Frozen turkeys are just as good (if brined), and less expensive. If you have a frozen turkey, defrosting in most refrigerators will take 5 hours per lb, so a 15 lb turkey will take 75 hours (about 3 days). You will also need to brine the turkey the night before the cook (at latest). It does not hurt for the turkey to sit in the refrigerator defrosted for a couple of extra days, so start defrosting the turkey 7 days before the cook.
Brine the turkey. This is crucial! Brining will improve the flavor, texture, and moisture content of the meat. Brining also provides a temperature cushion during cooking; if you happen to overcook the meat a little, it will still be moist. If you cooked two equal weight turkeys, one properly brined, and the other not; the weight of the fully cooked brined turkey would be about 10% more than that of the unbrined turkey. That is a big deal! If there is one thing that we want you to pick up from this post, it is the importance of brining.
Easy Turkey Brine Recipe. I have tried numerous brine recipes over the years and have found that it is just not worth the trouble to do anything beyond a simple salt and water brine. No matter how many herbs, spices, peppercorns, sugars, or seasonings that you put in a brine, the only thing that is going to penetrate deep in to the bird is sodium. So this is how I do it:
Put your turkey in the container that you will brining it in and add water until it is covered. Then remove the turkey and measure the quantity of water that was needed to cover it. For every Quart of cold water dissolve 1/4 cup of Kosher Salt. Recommended brining time is 45 to 60 minutes per lb. By the way, brining also works great for chicken.
Let the bird air dry for at least a few hours before cooking it. If you want a crispy skin, this is important. To let the bird dry, remove it from the brine and rinse well. Pat it dry with paper towels; place on a rack inside a rimmed baking sheet or jelly roll pan. Refrigerate (uncovered) for at least a few hours before the cook, and then take it out to room temperature one hour before cooking.
Don’t use the pop-up thermometer that comes with the turkey! Use a good quality probe thermometer. The best option is a wired probe that hooks up to a digital display. This setup will mean less opening and peaking in the oven (if yur lookin, you aint cookin).
Carving the turkey. Many people prefer the traditional whole turkey carved at the table. The more people at the table, the more of an inconvenience this becomes. To boot, if you carve the turkey breast from the side, you will be carving “with the grain” of the breast and the meat will be more difficult to chew. We prefer to remove the breasts from the breast bone and slice “against the grain” (as pictured above) for more tender slices. You don’t need an electric knife for this; we prefer a sharp chef’s knife. And, by the way, nobody likes 1/4 inch thick slices of breast meat! I don’t know how that ever became a tradition, maybe it was in depression era thing. Slice your breast meat slices 1/2 to 3/4″ thick, this is Thanksgiving after all!
We also remove the wings from the breast, remove the thigh/leg pieces where the thigh joins the carcass, and separate the legs from the thigh. All of this is best done away from the table and before seating. We display all of the meat on a serving plate with rosemary sprigs arranged for presentation. By the time we are done, it looks much more appealing than the traditional whole turkey on the table. And the turkey carcass? Wrap it up and freeze it. That is going to be used for your Turkey soup a day or two later (recipe below).
“Holding” the turkey. This is one of our catering tricks and it allows you to cook the turkey ahead of time and free up your oven for side dishes. If you have a cooler that will accommodate the turkey, you can “hold” the turkey at adequate serving temperature for at least an hour, maybe even two. Ideally the interior of the cooler should be large enough for the turkey but not much larger. Put some hot water in the cooler for a few minutes to warm it up, then dump the water. Place the turkey in the cooler and cover with foil; layer some towels on top of the foil and close the cooler until ready to carve.
ROAST TURKEY TIPS
Choose a small turkey. They’re easier to rotate, so select ones that are no more than 14 pounds. Not only are large turkeys more difficult to rotate (actually impossible to roast in the leg/wing up position in most ovens), they also take longer to cook, making the outer area of meat more likely to overcook and dry out before the interior meat is cooked.
Roast two small turkeys rather than one big one. (for those who need more turkey meat). A small turkey roasts in about 2 1/2 hours, so cook the first one early in the day when the oven’s not in demand. “Hold” this first turkey per instructions above. Meanwhile, roast the second turkey. Carve the first turkey a half hour before dinner service, arrange it on an ovenproof platter, and cover it. Just before serving, set the covered platter in a warm oven. Use the (2nd) whole bird for show at the table and use the already carved meat for passing – no more side dishes getting cold while one nervous person tries to carve at the table. The second whole bird can be carved once everyone’s had a first serving or can be saved and used for leftovers.
Don’t put your stuffing in the turkey! A stuffed turkey will need to sit longer in a hot oven waiting for the cavity to come to temperature than an unstuffed turkey. The longer the turkey sits in a hot oven, the more the meat overcooks and dries out. Also stuffing cooked in the bird will turn out “mushier” than stuffing made in a separate pan. Sticking a few aromatics (onions, apple, carrots and/or celery; maybe some sprigs of rosemary or thyme to boot) in the turkey cavity improves the meat’s flavor without slowing down the cooking process.
Also, stuffing placed in an uncooked turkey is susceptible to bacteria growth. If you choose to cook the stuffing in the turkey, stuff it just before it goes in the oven. Stuff it loosely to ensure safe, even cooking, and be sure the stuffing in the turkey reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
Rotate the turkey during roasting. If the turkey is roasted breast side up the entire time, the breast meat will be dry. Rotating the turkey during cooking protects the breast and results in juicy white meat. To simplify the rotation process, purchase a heavy-duty V-rack, which cradles the bird and holds it in place.
Cook temp and time. Roast the turkey on lowest level of the oven at 500 degrees F for 30 minutes. Insert an oven safe probe thermometer into thickest part of the breast and reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F. Set the thermometer alarm (if available) to 160 degrees F. A 14 to 16 pound bird should require a total of 2 to 2 1/2 hours of roasting. If using a V rack as described above, start with breast down for the 30 minute 500F portion of the cook and rotate to breast up for the rest of the cook. Towards the later part of the cook you can baste the turkey a couple times with its juices or some butter (or both), but don’t get carried away with this. If you keep opening the oven, you will let heat out and the cook will take longer. When the Turkey is done, let the turkey rest, loosely covered with foil for at least 15 minutes before carving.
Not mentioned yet is that the dark meat (legs/thighs) should be cooked to 170 F and it usually takes longer for the dark meat to get to this temp (than it does for the white meat). But there are a couple of tricks to accomplish this. One is to cover the breast (only) with foil towards the end of the cook. This slows cooking on the breast and allows the dark meat to catch up. The second method is to take out the turkey when the breast is to 160 F, remove the legs/thighs and put them back on your drippings pan, covered with foil. Put back in oven until thighs are temping at 170F. While they continue to cook the rest of the turkey can be covered in foil or “held” in a cooler.
SMOKED TURKEY TIPS
Spatchcock the turkey. Cut out the backbone with some big shears, place the turkey on a large cutting board (breast side up) and pound down on the breast to flatten it out. Your turkey will cook quicker when spatchcocked and will fit in many smokers that will not otherwise accommodate it. If your smoker will accommodate a turkey that has not been spatchcocked (Weber Smokey Mountain or other vertical smokers), you can cook it without being spatchcocked (if you prefer a traditional turkey presentation at the table), but it will take a bit longer to cook.
Rub it. We like to put rub on smoked turkey. We will mix some of the rub with butter and put it under the skin, and then sprinkle more on the outside of the skin. Even if you do not like the skin, keep it on the bird for the cook. The fat in the skin will help keep the exterior of the turkey meat moist. And although we don’t eat much of the skin, we like to add it in our Turkey Frame Soup recipe (below) for more flavor. Need a rub recipe? This is our preferred one for Poultry:
Tom’s Grilling Rub for Poultry
2 Tbsp Hot Paprika
1 Tbsp Kosher Salt
1 Tbsp Garlic Powder
1 Tbsp Onion Powder
1 tsp Dried Thyme
1 tsp Dried Oregano
1 tsp Black Peppercorns, freshly ground
1 tsp White Peppercorns, freshly ground
1 tsp Cumin Seed, toasted and then freshly ground
Smoke it hot. Most BBQ smoking is low and slow at 225-250 F, but you will end up with rubbery turkey skin if you cook at these temps; do what you can to get your Que temps up to 300-350F. Add more lump and/or wood and more air to get the temps in this range. If you are using an offset smoker that is hotter on one side, take advantage of that for higher temps and/or browning.
Flip and rotate. Especially if you have an offset smoker with higher temps on one side, rotate and flip to encourage proper and even cooking and browning. On my offset, we will have the legs side of the bird near the hotter side of the cooker for more time, because they usually take longer to cook. Cook your legs/thighs to an internal temp of 170 F minimum and breast to 160 F before pulling the turkey off. If your legs/thighs are taking longer than the breast meat, you can take the turkey out of the smoker, remove the thighs/legs, and put them back in the smoker or in a 350 F oven (in foil covered pan). Foil the rest of the turkey or “hold” it in a cooler until the dark meat cooks to 170 F. As with any turkey cook, rest the meat at least 15 minutes before carving.
DEEP FRIED TURKEY TIPS
Don’t have a fryer? Get an electric fryer; they use much less oil than a traditional propane fryer. You may pay a little more for one of these but you will make up for the difference in oil costs within a few cooks.
Use turkey(s) under 15 lbs. Most turkey fryers are set up for turkeys of 15 lbs or less. Try to avoid turkeys larger than that; you can always cook multiple turkeys and they do cook fast.
Set up fryer in an outdoor area away from buildings or trees. You will be spilling some oil in the process of cooking so avoid setting up fryer on decks or patio areas.
Pre-measure oil needed. Place still wrapped turkey in fryer and just cover with water. Remove turkey and mark pot at top of water level, and dispose of the water. Now you know how much oil to use.
Brine the turkey the day before the cook. Omit any sugar from your brine recipe as it will blacken the skin of the turkey. Optionally, some people prefer to “Inject” the turkey.
The turkey needs to be dry on the outside before cooking. At least a five hours before the cook, rinse the turkey thoroughly and let drain in a colander with drip pan (in refrigerator). Take the turkey out 1 hour before the cook to bring it to room temperature. Shortly before the cook, thoroughly blot the turkey dry; you can then use a dry rub on the turkey (under the skin as well).
Use peanut oil or safflower oil. They have a higher flashpoint and are safer then other oils.
Be safe! Place turkey in fryer basket or rack provided with your smoker, turn off the propane flame completely and use a broomstick to very slowly lower the turkey in the oil from a safe distance. Re-light propane and closely monitor oil temp at this point as it will rise immediately after the turkey goes in and after a few minute it will go down. Try to keep the temp between 335 and 375. Too low of a temp and the turkey will absorb oil, too high of a temp and the turkey skin will be burned (rather than browned); also the oil could ignite if it gets over 400 degrees. You should keep a fire extinguisher handy and frequently monitor the temperature.
Compute the approximate cooking time: For 11 lbs or less; 2.5 min per lb, for 12-14 lbs: 3 min per lbs; if the bird floats it is slightly overdone but OK. We take it out ideally at 155 degrees breast temp (temp gage not hitting the bone), as there will be a lot of “carryover” cooking when frying.
Be careful when removing the turkey. When the turkey is done, turn off the burner and remove turkey basket; have a carving board next to the fryer to transfer drained turkey to. Cover turkey with foil and allow to rest at least 15 minutes before carving.
HERE’S OUR FAVORITE LEFTOVER TURKEY RECIPES:
Turkey Frame Soup Recipe
1 Meaty Turkey Frame + some leftover turkey meat (we usually add a thigh and leg, but you can add more)
4 Quarts Water
1 Yellow Onion, quartered
3 tsp. Salt
Break turkey frame apart and place in a large Dutch oven with water, onion, and salt. Bring to boiling, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 1.5 hours. Remove turkey frame and onions. Discard onions. Remove meat from turkey frame and place meat back in Dutch oven with broth. Remove fat from surface of broth with gravy separator (or cool broth in fridge and than strain fat from surface).
4 Quarts Turkey Broth with Turkey Meat, from above recipe
1 Whole Cauliflower Head, cut into florets
12 Crimini, Porcini, and/or Button Mushrooms
2 tsp. Dried Oregano
1.5 tsp. Dried Thyme
¼ tsp. Fresh Ground Pepper
1-2 Chicken Bouillon Cubes (optional, if the turkey was brined you may not need this)
1.5 cups Uncooked Pasta (egg noodles, bowtie, anything but spaghetti style)
Combine all ingredients except pasta, bring to boil, cover and simmer 45 minutes. Adjust seasonings with pepper and salt. If a richer broth flavor is desired, season with Chicken Bouillon Cubes instead of salt If your turkey was brined, you may not need this). Add pasta and simmer 10-15 minutes more (until pasta is done). Serve.
Kentucky Hot Browns
2 Tbsp Unsalted Butter
2 Tbsp All-purpose Flour
2 1/2 cups Whole Milk
3/4 cup Sharp White Cheddar Cheese, grated
1/4 cup Parmigianino Reggiano Cheese, grated
1 Pinch Nutmeg,
freshly grated Salt & Black Pepper, to taste
1 lb Roast Turkey, sliced
8 Slices Toast (may be trimmed)
Extra Parmesan for Topping
8 strips Bacon, fried
1-2 Tomatoes, chopped, for garnish
Melt butter over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Whisk in the flour and cook for 1 minute. Whisk in the milk, bring to a boil and cook, whisking constantly, until thickened and the flour has cooked out, about 4 to 5 minutes. Whisk in cheese and cook until melted. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
For each Hot Brown, place two slices of toast on a metal (or flameproof) dish. Cover the toast with a liberal amount of turkey. Pour a generous amount of sauce over the turkey and toast. Sprinkle with additional Parmesan cheese. Place entire dish under a broiler until the sauce is speckled brown and bubbly. Remove from broiler, cross two pieces of bacon on top, garnish with chopped tomatoes, and serve immediately.