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Thanksgiving Thursday: How to roast a perfect fresh turkey

Written By | Nov 20, 2016

WASHINGTON, November 20, 2015  — Creating a turkey beautiful enough for a Rockwell painting is simply not that hard if you take the time to follow a few easy steps to success.

Frozen turkeys could have been lying in a deep freeze for up to six months. Instead, purchase a fresh, antibiotic free farm raised turkey available from your butcher and Whole Foods. But you might need to pre-order, so do not wait to Wednesday to find your bird.

And while they take more care than popping a pre-basted, defrosted bird in the oven, its worth it.

The first step is to determine the size of the turkey you need and the amount of time it will take to cook it. You should plan on one pound of bird per guest. If you think you want more white meat for sandwiches or to serve at the table, buy your bird plus a turkey breast that you can cook the day before, and just lightly heat in the oven after you remove the bird or save it to slice for sandwiches.

Brining makes turkey moist and tender. The salt and sugars soak into the turkey, break down the tough muscle and lock in moisture. You can buy a pre-brined turkey or brine your own.

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If you want to brine your own turkey, a simple method for a 12-14 lb. bird uses 1 cup salt, 1 cup sugar and 2 gallons of water (make sure the sugar and salt dissolve). Then add aromatics like pierced oranges, chunks of apples, sage, thyme, parsley, garlic, juniper seeds and basil to the brine mixture. Plan to let the bird soak overnight and allow time for it to “drip dry”.

There are brine recipes online, or you can purchase a commercial, pre-mixed brine, but some simple rules to follow for turkey success are:

  • Buy a new instant-read thermometer and have it handy. You can also find “pop-up” timers like the ones that come with frozen turkeys.
  • Remove packets of gizzards from inside the bird cavity before brining.
  • If you purchase a frozen turkey, you will need to plan for 48 hours for a 14-18 pound turkey to thaw in the refrigerator before brining (for health reasons, do not let a frozen turkey defrost on counter).
  • Plan to brine your bird for at least 24 hours plus two hours for it it sit and dry before roasting.
  • Brining is easiest done in a cooler large enough to submerge the turkey.
  • If you are in the arctic blast zones, place the cooler on the back porch or balcony, but make sure it is locked or has a heavy brick on top of it to keep neighborhood critters out. If you live where temperatures are above 40 degrees, have plenty of ice to keep the bird very cool, but above freezing.
  • Keep your bird underwater by making a saddle bag: Half-fill two empty bread bags with ice, tying them together and placing them over the bird to weight it down.
  • Once done brining, rinse your turkey in a clean sink, then let sit on the counter to dry and come to room temperature (this will also reduce the cooking time) for no more than 60 minutes due to bacteria concerns.

Once the turkey is dry and still cool, but at room temperature, work your hand between the skin and the meat and rub butter and salt beneath the skin; you can also lay pieces of herbs, basil or rosemary, beneath the skin.

Fill the cavity of the bird with aromatics that mimic the flavors in your brine. If using a commercial brine, read the ingredients and determine complementary flavors for inside the bird. Some flavor suggestions are an apple and half an onion (sliced), a cinnamon stick, juniper and some sage leaves for fall flavors or cut lemon, orange, onion or rosemary for a more citrus flavor.

The turkey legs are pulled inward towards the body and tied, or one leg is tucked into the loose skin of the other leg and the bird is loosely tented with foil. Make sure your rack is low enough to allow the turkey to sit in the center of the oven, not touching any sides, the top or electric coils.

You do not need to baste as the butter beneath the skin will keep things moist in the early cooking. Some cooks swear by cooking the bird “upside down” to allow the fats that store beneath the bird to liquify and baste the bird.

Turkey-Bone-Stock-LargeRinse the turkey out and place it in a baking dish or purchase disposable turkey roasting pans. Remember, that turkey with juices will be heavy and hot, so place the pan on a sturdy cooking sheet for ease of removing from the oven.

Roast the bird for 30 minutes in a preheated 500°F oven to seal the exterior. Do not open the oven during this time; after 30 minutes, reduce the heat to 350°F and cook for 20 minutes per pound.

If the turkey has not reached the crisp, brown exterior when the bird’s temperature reaches 150, remove any tents, baste with butter and increase the heat to 400.  Let cook until nice and brown being careful to not over cook, so baste often.

Creating the perfect turkey gravy can use a little help. On the stove top, reduce Pacific Turkey Bone Broth by half, adding some of the same aromatic flavors to the boil down; check your bird about a third of the way through cooking; if it looks dry, baste with the broth.  If butter and drippings are burning on the bottom of the pan, add some liquid to the pan, or if there is a lot of liquid, fats on the bottom, using a long handled spoon or baster (be careful if using plastic) to remove some of the liquid.

You do not want to steam the turkey.

The bird is done when it has reached 160 to 165°F internally. Pierce the turkey at the joint where the larger back leg and body are joined. You can also test doneness by moving this joint; if it freely moves without releasing pink liquid, your bird is ready. Cooking time can be sped up by placing the bird on a rack so air circulates and, as previously said, allowing the bird to reach room temperature before putting it into the oven.

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Some people find brined turkey’s take longer to cook than other birds, but technically the extra liquid soaked into the meat should make it cook faster. Remember, remove the turkey from the oven when done; you can always put into the still warm oven for 10 to15 minutes before serving if slicing at the table. However, warm gravy and sides will keep the plate warm and tasty.

You don’t have to serve piping hot bird.

Many cooks swear by roasting the turkey in a bag. Reynolds makes a great roasting bag: plastic, disposable and easy to use. It can be found at most grocery stores in the cooking tools section. Watch the bagged bird. If it is not turning brown in the bag 30 minutes or so before it should be done, you may want to slice the top of the bag to get some of that hot, dry air that will turn the skin brown and crisp on your bird.

Turkey-Gravy-250A 16 to 18 pound turkey, which serves about 16 people, should cook between three and a half to four hours at 350 degrees. You want the interior of the turkey to reach the safe temperature of 180 degrees.

If you purchase a fresh turkey, it should take less time than its frozen counterparts. Cooks vary in their opinion as to when to remove the bird from the oven:

  • Remove the bird at 150 degrees, and let is sit tented (to retain heat) for 20 to 30 minutes
  • Remove the bird at 165 degrees, and let it sit, untented, for 20 to 30 minutes


Remember food safety.  Make your stuffing on the side and take one task off your to-do list with Pacific Foods Organic Turkey Gravy, which you can use as packaged or “make it your own” adding herbs, or citrus like lemon, to make a unique lemon turkey gravy that is tart and delicious, and helps to cut all the fat inherent in turkey made with plenty of rich, creamy butter.

Always keep your surfaces clean when you are dealing with raw poultry. A dirty surface can leach into other foods and cause food borne illnesses. Keep Clorox wipes on hand, and don’t use and reuse kitchen towels to wipe up liquids from the turkey.

Last, think ahead and plan for leftovers.  Buy extra containers to store leftovers in and to send guests home with goodies.

Jacquie Kubin

Jacquie Kubin is an award-winning writer and wanderer. She turns her thoughts to an eclectic mix of stories - from politics to sports. Restless by nature and anxious to experience new things, both in the real world and online, Jacquie mostly shares travel and culinary highlights, introduces readers to the chefs and creative people she meets and shares the tips, life and travel information people want to read.