Wet brining a turkey, submerging the raw bird in liquids, aromatics and spices will result in the juiciest, most flavorful turkey meat. A bird that has soaked in brine is not only rich in flavor but also moist. This means a special treat on the Thanksgiving table but also much more flavorful leftovers.
There are two techniques to brining a turkey – submerging the bird in a large pot or cooler, or, make it easy and use heavy duty cooking bags. Using bags will require less brining solution, and the bird will fit more easily into the refrigerator. Be sure to remove the giblets bag and neck bones from the cavity.
A favorite brine requires fresh, no sugar added apple cider. The acidic cider will help to break down toughness and create a fresh fall flavor.
3 cups apple cider
2 gallons cold water
3 whole orange peels
3 tablespoons juniper berries
3 tablespoons star anise
2 tablespoons whole allspice
3 sprigs of sage
3 sprigs of thyme
4 sprigs fresh rosemary leaves
6 cloves of garlic
4-6 wedges of sweet onion
1½ cups kosher salt
2 cups brown sugar
4 tablespoons black peppercorns
6 whole bay leaves
Combine apple cider and dry ingredients in a large pot with ½ a gallon of water and bring to a boil for about 5 minutes. This step is important. By thoroughly heating the brine you release the flavors in the herbs, spices, and aromatics. Once done boiling, let the solution sit until it cools a bit, adding the remaining 1½ gallons of cold water to completely cool.
Place your 15-20-pound uncooked turkey in a large plastic bag (you can use a large pot if a bag isn’t available) and slowly submerge your turkey in the cold brining solution.
Let your turkey rest in the brine for 18-20 hours.
After brining, remove the turkey and thoroughly rinse, pat dry with a clean towel or paper towels. The secret to the crispest most flavorful skin is to make sure the turkey is 100% dry before preparing for the oven. Caution: Do not let a raw turkey sit on the counter long enough to become room temperature. The raw bird must always be very cold to the touch.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Roasting the Thanksgiving Turkey
While the bird sits in the refrigerator drying from its soak, prepare aromatics to “stuff” the cavity with. My favorites mimic the brine – wedges of orange and lemon. Add sprigs of rosemary and thyme and basil.
Place the turkey on a rack in a large roasting pan. Working from the neck cavity, gently separate the skin from the meat. Beneath the skin, massage the meat with a mixture of butter, lemon and crushed or powdered sage. Add an artistic touch by placing sage leaves and sprigs of rosemary beneath the skin.
Wrap your turkey well in a sheet of parchment paper and aluminum foil. Add a double layer of foil over the wings and drumsticks to keep them from overcooking. Slit the aluminum foil at the bottom to allow drippings to drop into the pan.
For roasting the turkey, the rule of thumb is usually 15 minutes per pound at 350 degrees. Twenty to 25 minutes per pound at 325 degrees. If you choose to use stuffing in your bird, you may need to adjust the cooking time a bit more to accommodate that.
However, the recommendation is to make your dressing in a separate pan to avoid bacteria.
A convection oven has better air circulation, which allows the meat to be cooked more evenly throughout. Whichever type of oven you use, place your turkey on a rack to keep it from soaking in the drippings (which you should retain for gravy) and to ensure air circulation.
How long to cook a Thanksgiving Turkey
A 20-pound bird will cook for about 4½ – five hours at 325 degrees. A 12-pound bird should take about 21/2 – three hours. Some recipes call for cooking at 350 degrees, which will reduce your time to cook. Personally, in a gas or convection oven, I would suggest 350. In an electric oven, take your time and reduce that dry heat to 325.
The USDA Timetable for Turkey Roasted at 325 degrees F.
Note: These times are approximate and should always be used in conjunction with a properly placed thermometer. Be sure to check the thermometer about 3/4th of the way through the time indicated so as not to overcook.
Unstuffed Weight Roasting Time
8 to 12 lbs 2-3/4 to 3 hours
12 to 14 lbs 3 to 3-3/4 hours
14 to 18 lbs 3-3/4 to 4-1/4 hours
18 to 20 lbs 4-1/4 to 4-1/2 hours
20 to 24 lbs 4-1/2 to 5 hours
Stuffed Weight Roasting Time
8 to 12 lbs 3 to 3-1/2 hours
12 to 14 lbs 3-1/2 to 4 hours
14 to 18 lbs 4 to 4-1/4 hours
18 to 20 lbs 4-1/4 to 4-3/4 hours
20 to 24 lbs 4-3/4 to 5-3/4 hours
The finishing touch
For the first two-thirds of your cooking time, keep the steam in and the turkey covered tightly. Take the cover off your turkey for the last hour, regularly basting your turkey with a mixture of one stick of unsalted butter and 1/2 cup of cider to ensure a beautiful, crisp outside while leaving the inside moist.
The turkey is done when a meat thermometer inserted close to, but not touching, the bone reads 180 degrees in the thigh and 170 degrees in the breast.
Don’t promise dinner at a specific time. Turkey can be finicky, and you want it cooked but not overcooked. Take the bird out of the oven 10 degrees before it reaches its maximum cooking time, tent with aluminum foil and allow it to continue cooking while you place your sides onto the table.
Your timing may need to be adjusted according to your oven’s capacity, but this recipe guarantees a flavorful, fall-off-the-bone meal.
Note: Cooking a fresh turkey and or cooking at higher altitudes can increase cooking time to a solid twenty to twenty-five minutes per pound at 325.