This Thanksgiving Turkey recipe is moist, flavorful, but still traditional in the ingredients. Well, traditional-ish. Let’s be real, we’ve all eaten some dry turkey in our day.
Moms all across America wake up at dawn to put their turkeys in the oven literally all day long to proudly turkey so dry that no amount of gravy will save it. This ain’t it. This delicious turkey recipe cooks in four to five hours.
I say traditional-ish because these are not the traditional ingredients I grew up with, but they are very much the ingredients and flavors associated with Thanksgiving. I’ve dreamed about bringing in some crazy elaborate or interesting flavored turkey, but then I thought about the time I put cranberries in the stuffing and my family acted like I ruined the whole
Thanksgiving holiday. These flavors, I promise, are traditional and will make any family who doesn’t help but suddenly has opinions when it comes to the meal happy.
Use fresh herbs, girl. Don’t use that old poultry seasoning mix you’ve had since the first time you cooked a Thanksgiving turkey. Throw it out. It expired. Dried herbs expire. Instead of dry herbs, I’m using fresh thyme, sage, and rosemary. You can’t use the dry stuff--not sorry.
These three, along with nutmeg, make up your poultry seasoning container, but the flavors do not compare. Something that’s not in the poultry seasoning jar is apple, orange, and onion which will round this flavor profile out to be fresh, juicy, and not one note.
You know those little thermometers that pop out of the turkey? Yeah, they’re trash. Rip that right out of your turkey if you see it. It’s useless. You need a digital thermometer because you need to not poison your loved ones. You can’t just “overcook it to be safe” as my sister-in-law says.
Other tools you’ll need: a roasting pan with the removable rack, tin foil, cooking twine, a bunch of paper towels. Optional: a silicone brush to brush the skin with oil. Need to add stuff to your kitchen supplies? Check out my Amazon storefront.
Day Before Prep
I’m working with an originally frozen, 20-pound Thanksgiving turkey. It came brined by the company that sells turkeys (it was the free one from the supermarket). Once you thaw the turkey, remove it from the packaging. If you’ve never worked with a turkey before, it’s kind of gross.
Remove the long, meaty, chopped off neck that they delicately threw into the turkey cavity. You will also find a bag that has hearts and bits in it (probably shoved into the top where the head would have been). I don’t use that, but I do use the neck. Check out my Instagram highlights to see how I use it in my turkey stock.
Take your freshly clean hand and loosen the skin away from the breast. Basically, work your hand in between the meat and the skin. Work slowly, but know that the skin is very stretchy. It’s weird, but it helps.
After you loosen the skin, you’re going to make a compound butter and massage it under the skin. It makes all the difference. After you add butter to the skin, you need to let it air dry, loosely-covered in your refrigerator, overnight. This process ensures a dry, crispy skin.
Compound butter is classy. I don’t care who you are. If you say you made a fresh herb compound butter for your turkey, you sound very fancy. This compound butter has thyme, rosemary, sage, nutmeg, salt, and orange zest. The butter helps keep the breast moist during the long cooking and the herbs give the turkey that awesome traditional flavor.
I am only using 4 tbsp of butter for this, but if the points are not a concern for today, you can always double this (it’s truly not needed, but I’ve done it in the past). I made this with only 4 tbsp, and it was so moist and flavorful that I questioned whether I had been overusing butter in the past (who am I?).
You can make a compound butter earlier in the week. Heck, you can make it, wrap it, and freeze it in the summer if you’re a planner. Let the butter come to room temp, add the finely minced herbs and zest, and divide evenly for each breast.
Look at us--making compound butter and using words like aromatics. I’m proud of us and our classiness. This next trick I learned from Alton Brown, the living legend who made this iconic Thanksgiving turkey recipe. Each year I’ve cooked Thanksgiving, I’ve modified it a bit, but I want to credit the original. The aromatics you stuff your turkey with will build this delicious flavoring that ensures a flavorful turkey. Not eating the stuff you stuff your turkey with ensures you won’t give your loved ones food poisoning. Cook my cornbread dressing instead.
You are going to cut an apple, orange (use the one you zested), and onion into pieces and microwave in water with a cinnamon stick. Have I sprinkled a bunch of cinnamon in the bowl in the past because I couldn’t find cinnamon sticks? (They have them most places including Trader Joes, btw.) Of course I have. You do you.
Once they are cool to the touch, salt the cavity, shove the fruit and onions into the turkey cavity with more fresh herbs before trussing the turkey (another fancy word here).
Cooking the turkey
The day is here, and you’re ready to cook your turkey. Set the oven to 500, take your turkey out, and liberally salt and pepper the outside skin. Brush 1 tbsp of vegetable oil onto the turkey’s skin. Empty out an entire carton of turkey stock into the bottom of the pan (very important).
Add some fresh herbs and garlic cloves (3) to the bottom too. The stock at the bottom collects the drippings that would instantly burn and smoke up your whole house if you didn’t do this--trust me.
Cook your turkey for 30 minutes at 500. Once cooked, remove it, and appreciate its golden skin. Now, lower your oven temperature to 350. Insert your thermometer into your turkey, and cover just the breast with aluminum foil. Put your turkey back in your oven and cook until the turkey gets to 162 degrees. Remove the turkey, loosely tent with aluminum foil, and allow to rest for at least 20 minutes before cooking.
Turkey Stock and Gravy
Turkey stock is important because it makes everything on the table delicious. It adds flavor to stuffing/dressing; it reheats perfectly with Thanksgiving turkey, and it makes the ever-important gravy. I buy already made turkey stock and improve it. In a large stockpot, I fry up one onion with the turkey neck. Once the onions begin to soften, I add 2-3 cartons of stock (depends on your family’s gravy consumption).
To this pot, I add just handfuls of the herbs I’ve been using and any produce leftovers (onion tops and skins, the bottom part of the celery stalk, carrot peels, stems from herbs, garlic paper). Since most turkey stocks are already salted, I don’t add salt until I’m ready to use and taste. Start this when you first put your turkey in and let it cook on low for a few hours.
Gravy is easy. Pour out all the pan drippings into a glass cup (I use my measuring cup). The fat will rise from the top and the drippings will sink to the bottom. Scoop out ⅓ cup fat and add it to a pot to heat. Add ⅓ cup flour and cook for 1 minute. In the meantime, spoon off excess fat from the pan drippings--discard if not using, or save for more gravy.
Pour in pan drippings and stir. It will get thick and seize up a little, but continue to stir and add more turkey stock until desired consistency. The volume will be decided by the pan drippings, but we got about 3 cups of gravy out of our drippings. If that isn’t enough, double/triple/etc the original turkey fat and four to build gravy from there. The flavor will depend on your turkey stock, but I like to add a sprig of rosemary in mine to simmer until dinner is ready.
18-22 pound turkey
4 tbsp butter
fresh sage (about 15-20 leaves)
fresh thyme (a full bunch)
fresh rosemary (4 sprigs)
turkey stock (4 cups + more if making gravy)
- Remove neck and gizzards from turkey. Dry cavity with paper towels.
- Loosen skin on turkey breast with hand.
- In a bowl, combine 4 tbsp salted butter, 5 sage leaves (finely chopped), 1 tbsp rosemary (finely chopped), 1 tbsp thyme, 1/4 tsp nutmeg, pinch of salt.
- Spread compound butter under skin and put turkey in the refrigerator overnight.
- Preheat oven to 500.
- Cut one apple, one onion, and one orange. Add 2 cinnamon sticks to a microwave safe bowl with 2 cups of water, the fruit, and the onion. Microwave for 5 minutes.
- Liberally salt turkey cavity and stuff with onion, apple, orange, 2 rosemary sprigs, about 10 sage leaves, and a handful of thyme (if you hold the bunch closely, roughly the width of a penny?).
- Truss the turkey, sprinkle salt and pepper on the outside. Spread 1 tbsp of vegetable oil on outside of the turkey. Pour 4 cups of turkey stock into the bottom of the pan, throw in some herbs, and roast at 500 for 30 minutes.
- After the 30 minutes, remove turkey. Place meat thermometer in thicket part of the turkey (youtube it if you're unfamiliar), cover the breast in aluminum foil, and roast until internal temp is 162.
- Remove turkey and loosely cover with aluminum foil. Temperature will rise to 165 while resting. Rest for 20 minutes, slice, and serve.
For a 20 pound turkey, the turkey cooked for about 3.5 hours at 350.