My mom’s turkey is unlike others. The breast meat isn’t dried out, requiring cupfuls of gravy to taste good, but moist and flavorful. I’ve been watching her make our family turkey for years. Finally a few years ago she let me make it, giving instructions the entire time. Mom’s method is to buy the best quality turkey available (organic, free-range, etc.) and cook it breast-side down. She also cooks the turkey stuffing separately, not in the cavity, which makes it easier to cook the turkey more evenly.
Mom’s Roast Turkey Recipe
Handle a raw turkey with the same amount of caution as when you handle raw chicken—use a separate cutting board and utensils to avoid contaminating other foods. Wash you hands with soap before touching anything else in the kitchen. Use paper towels to clean up.
- 1 turkey, approx. 15 lbs.*
- Juice of a lemon
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil or melted butter
- 1/2 yellow onion, peeled and quartered
- Tops and bottoms of a bunch of celery
- 1 to 2 carrots
- 1 bunch of parsley
- Several sprigs of fresh rosemary, thyme
* Need help figuring out how big a turkey to get? Butterball has a turkey calculator that helps you figure out just how many pounds you need. In general, plan for:
12-15 lb turkey for 10-12 people
15-18 lb turkey for 14-16 people
18-22 lb turkey for 20-22 people
1 Defrost and De-Chill
If you are starting with a frozen turkey, you will need to defrost it first, a process that can take several days depending on the size of the turkey. Place the wrapped frozen turkey in a pan to catch any leaks, and then in the refrigerator to defrost. You will need about 5 hours of defrosting for every pound of turkey. Which means that if you have a 15 pound turkey, it should take 75 hours, or a little over 3 days, to defrost.
Remove the turkey from the refrigerator 2 to 3 hours (depending on the size of the bird) before cooking to allow it to come closer to room temperature. The turkey will cook more quickly and more evenly that way.
2 Remove Giblets and Rinse Turkey
When you are ready to cook the turkey, remove it from its package. Reach into the turkey's main cavity and pull out the neck and giblets (gizzard, heart, liver). The giblets may be wrapped in a small paper package. (If they're not in the main cavity, check the neck opening.) If you want, you can chop up the heart and gizzard to make stock for the stuffing or dressing (put the chopped heart and gizzard into a small saucepan, cover with water, add salt, bring to simmer for an hour or so.) You can either cook the neck alongside the turkey, or save it for turkey soup. You can also use all of the giblets for making giblet gravy.
Rinse the turkey inside and out with water. If you see any remnants of turkey feathers, pull them out. Use paper towels to pat dry the turkey.
Many turkeys come with a plastic tie holding the drumsticks together. Check the instructions on the turkey package; it is likely that you will not need to remove the tie unless you are cooking the turkey at a very high temperature. If you do remove the plastic tie, and you may want to truss the turkey with kitchen twine to help hold the legs together.
3 Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
4 Insert Aromatics and Truss Turkey
Slather the inside of the cavity with the juice of half a lemon. Take a tablespoon of salt and rub all over the inside of the turkey.
In this method of cooking a turkey, we don't make the stuffing in the turkey because doing so adds too much to the cooking time. For flavor, put in inside the turkey a half a yellow onion, peeled and quartered, a bunch of parsley, a couple of carrots, and some tops and bottoms of celery. You may need to cap the body cavity with some aluminum foil so that the stuffing doesn't easily fall out. Close up the turkey cavity with either string (not nylon string!) or metal skewers. Make sure that the turkey's legs are tied together, held close to the body, and tie a string around the turkey body to hold the wings in close. (Here's a good video on trussing: how to truss a turkey.)
The neck cavity can be stuffed with parsley and tied closed with thin skewers and string.
5 Rub with Olive Oil or Butter, Salt and Pepper
Rub either melted butter or olive oil all over the outside of the turkey. Sprinkle salt generously all over the outside of the turkey (or have had it soaking in salt-water brine before starting this process). Sprinkle pepper over the turkey.
6 Place Turkey Breast Down on Rack
Place turkey BREAST DOWN on the bottom of a rack over a sturdy roasting pan big enough to catch all the drippings. This is the main difference between the way mom makes turkey and everyone else. Cooking the turkey breast down means the skin over the breast will not get so brown. However, all of the juices from the cooking turkey will fall down into the breast while cooking. And the resulting bird will have the most succulent turkey breast imaginable.
Add several sprigs of fresh (if possible) thyme and rosemary to the outside of the turkey.
7 Roast the Turkey
Put the turkey in the oven. Check the cooking directions on the turkey packaging. Gourmet turkeys often don't take as long to cook. With the turkeys mom gets, she recommends cooking time of about 15 minutes for every pound. For the 15 lb turkey, start the cooking at 400 F for the first 1/2 hour. Then reduce the heat to 350 F for the next 2 hours. Then reduce the heat further to 225 F for the next hour to hour and a half.
If you want the breast to be browned as well, you can turn the bird over so that the breast is on top, and put it in a 500°F oven or under the broiler for 4-5 minutes, just enough to brown the breast. Note that if you do this, you will have a higher risk of overcooking the turkey breast.
Start taking temperature readings with a meat thermometer, inserted deep into the thickest part of the turkey breast and thigh, an hour before the turkey should be done. You want a resulting temperature of 175°F for the dark meat (thighs and legs) and 165°F for the white meat (breast). The temperature of the bird will continue to rise once you take it out of the oven, so take it out when the temperature reading for the thigh is 170°F, and for the breast 160°F. If you don't have a meat thermometer, spear the breast with a knife. The turkey juices should be clear, not pink.
8 Let Turkey Rest, Then Carve
Once you remove the turkey from the oven, let it rest for 15-20 minutes. Turn the turkey breast side up to carve it. (See Alton Brown video on how to carve a turkey.)
Making Turkey Gravy
Scrape all the drippings off of the bottom of the roasting pan. Pour drippings into a smaller skillet. Ladle off excess fat with a gravy spoon and save for possible use later. In a separate small bowl take a quarter cup of corn starch and add just enough water to dissolve the corn starch. Beat cornstarch with a spoon to remove lumps. Slowly add the cornstarch mixture to the drippings, stirring constantly. You may not end up using all of the cornstarch mixture. Only add as much as you need to get the desired thickness. Allow time for the cornstarch to thicken the gravy. Add salt, pepper, sage, thyme, or other seasonings to taste. (See gravy recipe for step-by-step photos.)
Save Bones for Stock
When you are finished with your turkey, save the bones from the carcass to make a delicious turkey soup.
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