Ever since I started hosting Thanksgiving dinner many years ago, I have been on a quest to make the perfect Thanksgiving turkey. I’ve brined it, deep-fried it, marinated it, injected it, buttered it, dry-rubbed it, butterflied it, and stuffed it. I’ve tried Kosher turkeys, organic turkeys, free-range turkeys and self-basting turkeys. A few years ago, I even bought an oil-less outdoor propane turkey fryer called “The Big Easy,” which freed up my oven and actually made a wonderfully crisp-skinned and juicy turkey. (If you want to spend $100 on a large piece of equipment that will likely sit in storage collecting cobwebs 364 days a year, I highly recommend it!)
From all this fussing with turkeys, I’ve come to realize that my turkey will never be perfect. Let’s face it: turkeys, on their own, just aren’t very good. That’s what gravy and cranberry sauce are for. As Mary Risley from Tante Marie’s Cooking School humorously points out in the video below (which you should definitely watch, especially if you have any turkey-cooking anxiety), “I have never had an outstanding turkey.”
(Viewer discretion advised — this funny video contains some foul language)
Short of purchasing a special turkey cooker (this is the one I have), it is near impossible to cook a turkey perfectly: the white meat always cooks before the dark meat is done and the skin on the bottom is never crisp (unless you flip the hot, sputtering bird mid-way through cooking – ummm, no thank you!).
So is it really worth it to go to great lengths – brining in big coolers for days in the garage, risking life and limb deep-frying in the driveway, pre-icing the breast of the turkey so it cooks more slowly (I swear, there’s a very respectable cooking magazine that wants you to do this) – to make that end-all and be-all turkey?
It’s up to you, but I’m not interested in babysitting my turkey for three days to get only marginally better results at the end.
My advice to you on Thanksgiving is to keep it simple. Make my easy roast turkey with an over-the-top delicious gravy and some cranberry sauce to go with it. Focus your time and creativity on the side dishes and desserts because that’s what everyone really looks forward to anyway.
My favorite turkey recipe uses the high-heat roasting method. It requires no brining or stuffing, fancy seasoning, trussing, or injecting. It’s just a plain ol’ turkey seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted in a 450°F-oven until the skin is crispy and brown and the meat is juicy. From all my turkey travails, I can tell you that this simple high-heat roasting method is the absolute best way to cook a turkey. And, believe it or not, the turkey cooks in 1 to 1-1/2 hours. I know it sounds impossible if you’ve been waking up early for the last twenty years to slow cook your turkey but I promise you it works. The turkey is cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F in the oven (not the 175°F to 180°F many recipes recommend) and comes up to 165°F (the USDA recommended safe temperature for turkey) while it rests.
Finally, keep in mind, while the high-heat method results in a juicy, crisp-skinned turkey, it will still taste like turkey! The gravy and cranberry sauce are what make it taste good.
A Few Final Thoughts on Turkey
– Depending on where you buy your turkey, you might be presented with several options like Organic, All-Natural, Kosher or Self-Basting. I like Kosher turkeys best but they can be expensive and hard to find. I’ve also had good results with Whole Foods’ turkeys. (If you want to read more about the different types of turkeys, click here.)
– Most turkey recipes will advise you to save the turkey giblets to make turkey stock and gravy. It’s a good idea but, to be honest, I never bother – there’s too much other cooking to do on Thanksgiving. The drippings from the roasted turkey will give you plenty of flavor for your gravy, and you can use store bought chicken broth for the rest. Keep it simple!
– No matter how you cook your turkey, leave it un-trussed (don’t tie the legs together) – it’s easier and the turkey will cook more evenly. Many turkeys come with a plastic binder that holds the legs together; just cut it off. Or sometimes the skin is pulled around the legs to hold them together; you can cut that off as well.
– Don’t go crazy trying to flavor your turkey with herbs and spices. Salt, pepper and oil the skin and you’re good to go. Anything else is unnecessary and gets overshadowed by the gravy and all the side dishes anyway.
– Don’t worry about basting the bird; it’s not necessary and let’s heat out of the oven, which increases the cooking time.
– Don’t stuff your turkey – it will cook faster and you won’t have to worry about giving your guests salmonella (yikes…that would not be happy turkey day!). Plus, your stuffing will be mushy if you cook it inside the bird. Why have soggy stuffing when you can bake it separately in the oven and have it crisp and toasty on top?
Hope my turkey travails help turn your turkey into a success! Click here to get the recipe for my Easy Roast Turkey With Gravy