How to Cook a Turkey

Cooking tips to ensure a moist turkey this holiday season, whether you choose a roast turkey, deep-fried turkey, or smoked turkey.

turkey

Roasted turkey and all the fixings for Thanksgiving Day.

Photo by Getty Images/bhofack2

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It seems as though everyone has their own favorite way to cook a turkey. Just ask anyone – or browse the internet – and you'll get a zillion different answers. The differences are generally either a matter of taste preference or because that's how the cook was taught by Mom or Grandma. 

Some people suggest cooking the bird in the oven, others say a roaster oven is best, and some recommend a smoker or fryer. Many folks use a roasting bag to ensure juiciness, while others implore the old-fashioned method of simply placing the bird, breast side up, in a roasting pan.

When it comes to brining, some people swear it's the only way to go, while other folks would never dream of brining a perfectly delicious bird. Brining is simply the process of soaking meat in a mixture of salt and either water or broth. This method makes the turkey juicy and tender, and gives it flavor. In addition to the salt and liquid, many cooks add herbs, such as parsley, chives, sage, rosemary, and thyme, to the brine, and oftentimes they'll throw in some onion wedges and celery stalks as well. Some people even add a few orange or apple slices to provide a little sweetness to the turkey.

Brining is definitely a matter of taste preference, since some of the salt soaks into the turkey meat. Some people find brined turkey too salty, while others think turkey that wasn't brined doesn't have much flavor. It should be noted that for anyone with high blood pressure or who is on a low-sodium diet, brining should be avoided. Even if you choose not to brine, there are still plenty of things you can do to produce a juicy, tender, flavorful turkey.

Keys to Tender, Juicy Turkey

The most important things to remember, no matter how you cook your turkey, is to give it plenty of liquid, lots of seasoning, and to cook it to the precise internal temperature.

Since moisture evaporates from the meat as the turkey cooks, I always soak the bird – whether in a brine, or in a marinade made of water or broth, herbs, and vegetables (no salt) – for several hours before cooking it, which allows the meat to absorb some of the liquid and seasonings. That way, when you cook the turkey, there's more moisture in the meat, so although some of the moisture will evaporate, a good portion of it will remain.

Don't skimp on the seasonings, or you might end up with a bland turkey. Start off seasoning the whole bird with a generous sprinkling of ground black pepper and either salt, seasoning salt, or salt-free seasoning blend. Then lift the skin from the meat in a few places to form pockets. Insert a pat of butter and some seasonings and/or herbs into each pocket. After you put the turkey in the roasting pan, fill the pan with water, and season the water with the same seasonings used on the turkey. Then throw some fresh or dried herbs into the water, if desired. (Note: Remember that if you're going to use the broth formed from cooking the turkey to make gravy, any herbs used to season the bird will also affect the flavor of the gravy.)

Cooking the turkey to the precise temperature is another key to ensuring moist and juicy meat. If the turkey is overcooked, even just a little bit, the meat could very well be dry. The optimal internal temperature for turkey meat, both breast and thigh meat, is 165 F, according to www.FoodSafety.gov. Because the turkey will continue to cook during the first 20 minutes of the resting period, you should remove it from the oven when the internal temperature reaches 155 F in the deepest part of the breast and 160 in the deepest part of the thigh. When the turkey is getting close to being done, check it frequently, so you don't overcook it.

Brining or Marinating

As mentioned earlier, moisture evaporates from the meat as the turkey cooks, so to ensure the meat has plenty of moisture, it's a good idea to soak the bird in either a brine or marinade.

Both work well, so the choice is up to you. If you like salty foods, brining is a good option. On the other hand, if you'd rather skip all the salt, then opt for marinating. 

Brining

If you decide to brine your turkey, you'll need about two cups of salt per gallon of broth or water. (Note: I use Diamond Crystal kosher salt, which is available on Amazon. If you use a denser kosher salt, such as Morton, which is more readily available in grocery stores, decrease the amount to a scant cup and a half. You can also substitute one cup of table salt for the kosher salt, if you'd rather, or if that's what you have on hand.)

To make the brine, combine the salt and water or broth in a large stockpot. Add any desired herbs, vegetables, and fruit, and stir to blend. While most people simmer the brine on the stove for several minutes to allow the salt to dissolve and the flavors to blend, I've usually got a dozen other projects I'm working on, so I skip the simmering step. The brine works just as well, but saves time and effort. However, feel free to simmer everything, if you so desire.

Once the brine is ready, I put the turkey in a large brining bag (available on Amazon), and place the bag in a large bucket. Then I pour the brine in, wrap up the bag tightly, squeezing out as much air as possible, and tie the bag closed tightly. Either put the bucket in the refrigerator, or place the bucket inside a large cooler, and let the turkey soak in the brine for 12 to 24 hours. If you use a cooler, throw some ice in the bucket, completely surrounding the sides and top of the bag, and keep adding more ice as it melts, so the turkey stays cold.

After 12 to 24 hours, remove the turkey from the brine, and pat dry with paper towels. Do not rinse the turkey under water – and don't worry if there are herbs stuck to the skin.

Discard the brine. It's important to note that brine should never be used more than once, since it has had raw meat soaking in it for prolonged periods of time.

Marinating

To marinate a turkey, simply mix a gallon of homemade chicken broth with any desired herbs, vegetables, and fruit, and stir to blend.

Put the turkey in a large brining bag, place the bag in a large bucket, and pour the marinade in. Wrap up the bag tightly, squeezing out as much air as possible, and tie the bag closed. Either put the bucket in the refrigerator or inside a large cooler – surround the sides and top of the bag with ice, and keep replenishing the ice as it melts – and let the turkey marinate for at least 12 hours, or up to 24 hours.

Remove the turkey from the marinade, and pat dry with paper towels. Do not rinse the turkey. Discard the marinade.

Cooking the Bird

There are several ways to cook a turkey. No matter which cooking method you choose, make sure to pay close attention to the internal temperature to guarantee the meat stays moist, tender, and delicious.

Conventional oven

Position the oven rack in the bottom third of the oven, and preheat the oven to 450 F.

Season the outside of the turkey as desired, then lift the skin from the meat in a few places and fill the pockets with a little butter, some seasonings, and/or herbs.

Put the turkey in a large roasting pan – one big enough to hold it comfortably, without it being squished. The traditional way of roasting a turkey calls for it to be placed in the pan breast side up. However, many people – and I'm one of them – prefer to cook it breast side down, so all the juices run into the breast meat. The only drawback to cooking it breast side down is that the skin doesn't get crisp and golden brown.

Once the turkey is in the pan, add enough water to fill the pan to within an inch of the top. Generously sprinkle some seasonings in the water, and add your favorite herbs.

Cover the pan tightly with foil, and place the lid on it. Put it in the oven, and immediately reduce the oven temperature to 350 F. Cook until the breast meat registers 155 F and the thigh meat registers 160 F with an instant-read meat thermometer. Cook times will vary depending on the size of the turkey. As a general guideline, an unstuffed turkey requires about 13 minutes cooking time for every pound, but start checking the temperature of the meat about halfway through the estimated cook time.

If you're cooking your bird breast side up, remove the lid and foil for the last 30 to 40 minutes, so the skin will brown.

When the turkey is cooked through, remove it from the oven, set the pan out of the way, and leave the turkey sitting in the broth for about an hour before carving it.

After you remove the turkey from the broth, use the broth to make gravy. If you don't need all of the broth, save it to use later.

Electric roaster oven

Preheat the roaster oven to its maximum setting for about 30 minutes.

Rub olive oil or butter over the turkey. Sprinkle on desired seasonings. Place the turkey on the rack in the roasting pan. Add herbs, carrots, celery, etc., around the sides of the turkey, if desired. Water or broth isn't necessary, as the turkey will make its own juices.

Cover and let it roast, undisturbed, for 30 minutes. Reduce the roaster oven temperature to 325 F, and continue cooking, without lifting the lid, until the turkey has cooked for an hour shy of the earliest estimated total cook time for the size of your bird. (Be sure to include the first 30 minutes of cooking. To come up with an approximate cook time, estimate 13 minutes per pound.) Check the internal temperatures of the breast and thigh at that time. Most likely, the turkey will be done, but if not, continue cooking it for another 20 to 30 minutes, or less if the temperature is close, and then check again. Repeat until the breast meat reads 155 F and the thigh reads 160 F.

When the turkey reaches the ideal temperature in the breast and thigh, tent the roaster pan loosely with foil, and let the bird rest for 30 minutes to allow the juices to soak into the meat.

Carve the turkey, and use the broth for gravy.

Deep fryer

This method works well for smaller turkeys, 10 to 12 pounds is ideal, but no larger than 15 pounds. If your turkey is too large, the outside will get done long before the meat is cooked through.

There are two basic types of deep fryers: electric and propane. Electric deep fryers need electricity to operate, while propane fryers need a propane gas tank. Most electric fryers come equipped with a thermostat, but propane fryers generally don't, so you'll need to use either a candy or deep-fry thermometer to manage the temperature of the oil.

First you'll want to choose an oil that has a smoke point – the temperature at which it will start to burn and smoke – of at least 425 F. It seems like everyone's go-to oil these days is coconut oil, due to its many health benefits. I use coconut oil for a lot of things, too, but it shouldn't be used for frying a turkey, as it has a smoke point of only 350 F, meaning the oil will more than likely burn while you're frying your turkey. Instead, opt for peanut oil (my personal favorite) or sunflower oil, which are both low in saturated fat, have a smoke point of 440 F, and lend good flavor to foods. Other choices include corn oil and canola oil.

Before adding your oil to the fryer, you want to make sure you know exactly how much oil to use. If you add too much, it could overflow when you add the turkey, and if you don't add enough, the turkey won't be fully covered, which will result in the skin not browning.

If your deep fryer has a fill line or a gauge to determine the correct amount of oil to use for the size of turkey you're frying, that's great. If it doesn't, however, you'll have to use the old-fashioned measuring method. To measure the old-fashioned way, first remove everything from the cavity of the turkey, and rinse the bird under cool water. If the turkey has leg ties or a pop-up thermometer, remove them now.

Place the turkey in the cooking basket, and set it inside the fryer. Add enough water to cover the turkey by an inch. Remove the turkey, draining the water from the cavity, and set it aside. Now measure down to the water line, and use that measurement to add the oil to the fryer now. Preheat the oil to the temperature recommended in the manufacturer's instructions for your fryer. Frying turkeys has caused accidental fires, so be sure you know what you're doing!

While the oil heats up, thoroughly pat the turkey dry, inside and out, with a clean linen towel or paper towels, and then season the turkey as desired. If you want to inject the meat with a marinade, do that now. Inject in several places, but definitely make sure to inject in each breast and leg.

When the oil reaches the desired preheated temperature, turn the burner off. Place the turkey in the basket, and slowly lower it into the hot oil. Turn the fryer's burner back on.

Fry until the breast meat registers an internal temperature of 155 F and the thigh meat registers 160 F. Cook times will depend on the size of the turkey, but in general, allow 3 to 4 minutes per pound.

When the turkey reaches the ideal temperature, slowly and carefully lift the basket out of the fryer, and set it on paper towels to drain and rest for 20 minutes. Then remove the turkey from the basket, and carve and serve.

Smoker

Using a smoker is a great cooking technique that imparts delicious, smoky flavor into meat. It's also a simple process that doesn't require much attention, especially if your smoker has an internal temperature control that can be set to the desired temperature you want to cook the turkey to. If your smoker has an internal temperature control, you'll want to set it to 160 F. If your smoker doesn't have that option, you'll need to check the internal temperature manually when you near the estimated smoke time.

Another nice thing about smokers is that you can alter the flavor of foods depending on the type of wood you use. Cherry and apple woods offer a sweeter, milder flavor than hickory and mesquite, which have a strong, powerful flavor. To achieve a balance of smoky and sweet, you can use a combination of woods. For example, I typically use about three-quarters apple wood chips with one-quarter hickory wood chips, and it's the perfect balance for my family's preference. You might have to try a few different combinations before you find your preferred flavor, but it'll be worth it.

To get started, first remove the grate from the smoker, and either rub a little oil on it or lightly coat it with nonstick cooking spray, so the turkey won't stick. Put the grate back in, and then prepare the smoker according to the manufacturer's instructions, preheating it to 225 F.

When the smoker is preheated, put the seasoned turkey in, placing it on the grate, and cook until an internal temperature of 160 F is reached in both the breast meat and the thigh meat. Plan on 30 to 40 minutes of cook time per pound. While the turkey cooks, keep an eye on the smoker's temperature to make sure it stays around 225 F. The lower temperature and longer cook time is what produces tender, juicy, flavorful meat. If the temperature starts climbing toward 240 F, you'll want to turn the temperature down a bit.

About every four hours during the cooking time, I baste the turkey with a little melted butter to make sure it stays nice and moist.

When the turkey reaches 160 F, remove it from the smoker, and let it rest for 30 minutes before carving it.