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The best classic roast Thanksgiving turkey you will find! This recipe and guide will help you cook a flavorful, moist turkey every Thanksgiving with time and temperature guides, tips on brining for a super juicy bird, and a flavorful herb compound that not only gives great flavor but makes beautifully brown, crispy turkey skin.
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I made this guide so that even the most novice cook making their first Thanksgiving turkey will have amazing, foolproof results with zero stress and no fuss. So if you've never cooked a turkey before, read this post!
I know people freak out about their turkey: how long to cook it, what temperature to cook it at, all these different tricks like roasting it upside down, basting the bird, stuffing or no stuffing...
...okay, no wonder everyone freaks out. That's a lot of stuff. Thankfully my roast turkey recipe this year is decidedly fuss-free and seriously delicious with fresh herbs, tons of aromatics, and my secret ingredient to evenly browned and crispy skin, which is the best part of the turkey, amiright?
Why is Turkey a Thanksgiving Day Tradition?
One thing I want to put out there: most Thanksgiving day foods weren't eaten on the first Thanksgiving. Remember, this was their first year of a successful harvest and they were eating what they grew and could catch (lobsters, deer, small fowl).
But before Thanksgiving became a national holiday, turkey was popular but it wasn't the iconic dish it is today.
In 1856, there were many advocates for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday and when journals from one of the European settlers from the era, William Bradford, were found and discussed how the settlers hunted wild turkey (a bird native to the Americas) in the autumn of the first Thanksgiving, turkey became the mainstream choice when Thanksgiving became a national holiday.
Preparing to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving
Buying a Turkey
Depending on your preference and even where you live, you have all types of turkey birds to choose from: air-chilled from the fancy markets, freshly-plucked and farm-fresh, or affordable and frozen at the grocery stores, and they can range from 10 pounds to 30 pounds! Here are some quick tips for turkey that will be perfect for your table:
How big of a turkey do I need?
The general rule is to have 1.5 pounds of turkey per person, which gives enough for seconds and leftovers for each person. So if you have ten bellies to fill, a 14-pound turkey is perfect!
But the bigger the bird, the longer the cooking time, and the more likely you'll be coming out with unwanted issues like overcooked meat and/or undercooked insides.
Trust me, as someone who has cooked 25-pound birds, let me tell you: they're hard to gauge time-wise and usually take way longer than you think they'll take...and no one wants to wait all day and halfway into the night for a bird. We're all hungry.
So keep it simple and easy; I wouldn't look for a bird bigger than 16 pounds, no matter how many people you're hosting. Just cook two if you have that many people, one the day before and one the day of if you don't have two ovens.
What type should I buy?
There are two types of turkey: broad-breasted and Heritage. Broad breasted are the ones you'll find at the big grocery stores, they're cheaper per pound and usually conventionally raised, often injected with saltwater solutions and antibiotics.
Heritage birds are often smaller and gamier in taste since they are bred to replicate the wild turkeys that would have been found hundreds of years ago. Because they are more expensive to raise, they are more expensive to buy, usually around $10+ per pound.
A great alternative is to buy an organic turkey. They're more affordable than heritage birds but aren't fed antibiotics or injected with brining solutions.
Thawing your Turkey
Most companies flash freeze their turkeys to ensure your turkey comes out with the best tasting meat possible. Here's how to keep it that way while thawing:
According to the USDA, you'll need about 24 hours per five pounds of turkey to thaw in the fridge. This means that you'll need to bring that big guy out of the freezer days ahead of Turkey Day if you want to make sure you have him looking beautiful on the table with his new tan.
To safely thaw a turkey, make a lot of room at the bottom of your fridge and thaw your frozen turkey on a rimmed baking sheet or in a large bowl, whatever fits the bird and in your fridge. Pin this cute turkey thawing timeline to save it for later!
Let's talk brine. I'm serious about brines because I have recipe tested turkey without brining just to see why my husband's best friend hated turkey so bad...
...I now see why he hated turkey so bad. Dry, flavorless turkey meat is not what I want when I'm spending time and energy on the most important entrée of the holiday season!
That's why we brine. And even better, this brine is fuss-free with simple ingredients that really does bring serious impact to the actual meat of your turkey.
Dry Brine Science
I'm on the dry brine train for turkey! Wet brining, like with southern fried chicken in buttermilk, is best for fried things since the crispness of the skin doesn't rely on how dry it is. This is where the science of dry brining comes in.
Dry brining relies on the process of osmosis: the whole turkey is rubbed down in salt, the salt draws the moisture out of the turkey skin and meat, dissolves, and then gets reabsorbed while the turkey sits naked in your fridge to dry the skin out. Dry skin = crisp skin, people. Yeah, science!
So the salt permeates into the meat, and I'm so serious, just like in my spatchcocked turkey last year, I swear by dry brining when it comes to a really juicy turkey. And by juicy, I mean like a flood of well-seasoned goodness where people feel a strong need to comment on how juicy it is.
Stuff the bird with aromatics
We don't stuff the turkey with stuffing, that can cause a world of problems and mess, there's no point. For our easy Thanksgiving turkey, we stuff it with all the good stuff: aromatics. Things that will give it a ton of flavor on the inside and keep it juicy, like fresh herbs, heads of garlic, quartered onions, and quartered apples.
I find that this mix gives me great flavor...and also great roasted garlic to eat with dinner rolls or mix into mashed potatoes.
My favorite herbs to use for turkey are simple and classic: fresh thyme, rosemary, and sage. They're easy to find at any grocery store and really give that classic fall flavor.
How to Season a Turkey
We've seasoned the inside with the aromatics, we seasoned the outside and inside with the dry brine, but let's talk about my favorite part of cooking a turkey: making the compound spread.
Butter or no butter for crispy brown skin
I know people swear by regular ole butter, but that's not what we are doing today. Last time I showed y'all a clarified butter mix to smear all over your turkey skin, but clarified butter takes some work to make.
We don't want to use regular butter because it's full of water, which is great for puffing up flaky layers in biscuits when it turns to steam, not so great when you're looking for crisp, gorgeously browned skin on a turkey, so you want to clarify it.
But this recipe is about ease, right? All we've done so far is rub the turkey in salt and stuffed it full of apples and herbs, so now we're adding another layer of flavor by mixing in chopped lemon zest and fresh herbs into tangy Duke's Real Mayonnaise, then rubbing that generously all over the dry skin of the turkey.
Just like mayo makes for crispier grilled cheese sandwiches (and gives it a level of tangy goodness that just goes so well with cheddar cheese), mayo gives the turkey an evenly brown, crispy skin and a subtle hint of tang that doesn't overpower the herbs. Layers of flavor, honey. Layers.
Here are a couple of mixes I love using on chicken and turkey:
Classic Thanksgiving Herb Mix
Lemon zest, fresh thyme, fresh rosemary, and fresh sage chopped up finely and mixed into Duke's mayo. Did you know that the flavor of 'lemon' isn't in the juice, it's in the oils of the zest? That's why we use the zest.
Make sure to use a vegetable peeler to gently peel off just the yellow of the lemon skin, do not peel any of the pith --the white beneath the skin. It's extremely bitter, which is the main reason why I don't stuff the turkey with whole citrus. It makes whatever it's cooked in bitter, too.
Smokey Chipotle Turkey Rub
A couple teaspoons of smoked paprika, half a 4 ounce can of chipotles in adobo, the juice and zest of two limes. Mix it into the mayo and rub the mixture generously onto the turkey. Completely nontraditional for Thanksgiving, but oh-ehm-gee, y'all. You want your house to smell absolutely amazing? This will make it smell absolutely amazing
Lemon Pepper Herb Turkey
Lemon zest, a ton of freshly cracked black pepper, fresh thyme, and garlic powder. Don't use fresh garlic because garlic burns super, super easily. And burnt garlic is a flavor no one wants, you can't get rid of it and it's overpoweringly bitter. Use the powdered garlic for your lemon pepper turkey.
How to roast the best Thanksgiving turkey
Okay, so it's Thanksgiving morning: it's game time.
First thing's first, take your brined turkey out and let it sit out for an hour on your countertop to take off the chill. It's completely safe, I promise! Bringing the turkey to a warmer temperature ensures that the inside of the bird will come to temperature while cooking faster than if it was cold, so the meat closer to the surface doesn't have a chance to dry out.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. A low and slow cooking time, no messing with temperatures up and down, just 325. I found this consistently gives me a beautiful bird and cooks it all the way through.
Stuff the turkey with aromatics, and pat it dry with a paper towel before rubbing it down with the mayo compound spread. Don't miss a single nook or cranny, the dry skin makes it easier for the mayo mixture to spread onto the bird and the spread makes every part its on golden brown.
Don't have a rack for your roasting pan? Make two large U shapes out of some rolled up aluminum foil and put them at the bottom, or use a ton of quartered onions, carrots, and celery and put them at the bottom so the turkey is lifted and isn't just sitting on the bottom. We want air circulation around the entire bird and we want for it to not be sitting in drippings so the skin stays crispy.
Let your bird roast in the oven, check on it halfway through to see if it needs a little foil blanket to keep the breasts' skin from getting too browned or burnt. If so, cover it with a sheet of aluminum foil.
Worried about the breasts drying out? That brine imparted juiciness through osmosis and the mayo spread is basting the turkey while it's in the oven, so relax.
I'd say check the thickest part of the breast/thigh for temperature, you want it to be about 160 at the breast when it comes out of the oven. The temperature will rise as it rests, called carry-over cooking, so don't worry about it being undercooked.
Let that baby rest for at least 30 minutes. The juices need to settle back into the fibers of the meat, so let it rest on your countertop on a platter or cutting board until ready to serve.
How Long to Roast it
If your turkey is bigger than 10 pounds, you will add 15 minutes per pound at the 325 degree F cooking time. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast with a meat thermometer, you're looking for a 160 degree F minimum.
After roasting, take the turkey out of the oven and let it rest for at least 30 minutes. The turkey will still be warm enough to serve when carved, but the juices won't run out of the turkey. I suggest carving on a cutting board with a lip, because turkeys tend to have pockets in the joints where juices will flood.
Find Duke’s Real Mayonnaise at https://www.dukesmayo.com/
- Extra Large Baking Sheet
- Wire Rack
- Butcher's Twine
- Poultry Shears
- Meat Thermometer
- A Large Roasting Pan with Rack
- Aluminum Foil
My Favorite Thanksgiving Sides
- Grandma Reid's Southern Candied Yams
- Soul Food Southern Baked Macaroni and Cheese
- Slow-Cooked Southern Green Beans
- Crowd-Pleasing Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes
- Garlic Butter Mushrooms
- Cast Iron Skillet Cornbread
- Southern Sweet Potato Casserole
- Homemade Sister Schubert Yeast Rolls
- Homemade Pan Gravy
My Favorite Thanksgiving Desserts
- Classic Southern Sweet Potato Pie
- Apple Pie from Scratch
- Cinnabon Cinnamon Rolls Copycat
- Sweet Potato Chiffon Pie
- Caramel Apple Upside Down Cake
- Easy Southern Bourbon Peach Cobbler
- Pumpkin Sheet Cake with Fluffy Cream Cheese Frosting
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- 1 (14 pound) turkey, thawed with giblets and neck removed
Easy Dry Brine
- ⅓ cup kosher salt
- ¼ cup light brown sugar
- Zest of 1 lemon
- 2 medium-sized apples, quartered
- 1 yellow onion, quartered
- 3 heads garlic, halved horizontally
- As many fresh herbs as you can fit
Lemon Herb Mayo Compound Spread
- 1 cup Duke’s Real Mayonnaise
- Peel of 1 lemon
- Leaves of 2 sprigs of rosemary
- Leaves of 3 sprigs of thyme
- 1 stalk of sage
- Put the turkey onto a wire rack on top of a baking sheet.
- Mix together the brining ingredients then pat the turkey completely dry, inside and out. Rub the mixture generously over the skin of the turkey and inside the cavity.
- Put the turkey bare into the fridge overnight and up to 18 hours to dry brine.
- An hour before you want to roast the turkey, take the brined turkey out of the fridge to rest on the counter.
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
- Place the turkey into a roasting pan with a rack or prepped with aluminum foil, then pat the turkey dry of any moisture that may be lurking on the skin or in crevices.
- Stuff the inside of the turkey with the aromatics until completely full. Truss the legs with butcher’s twine if they’re not already trussed.
- Chop the herbs and lemon zest for the compound spread finely, then mix into the mayonnaise well.
- Generously spread the compound mixture all over the dry skin of the turkey just before placing the turkey into the oven, every single part of the turkey. Use your fingers to pull the skin from the meat of the breasts and smooth some of the mixture under the skin. Tuck the wings under the turkey.
- Roast the turkey at 325 degrees F, at about 15 minutes per pound or until a meat thermometer in the breast reads 160 degrees F.
- Check the turkey about halfway through cooking, and once the skin gets golden brown cover the turkey breasts with aluminum foil to protect it from overcooking and the skin getting burned.
- Let the turkey rest on the countertop for at least 25-30 minutes.
- Reserve the drippings from the roasting pan to make a pan gravy.
Nutrition Information:Yield: 10 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 161Total Fat: 10gSaturated Fat: 2gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 8gCholesterol: 55mgSodium: 3829mgCarbohydrates: 15gFiber: 2gSugar: 9gProtein: 4g
All nutrition facts are estimations. Please see a physician for any health-related inquiries.
Eden Westbrook is the recipe developer, writer, and photographer behind Sweet Tea and Thyme. A classically trained chef, Eden has inspired home cooks into the kitchen with cultural comfort foods, easy family-friendly eats and sweets, and glorious spreads for date night and entertaining since 2015.