Roast Turkey

Without a doubt the thing that most intimidated me about hosting my first Thanksgiving was cooking the turkey.  I mean sure, I’ve roasted chickens before, but no chicken is as large as the 23 pound bird we brought home from the butcher.  To be honest, before last year I never even liked Thanksgiving turkey.  In my experience it always seemed dried out and bland, but somehow it was still the centerpiece of the meal.  Drowning it in gravy didn’t seem a good solution either – I mean, why even eat it at all if it doesn’t taste good?

Thankfully good old Alton Brown gave me all the confidence I needed in tackling the task.  Have you seen the episode of Good Eats about roast turkey?  If not, you need to.  It is always played numerous times throughout the month of November, but in case you don’t catch it, check it out here.  According to Food Network, this has been their most popular recipe for six years running and it is obvious why.  Thanksgiving is a big holiday, and the turkey is a big deal.  Let’s do it right!  As Alton explains in the episode, brining makes for a wonderful turkey by locking in moisture and flavor.

For me I think the biggest issue of making the turkey was logistics.  Namely, what sort of container is large enough to hold the bird and all the brine without making the level of brine so shallow that it doesn’t come close to covering the turkey.  This is harder than it may sound.  My best advice from last year is to figure out what container this will be early on.  Everything we had available – cooler, various large storage containers, etc. were either way too big or a few too small.   Ben ended up running out to the hardware store the day before Thanksgiving and found a perfect size galvanized metal cooler that was exactly what we needed.  Also consider where you will be able to store the bird once it is in the brine.  If your fridge is full of various side dishes for the following day, you’ll need a plan B.  I fully intend to purchase a second refrigerator for our garage some day but for now, the chilly Indiana nighttime works just fine.

One final entertaining tip is to plan some sort of garnish to go around your finished turkey.  Last year I happened to have some leftover green and purple kale from another recipe, so it worked well.  I think a combination of greens and fruit looks great, but whatever you do, at least use something.  After you spend all that time making a lovely, perfectly browned bird you want to present it well.

Roast Turkey
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1 (14-16 lb.) fresh turkey*

For the brine:
1 cup kosher salt
½ cup light brown sugar
1 gallon vegetable stock
1 tbsp. black peppercorns
1½ tsp. allspice berries
1½ tsp. choppe candied ginger (I omitted)
1 gallon heavily iced water

For the aromatics:
1 red apple, sliced
½ onion, sliced
1 cinnamon stick
1 cup water
4 sprigs rosemary
6 leaves sage
Canola oil

To prepare the brine, combine the salt, brown sugar, vegetable stock, peppercorns, allspice and ginger in a large stockpot over medium-high heat.  Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve the solids.  Remove from the heat, cool to room temperature, and then refrigerate until ready to use.

The night before you plan to serve the turkey, combine the brine and ice water in a 5 gallon bucket (or larger for a bigger bird).  Place the thawed turkey (innards removed) breast side down in the brine.  If necessary, weigh down the bird so it is fully immersed.  Cover and refrigerate or set in a cool area for 8-16 hours, turning once halfway through brining.

Preheat the oven to 500˚ F.  Remove the bird from the brine and rinse inside and out with cold water.  Discard the brine.  (Be sure to clean out your sink well after this step!)

Place the bird on the wire rack inside a roasting pan.  Pat dry with paper towels.

Combine the apple, onion, cinnamon stick and  1 cup water in a microwave safe bowl.  Microwave on high for 5 minutes.  Add the steeped aromatics to the cavity of the turkey along with the rosemary and sage.  Tuck the wings underneath the bird and brush the skin liberally with canola oil.

Roast the turkey on the lowest rack of the oven at 500˚ F for 30 minutes.  Insert a probe thermometer into the thickest part of the breast and lower the oven temperature to 350˚ F.  Set the thermometer alarm, if available, for 161˚ F.  (A 14-16 lb. bird will take about 2-2½ hours.)  Let the turkey rest, loosely covered with foil for 15 minutes before carving and serving.

*You can certainly make a larger turkey with this recipe.  I made a 23-pounder last year.  It will obviously take longer to cook through, and an instant-read thermometer is absolutely essential for knowing when the bird is properly cooked.  You also could use a frozen turkey, but I wouldn’t recommend it.  For one thing, many frozen turkeys are injected with a salt-laden preservative that will cause your bird to be overly salted after brining.  And plus, it’s Thanksgiving!  Go for the best quality ingredients available – fresh tastes better.  If using frozen, thaw in the refrigerator 2-3 days before roasting.

Source: Alton Brown via Food Network

65 Responses

  1. I agree, Alton’s recipe makes the best turkey (this will be my fourth year using it). After struggling with containers, last year I bought a giant re-sealable Ziploc bag (they now make them in VERY large sizes), put the turkey in there with the brine, squeezed out the excess air and voila!! The brine was evenly distributed throughout the turkey (and I even needed less of it since I didn’t have to fill a container as well) – plus I was able to keep my turkey in the fridge on a tray.

    • I agree, a bag would be ideal but for some reason we had no luck finding one!

      • I think some stores carry the larger Ziplocs in their storage aisles. But Williams-Sonoma also carries large brining bags this time of year.

  2. what an interesting recipe! last year we “slow-cooked” the turkey, ie cooked it for a longer time at a lower temperature (I think 250) and it turned out wonderfully, a lot more moist than usual. we actually got the idea from zabars’ overnight turkey recipe (my husband actually slept on the couch that night!)

  3. I am hosting Thanksgiving for the first time this year and this is the same recipe that they featured for making the “perfect” turkey in Food Network Magazine. I promptly flagged it and knew if Alton had success, it must be good.

  4. We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving here in Australia but I wish we did just for the Roast Turkey!! I love roast turkey, but you’re right.. it needs to be moist, and so many ppl overcook it. Good job on your very gorgeous, delicious looking roast turkey 🙂

    • Greetings,

      Great to see an Aussie on the site, just curious if you are a fan of “Packed To The Rafters”? Off the subject I know but that tv show is addictive. lol

  5. A suggestion: While I am all in favor of brining, I also feel that some brining recipes (maybe not the one you used) put too much flavor to the bird and hide the taste of real turkey. (I use Bell and Evans birds – they seem to have the best taste of several fresh birds I have tried). Also I am a big fan of making an herbed butter and applying it liberally, subcutaneously. First, use your hand to separate the skin from the meat, starting at the neck and pushing down into the legs (it is easier than it sounds). Then smear a good quantity of the herbed butter (rosemary, sage, shallots all work well). I also use aromatics in the cavity, but I like sliced citrus which also gives off a good deal of moisture while cooking. With herbed butter seeping in from the outside and citrus infusing moisture from the inside, the bird comes out very nice. Let me know your thoughts.

    PS – I usually make an andouille sausage cornmeal-based stuffing (Separate from the turkey) which goes great when rosemary and sage are used in the bird.

    • To each their own. There are about as many ways to make a turkey as there are turkeys available. I like this way, you can make yours however you like.

  6. Oh yes… Turkey ala Alton Brown (as it is called in our house) is always on the menu for Thanksgiving. It doesn’t get too cold here in MD, but we have found that using straight ice for the water called for in the brine, allowing it melt over time and keep the ‘ol bird chilled has worked well.

    We too have a large Ziploc Bag (was only able to find them at WalMart) that turkey goes into and then placed into a cooler where we can dump more ice in on top without further diluting the brine.

    I have the 2nd fridge in the garage. If only I could install a 2nd oven out there, I’d be set. 😉

  7. I actually thought that Alton said to use a frozen bird. Food Network had a Thanksgiving special last year where I could swear he said that. Honestly, we use a frozen one every year (with this recipe) and it turns out amazing! Definitely not over salty. Your picture looks awesome though, perfect browning of the skin! 🙂

    • He does, but I prefer fresh. Opinions differ, do what you like. Bon Appetit wrote a big article this year about why a fresh bird is so important and I tend to agree.

  8. The XXL Ziploc bag is a good idea. Sur la Table has turkey brining bags – I’ve seen them there. I love turkey and I’m going to try the brine this year.

  9. your turkey looks great! i am still intimidated about roasting my own, but one day! 🙂

  10. Thank you so much! I’m hosting Thanksgiving for the first time this year for my husband’s family, and I feel a little more confident already. 🙂 Whenever I’m in a jam, I can always count on your blog for some great tips!

  11. thanks for posting this, Annie. we’re planning to brine our turkey this year but will do a test run with a chicken this weekend since we’ve never brined before. i’m sure Alton’s method is perfect.

  12. I’ve been brining my turkeys for years now. I buy the turkey sized oven bags and line a large stock pot with two bags and then stand the turkey up in the pot. Then I fill the cavity with ice and then pour the brine in. Once the bags are all tied up the brine pretty much covers the entire turkey. Luckily I have an extra fridge which I clean out to fit the turkey. I use a recipe that I’ve adjusted from Cooking Light.

  13. Do you cover the bird when you put it in the oven? I see that the directions state to let it sit while covered with foil when it’s done, but I didn’t see anything about covering it while it cooks. Wouldn’t it get a little dry n the oven without a cover? Thanks!

  14. That turkey is a thing of beauty, Annie! Perfectly browned. The only time I ever hosted Thanksgiving, I did a grill-roasted turkey, and it was good, but it wasn’t as pretty and browned as yours. I’d love to try Alton’s method next time.

  15. This is exactly what I imagine when I think of the perfect turkey. Great work!

  16. I’m not hosting, but planning a small Thanksgiving dinner next week for my husband and me and another couple. I’m making a small breast only, and I wonder if it would keep in a bag in a cooler filled with ice for brining? May need to try this out…

    • I think that would be fine as long as you monitor the temperature throughout and make sure it’s staying below 38 degrees.

  17. I had planned on doing a “Martha Stewart Brine” and this seems very similiar. I will probably cook it on a lower temperature for a longer amount of time~ just something we’ve always done. I know this is yummy though, my mother-in-law makes it every year. Thanks for sharing!

  18. What a beautiful bird and for sure, brining is the answer as is using kale for the garnish. I used it all the time when I had a catering business because it stands up well for an extended time. A light spray with cooking spray will bring out the colors too and give it a little shine.

  19. Those who read my blog are probably annoyed by how much of a brine addict (for poultry and pork) I am. For several years we have deep-fried our turkey, with excellent results. This year we will either go with a small kosher turkey or a whole turket breast, roasted. Alton is a fussy guy, but very intelligent.

  20. Wow, that sounds really good. My only question is, do you make a stuffing? You must not put it in the bird then…..We’ve never brined a turkey, maybe we will give this a try.

    And about your previous dry turkeys, my husband introduced my family to making the turkey in the oven bags. It actually retains moisture really well. My know-all grandma was pretty surprised 🙂

    • Yes, if you scroll down you can see my full Thanksgiving menu, including stuffing. I don’t cook it in the bird. That’s a whole other episode of Good Eats but basically you can’t safely cook both the stuffing and turkey without drying out one or being ill from the other. The “stuffing” is just baked in a casserole dish.

    • And to clarify, I wasn’t the one making the dry turkeys before. I was just the one who had to eat them and pretend to like them.

  21. Last year was the first time I tried Alton’s method! It was absolutely fantastic! (and that is saying alot, given that I live in the land of deep-fried turkeys…) Will definitely be doing it again this year. I have also used this method for turkey breasts and chickens with equally awesome results!

  22. Oh wow, Annie, I love that you used sweet, fragrant aromatics like apple and cinnamon – I bet it smells truly amazing! Thanks for sharing this wonderful recipe. I will remember it when I host my first Thanksgiving dinner!

  23. My genius brother-in-law has a cool solution to the “where to store the brining turkey”. He emptied out one of the bottom drawers of the fridge – the ones saved for veggies and stuff (or where we store our endless supply of diet coke) and filled THAT with the brine and the turkey. It naturally fit in the fridge just fine and it was easy to take out when it was ready!

  24. thanks for this post! i’m hosting for the first time and am a bit panicked!

  25. I’ve been making Alton’s turkey for years and I’ve converted everyone who has ever tried it. I brine mine in one of my crisper drawers- and then I wash it really, really well!

  26. Ugh, my parents are getting back from a long vacation a few days before Thanksgiving, and my mom was worried about whether she’d have time to defrost her turkey. I recommended getting a fresh turkey, and she just thought that was the craziest idea ever. Sigh.

    The only time I’ve hosted a Thanksgiving meal was in September, just for fun, and I have a feeling that’s the only type of opportunity I’ll get for many many years.

    • Hasn’t your mom learned to defer to her awesome foodie daughter on all matters food-related? Boo to frozen turkey.

  27. I’ve been using a 22 quart round Cambro food storage container (with lid!) for the past 4 brined 19-26 pound turkeys I’ve made, and I love it. I think I do make more brine using the bucket than I would with a bag, but the bucket is re-usable and very easily cleaned. It also seals tightly so I minimize mess and contamination. I can also store it in my fridge pretty easily if I remove a shelf, but that’s not too bad because I can rest items on the lid. If the fridge is too full, the Cambro also fits nicely in a large styrofoam cooler set on its side. I pack a little dry ice around it, and it stays cold all through my (much warmer than Indiana) Pacific Northwest nights.

    Because the Cambro takes more brine, I’ve stopped using chicken stock/broth in my Alton Brown-inspired brine. I can’t afford using that much stock, frankly. I find I don’t notice the lack at all. What I have done, though, is used concentrated orange juice once or twice instead. That was *fantastic*.

  28. I second your “boo to frozen turkey,” Annie! The difference in taste is night-and-day different. The holidays only occur once a year, so my view is you might as well completely splurge on fresh ingredients and decedent dishes! After years of attempts to find “the turkey recipe,” my family found and settled upon this recipe. Ha, we also omit the candied ginger, too. We adapted it to a 35-lb. fresh organic turkey last year. Your Thanksgiving menu and plans sound incredible. Thank you for taking the time to share! 🙂

  29. We’ve brined our turkeys using Alton Brown’s recipe in the past and found that the big orange bucket from Home Depot was a very easy container. I don’t recall making any extra brine, and the fact that it comes with a lid makes it easy to leave outside to stay chilled in the cool Colorado air. Plus it’s cheap and can be used year after year!

  30. I’ve just read through this post and your Thanksgiving Prep post, great stuff! I’ll be cooking most of the Thanksgiving dinner for the first time this year (and I’ve never roasted a turkey before) so I really appreciate the tips.

  31. annie, could you do this with a turkey breast? i am making a 5 pound turkey breast. thanks!

    • This is really meant for a full sized turkey. I’m sure you could adapt it somehow for a turkey breast but I haven’t experimented with that so I can’t say exactly how to do it.

  32. That is one purdy burdy!!!

  33. I am so happy you are talking about this today, Annie. I just found out that I will be roasting my very first turkey this year for a crowd of 15. I’m sweating it, definitely! After some research, it was pretty obvious that AB’s recipe was the way to go. I just have a silly question, though, about the aromatics. First, does the cinnamon stick go inside the bird, or is it just used to flavor the apple & onion in the water? Also, do you take these things out before serving or leave them in?

    I want to have some leftovers, so I want my turkey to be at least 20lbs or so. How would you recommend increasing the ratios? I am a little afraid to increase the salt, because of the vegetable stock and kosher salt it just seems like so much to me. Your thoughts are much appreciated!

    • Yes, you add the cinnamon stick, apple, etc. to the cavity. You can take them out or leave them in for serving. No one eats the cavity anyway so it doesn’t matter. Don’t increase any ratios of the brine, you should just increase the quantity of the recipe (like make 1.5 batches instead of 1). But I don’t think I needed to increase mine at all last year and my turkey was 23 lbs.

  34. Your site attracted me by looking at the top 9 recipes. I love the simplicity of it, and look forward to trying your recipes.

  35. I’ve made this turkey two years in a row. It always comes out beautiful and it is amazingly moist!

  36. I just ordered our turkey and can’t wait to try this recipe – yay!!

  37. I have always bought and cooked fresh turkeys but never tried the brine. Your post has encouraged me. This year I will use this recipe and hopefully start a new tradition!!

  38. Hooray! Now we finally get those recipes from last year!

  39. Your turkey is gorgeous! Have you tried dry brining? I like that it’s so low fuss.

    • No. As I mentioned, last year was our first time hosting and so also my first time making a turkey. I loved this way though, I doubt I’ll mess with it.

  40. Does it really take about 3 hours to cook a whole turkey? Is that right? For some reason I thought it was an all day thing where you have to pop it in the oven at 5 in the morning.
    Also, do you know if grocery stores carry fresh turkey’s or would one have to go to a butcher shop?

    • It can take longer depending on the size of your bird, but the concept of needing to put it in the oven at 5 am is probably why so many people make really dried out turkey. The temperature is really the end point you are looking for, not a set time. I am sure there are some groceries that carry fresh turkeys. You’ll have to find out if yours does.

  41. Oh wow, shows what I know! Your recipes haven’t failed me this far so I’m going to give Alton’s Brown’s version a try this year. I’m kind of nervous because I still can’t wrap my head around 3 hours=roasted turkey but I’ll give it a whirl!
    By the way, thank you SO much for answering all of our questions so quickly. We all appreciate it and can’t thank you enough for taking the time to help us out!

  42. We made this turkey last year for the first time and it was the BEST turkey I have ever had. We used a giant bucket from Lowe’s to keep ours in.

  43. About how many hours did it take your 23-pounder from last year to cook?

  44. I’m so excited to try this turkey this year! I know you are probably crazy busy getting your own things together, but I was wondering how you make your gravy? I am assuming it’s from the drippings, but gravy is just one of those things that I can never get right, unless of course I dump it from a jar and heat it on the stove…. but I don’t want to do that this year! I figure if I have the drippings, I need to make the gravy… I just don’t know how!

  45. I use this same recipe for my Turkey!! LOVE it!! Makes the BEST TURKEY EVER!!!

  46. Do you put the aromatics in the cavity while it is hot or do you let it come to room temperature?

  47. I bought a brining bag at William Sonoma (pkg of 4 /$16) and it worked great. No mess! I bought it at the store but they are also available online.

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