In a few short days, this large bird will be the centerpiece on so many tables across America. And yet, very few of us feel confident in our turkey cooking skills. For good reason. We typically only cook a whole bird 1-2 times a year (which is not easy in the first place), with a good 11 months in between each attempt. It’s hard to feel confident in something you don’t make often. For the past 9 years, I’ve been making the same recipe. After 9 attempts, I’m ready to hurl my method into the internet—everything from the recipe to the tools.
This post was created in an ongoing partnership with OXO, the brand I lean on in the kitchen. Their products just work. They’re smart, functional, and affordable.
I still get nervous every single time I make a turkey. What if it’s dry? What if it’s undercooked? Brining the bird for 24 hours has never let me down. In fact, on my very first attempt 9 years ago, a friend commented that it was the best turkey he’s ever had. Maybe that was the wine talking? Or maybe brining is just that good.
My dad, the grill master, introduced me to brining, something he first read about in the paper. If unfamiliar with brining, it’s the process of soaking the turkey in an aromatic salt bath for 24 hours. Brining is insurance—insurance that your meat will have flavor everywhere between the skin and the skeleton, which is really hard to achieve on such a large piece of meat.
You can buy brining kits, however, making a brine is very simple and inexpensive (and one less thing to store after the holidays have passed). Some find brining to be messy. I hate making big messes, and this is my preferred method of choice. You can find my low-mess method in the recipe at the bottom of the post.
Basic Brine Recipe
A brine is made up of water, kosher salt, sugar, whole spices (think peppercorns, whole cloves, fennel seeds, bay leaves), fresh herbs (think: sage, thyme, rosemary), citrus (think: orange or lemon peels), and aromatics (think: garlic and onions). You can easily make your own brine with this basic DNA. The most important variable to consider is the amount of salt. My recipe is written for a 12 pound bird. You’ll want to scale the salt levels up or down based off the size of the turkey. Another thing to note—my dad recommends using brown sugar for caramelization. I tried it this round and couldn’t agree more.
The Turkey Tools
Now you know, I don’t like adding unnecessary tools to my kitchen. But as my accountant told me: Invest in tools that make you more efficient. This advice is as true for businesses as it is for holiday cooking. Preparing a large holiday feast is no small task. Set yourself up to succeed. And on Thanksgiving, success is measured by efficiency. Will you put dinner on the table when promised? Probably not. But close counts.
Dishwasher I’ve marked items that are dishwasher safe. Dish washing might be the worst part of the meal. Run a quick cycle before the meal with the dirty prep tools so you have plenty of space afterwards for the plethora of dishes.
Storage Store holiday cooking tools that wont get used throughout the year as you would store holiday decorations. Don’t keep them mixed in with the everyday.
Brining Bag I don’t use a bag specifically for brining. I opt for the affordable turkey roasting bags sold in grocery stores this time of year. They’re plenty large and durable. Save the extras in the holiday cooking storage box.
OXO Angled BasterThis is one of those smart OXO products. It’s angled so that the contents don’t spill out when you set it down. It also has a little resting ledge built in to accomplish this. It comes apart in two spots for easy cleaning. I actually don’t baste my turkey since opening the oven again and again releases too much heat. Team efficiency over here. I also trust my brine enough to carry the flavor. I use the baster for removing the drippings easily from the roasting pan to make gravy. Dishwasher safe.
OXO Basting Brush I’ve had this brush for years. The silicone bristles hold liquids well. In the case of this turkey, I brush it evenly with olive oil just before heading into the oven. An even coating of oil (or melted butter) yields a beautiful gold crust. I keep a long brush for meat and a short brush for pastries. Dishwasher safe.
OXO Silicone Roasting Rack I’ve never used a roasting rack until these silicone racks came in the mail last week. Traditional roasting racks are bulky to store and hard to clean. But these! Oh my gosh, they stack on top of each other when not in use and clean in the dishwasher. I’m keeping these out for use all year long. Dishwasher safe.
Disposable Roasting Pan You’re going to shake your heavy pointer finger at me on this one. I’m team disposable roasting pan on Thanksgiving for the ease of clean-up. There’s just so much to clean! And up until 2 years ago, I didn’t have a sink large enough to clean a roasting pan. After cooking, I discard the turkey carcass into the compost, fold up the pan and crimp the sides to keep leakage at a minimum.
OXO Leave-in ThermometerIn the name of keeping that oven shut, I opted for a leave in thermometer. This thermometer also has doneness temperatures on the cover, which I never can remember. Hand wash only.
OXO Poultry Lifter I’m not a huge fan of single-use tools. This was one of those tools where I was like, do I really need this? But after transferring the heavy bird out of the roasting pan seamlessly, I wondered how I ever did this before, especially when I used to stuff the bird. The verdict: I sorta love it. Dishwasher safe.
OXO Good Gravy Fat Separator I’ve seen Martha Stewart talk about this product for years. And after finally trying it, it’s magic! There’s a strainer at the top to catch larger, unwanted bits. Almost instantly after entering the container, the drippings separate, with the fat rising to the top. See my gravy recipe here. Dishwasher safe.
Are you still with me? There’s just so many little tidbits for making a great, efficient turkey. A couple more things before I send you off with the recipe. First, keep that oven shut. I know, it’s so hard! I open it too, and then yell at myself. Also, consider cooking the stuffing outside the turkey. The turkey cooks so much faster and more evenly this way, and the stuffing crisps up perfectly in its own pan. And finally, if you notice that the underneath side of your turkey is slightly undercooked after carving (It’s hard to get a very large bird evenly cooked), then flip it over and pop it back into the oven. OR, save that meat for later use in a pot pie or soup that will get reheated.
Special notes: Look for a fresh, young turkey that hasn’t been treated with anything. I prefer to buy a turkey that’s never been frozen so that I don’t have to deal with the thawing process days in advance. If purchasing frozen, give yourself at least 3 days to thaw a 12 lb. turkey in the fridge. This recipe requires special tools—a Turkey Roasting Bag or Brining Bag large enough for your turkey. The ratios are written for a 12 lb. bird. Scale up or down based off the size of your turkey. For alternate cooking times, check out this friendly diagram from Real Simple.
1 1/4 c. coarse kosher salt*
1/2 c. packed brown sugar
1/2 red onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, smashed
large bunch of thyme (or mixture of rosemary and sage)
2 tbsp. peppercorns
3 bay leaves
peels of 2 oranges
10 c. water, divided, plus more as needed
12 lb. Fresh Young Turkey, thawed
At least 25 hours before cooking or up to 48 hours, make the brine. In a medium saucepan, add all the brine ingredients and only 4 cups of the water. Cook over medium heat just until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Remove from heat and add 6 cups of cold water. The cold water will help to cool the brine solution more quickly. Ice cubes welcome too.
While the brine cools, prepare the turkey. First, clear a space in the fridge for the turkey to rest. Next, remove remnants from the cavity and discard or save for later use. Line a large stock pot or an emptied crisper drawer with a turkey roasting bag or a brining bag. Gently place the turkey into the bag. Add the cooled brine into the bag and top off with enough water to just cover the entire turkey. It’s really not necessary to measure. (Note: This is usually a two person job). Tightly tie the bag closed. Place in the fridge for 24 hours.
On the day of, one hour before cooking, remove the turkey from the fridge. Set out the roasting pan fitted with the roasting rack near the sink. Also, place a trash can next to the sink. Meanwhile, carefully place the brining bag with the turkey into the sink. Snip a couple holes in the bag to drain the liquids. Meanwhile, remove the turkey from the bag, drip dry, and place on the prepared roasting pan. Pat the turkey completely dry with paper towels and allow to dry for about 1 hour before going into the oven. Toss the brining bag and paper towels in nearby trashcan.
Roast the turkey. About 15 minutes before roasting, preheat the oven to 325°F. Using a basting brush, evenly coat the exterior of the turkey in olive oil. Place a leave-in thermometer in between the leg and deep into the breast but not touching the bone. Cook until the temperature reaches 165°F (about 3-3 1/2 hours). Remove from oven and allow to rest for at least 20 minutes before carving. Tip: lightly drizzle a bit of the pan drippings over the meat for added flavor after carving. Serve.
*Kosher Salt is recommended for this recipe. Other varieties of salt will vary in measurements.