The Only Thanksgiving Turkey Recipe You'll Ever Need
I have good news and bad news.
The good news? I'm about to take away all your Thanksgiving turkey woes. No more lying on the floor trying to thaw it with your body heat or stress eating in the closet because you put it in the oven three hours late.
The bad news? I don't have any photos of my turkey. My husband was disappointed I didn't randomly cook a giant bird in order to take a picture, but what can you do. I blame the stores for not selling turkeys yet.
That said, you know what a turkey looks like, and these instructions are shockingly easy. I'm not typically the holiday host for either side of the family, but the few times I have, this turkey stole the show. It's simple, moist, and takes very little time the day before and only needs to go in the oven on the day you eat it. Let's dive in.
The Only Thanksgiving Turkey Recipe You'll Ever Need
- a turkey, about 10 pounds
- 1 stick of really soft unsalted butter
- 1 tbsp salt (Yeah, I get it, why not just used salted butter? Because different brands have different salt contents + I always have unsalted butter amen.)
- 2 tsp black pepper, freshly ground if you can
- 4 tsp dried herbs (I use equal parts thyme and rosemary, but fennel and sage would be nice additions, too)
- 1 large white or yellow onion, peeled and cut into large wedges
- 2 large apples (any kind is fine) cut into large wedges
(If you're cooking a turkey more than 10-12 pounds, double the butter and seasonings.)
Three Days Before: Thaw the Turkey
If your turkey is frozen, put it in the fridge to thaw. Grab a sheet pan (to catch any drips from broken wrapping), cover it in foil (to prevent you from having to wash a sheet pan that caught any drips from broken wrapping), and put the turkey breast-side up on the pan and into the fridge. It takes almost three days to fully thaw a ten pound bird and 5-6 days for one closer to 20 pounds. PLAN ACCORDINGLY.
The Day Before: Season the Turkey
- In the morning, pull out the butter and let it sit on the counter pretty much all day.
- Somewhere between lunch and going to bed, pull out everything you'll need: your roasting pan, the turkey, a bowl for mixing the butter, the wedged onion and apples, and extra salt and pepper for inside the bird, preferably in a tiny bowl that can accept gross turkey hands. Don't worry about the measurements. Just scoop out maybe a tablespoon and grind a bit of pepper into it.
- In a small bowl, mix the butter with one tablespoon of salt, 2 teaspoons of pepper, and the dried herbs. It's heavily seasoned; don't be scared.
- Take the turkey out of the wrapping, pat it dry with paper towels, and place it on a giant plastic cutting board. If you don't have a giant plastic cutting board, might I suggest covering your counter with a few sheets of plastic wrap. You need room to move around as you season the turkey, so a plastic wrap coating is the next best thing.
- Take a couple of big pinches of that extra salt and pepper, and heavily season the inside of the turkey. (Hopefully you bought a turkey with the giblets and stuff removed; if not, your first encounter with a tiny turkey liver is definitely... interesting. But check to make sure the cavity is empty.) After you season the inside, then stuff the apples and onions inside.
- Next comes the fun part. Take that seasoned butter and rub it all over the turkey, under the skin first and then on the outside. Top, bottom, sides, in every crevice you can find. Warning: the reason you want the butter incredibly soft is because it will start to firm up as you rub it on the cold turkey. It's fine, and you're not doing anything wrong. Just keep massaging butter into a dead bird like it's normal. Last butter-related item: if you run out of butter before you coat the outside fully, it's fine. Under the skin is more important.
- Put the turkey in the roasting pan breast-side up, cover it in foil, and pop it back in the fridge until the next day.
The Day Of: Cook the Turkey
Here's what's great. Your turkey is ready to go in the oven just as it is. There is literally nothing to do except cook it.
If you've heard of people brining a turkey (soaking it in a salt water solution), you're essentially doing that by allowing that salt in the butter mixture penetrate the meat overnight. The onions and apples will offer moisture from the inside (you probably won't want to eat them though), and the butter will help the skin get brown and delicious.
For a ten pound turkey, cook for four hours at 325 degrees (preheat the oven first, please). I like to keep the turkey covered in foil for the first three hours to keep the moisture inside. Remove it for the final hour to let the skin get really golden. Once it's done (we'll get to that), let it rest covered in foil again for about 20 minutes before carving.
How To Know When a Turkey Is Done
There are several methods:
- Use a meat thermometer. Stick the thermometer in the thickest part of the breast; you're looking for 165 degrees F. If you're a degree or too shy, go ahead and pull it out anyway; it'll continue to rise as it rests.
- Rely on the pop-up thermometer. A lot of turkeys come with a built-in thermometer that pops up in the when the turkey is done. Sometimes it's at the right time, and sometimes it takes the turkey a little far. This is my least favorite way because it's the most out of my control, and I don't want a dry turkey. If you're scared though, use that pop-up thermometer with relish, man.
- Cut open the bird. Poke the bottom of the turkey with a sharp knife, and watch the juices that come out. If they're clear, you're all set. If they're pink, the turkey isn't done yet.
- Wiggle a leg. Before the days of thermometers and pieces of plastic imbedded in turkey flesh, folks would wiggle the turkey leg to test for doneness. If it wiggles really easily, you're probably good.
Don't overthink it. The worst-case scenario is you start carving a turkey that isn't quite done yet. You'll put it back in the oven for a bit, and dinner will be a little behind. This will not ruin Thanksgiving.
You've got this. Be cool.