dishes that appear on every Thanksgiving table.  I put the turkey neck and giblets into a stock pot with a dash of olive oil, then tossed in roughly chopped carrots, onions, and celery to start a stock which would simmer on the back burner until it was needed.

The timing was as perfect as we could ask for, since the turkey was ready about an hour before our guests would arrive.  I like to give my roasted turkeys a good hour or so of resting time – it allows the juices, which accumulate close to the surface of the bird during cooking, to redistribute back throughout the meat.  I set the roast aside on a platter in the warmest corner of the kitchen and tented it with foil while I prepared the gravy.

Gravy, as I may have mentioned, is an art.  I drained the fat from the pan drippings, setting the now empty roasting pan across two stovetop burners set to high.  As the residual fat grew hot and started to sputter, I splashed about half of a cup of white wine and a third of a cup of apple brandy into the pan, moving quickly to scrape all of the meaty bits up from the bottom, finally adding the defatted pan drippings and stirring.

Letting that cook down and reduce, I started a roux in a heavy saucepan – about three tablespoons of butter, melted, to which I added a quarter cup of flour, whisking to incorporate the butter.  I heated the roux until it smelled of toast, picking up the light brown hue of peanut butter, then poured the pan dripping/wine/brandy mixture into the saucepan, whisking, whisking, whisking, then finally adding a good amount of the turkey stock, watching the mixture thicken, then letting it simmer slowly for ten minutes or so.

Ultimately, we would end up serving roasted brussel sprouts, mashed potatoes with parsnip and celery root, a sweet potato casserole, homemade cranberry sauce, and that glorious cider brined sage-butter roasted turkey.  Recipes will be forthcoming later this week, so you’ll have have the opportunity to consider them in time for Christmas.  Most of the preparations come from old issues of Saveur, others from the backs of bags and boxes – I’ll list all sources so that you can save them for yourselves.

December 2, 2008   Comments

The Big Decision in November

In just a matter of days, each of us, as Americans, will be faced with a decision of critical importance, and with profound consequences.  It is a choice not to be taken lightly, for it carries the weight of generations of tradition and obligation, and the path that each of us takes will have lasting effects on how we are viewed and respected by our family and our friends.

I’m talking, of course, about making your own gravy for Thanksgiving.

I like cooking for Thankgiving.  It’s one of the few days where there is nothing else that needs to be done other than preparing the big meal, and, for me, preparing gravy from scratch is my favorite part.  It signals the turn into the final stretch of cooking, and the process, and results, are immensely gratifying.  It also throws all caution to the wind with respect to calorie counts and fat content.

The idea for this post came when our supermarket recently went into holiday mode, and with it comes many many endcaps filled with gravy in a can, gravy in a box, or gravy in a pouch.

This year, if I hear that any of you bought gravy from a store, or made it from a mix, I will personally come to your house and punch you in the head.  I’m that serious about gravy.

Before I list the recipe, let me explain the process and try to convince any of you gravy-purchasers of the validity of my argument.  Gravy, at its essence, is nothing more than a mixture of a thickening agent with liquid.  For my gravy recipe, I use butter and flour to thicken a combination of pan drippings from the turkey and stock.  That’s pretty much it, so you see why I am so vehemently against packaged preparations.

The long form is this – when start to prepare the turkey on Thanksgiving morning, I throw the giblets and the neck into a pot with some vegetables and water, and get a stock going, which simmers for most of the afternoon, extracting as much turkey flavor out of the meat and bones as possible.  When it’s time to make the gravy, I make a roux out of butter and flour, and let that cook until it’s a deep, deep brown, then strain the stock into the roux, mix it up, and keep it at a low simmer.  The pan drippings from the turkey get stirred in whenever the turkey’s done and been transferred to a carving platter.  And that’s it.

I realize that some people may be apprehensive about cooking in general, and for this reason Thanksgiving tends to kick off the holiday season of stress.  The only thing that I can think of that could go wrong with this recipe is you could burn the roux, either by cooking it on too high a heat setting or letting it cook for too long.  Remember, making a roux is the act of toasting flour in butter – some words to remember are “toast” or “peanut butter”, which are the levels of browning that you are looking for.  If you reach this point and discover that you haven’t strained the stock, or are otherwise not ready to add stock, just move the pot with the roux to a cool burner and keep stirring until it cools off a little.

Thanksgiving Turkey Gravy by The Best Food Blog Ever

Stock (can use prepared stock if necessary)
[stock] 10 cups water
[stock] Olive oil
[stock] Contents of giblet bag from the turkey, minus the liver
[stock] 2 carrots, unpeeled
[stock] 2 onions, unpeeled, hacked into halves
[stock] 3 stalks celery, broken in half
[stock] 1 Tbs peppercorns
[stock] Fresh parsley and thyme, no need to chop

1 stick of butter

1/4 cup of flour


Pan drippings from the roasting pan

Red or white wine

If you are using prepared stock, make sure you have 10 cups available, heated, and proceed past the next part.

If preparing your own stock, take a large pot and heat a thin coating of olive oil over medium heat until shiny.  Add the contents of the giblet bag (no liver) and the turkey neck and saute until browned, about five minutes per side (flip with tongs).  Throw your carrots, onions, celery, and peppercorns in, along with half of the parsley and thyme, give everything a stir, and cover.  Turn the heat down to the lowest it can go and let that cook for 20 minutes.  This is called ’sweating’ and the process extracts a lot of flavor out of the pot ingredients that would otherwise not be available by just boiling them in liquid.

After 20 minutes, add the remaining parsley and thyme and 10 cups of water.  Cover, bring the heat to high, and bring it all up to a boil.  Once boiling, you can reduce the heat and let that simmer on the back burner until you need it.  When you need it, you can either strain the solids out or just use a slotted spoon to scoop most of the solids out and use a ladle to pull out the stock you need.  Keep the giblets and the turkey neck, though.

Make the roux – in a saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the stick of butter until its fully melted and no longer foamy.  If you want to live on the edge, you can even wait until it starts to brown a bit.  Dump all of the 1/4 cup of flour in at once and stir vigorously to absorb the butter (a whisk will help immensely with this part).  At first, all of the flour will clump up into chunks and balls, but as the mixture heats up and relaxes it will become more viscous.  Keep on stirring until the roux has darkened to the color of peanut butter, then add 10 cups of hot stock, whisking mightily as it bubbles and squeaks.  Once all of the stock has been incorporated, maintain the gravy at a simmer while you finish preparing Thanksgiving.

Once the turkey is done and moved out of the roasting pan and onto a carving platter, drain all of the pan drippings into a bowl or large measuring cup (or even a defatting beaker).

Set the roasting pan across two burners set to high heat (if you have a vent fan, now would be a good time to turn it on).  Using an oven mitt to hold onto the pan and give it some stability, pour a good amount of wine into the pan and use a wooden spoon to scrape up all of the bits that are stuck to the bottom.  Once everything is loosened up, let all of it cook for about a minute, turn off your burners, and (use two mitts) carefully pour all of it into the simmering gravy.  Add the pan drippings, defatted or not as is your preference (if there’s a large amount of fat, it’s probably better to defat it).   Stir it all together.

This part is optional.  If you’d like, you can now take the meat off of the turkey neck with your fingers, and chop the meat up along with the giblets.  Add all of this to the gravy, taste, and adjust for salt just before serving.

I want everyone to join the homemade Thanksgiving gravy revolution.  Feel free to email me at ddl[at] if you have any questions about this recipe.

October 31, 2008   Comments