When I first offered to host Thanksgiving, nothing intimidated me more than cooking the turkey. Potatoes and stuffing are easy and very forgiving with flavors and cooking time. And besides, turkey is the main event. But I’ve tasted way too many dry, overcooked turkeys in my life to think I could cook one easily. How do I defrost the damn thing? How long do I cook it? What kind of seasonings do I use? Is it the stuffing that adds the flavor? (Remember, I don’t like stuffing in the turkey). How do I get the crispy outside and juicy inside? I was lost. I read recipe after recipe trying to figure out the trick to keeping it moist and tasty. And, I admit, I called the Butterball Hotline. My fears weren’t assuaged, but I figured there was nothing left for me to do but jump in and give it a shot.
I narrowed down my recipe collection to one basic, easy-looking recipe. I figured it was a good start and I could always add more or edit later if I needed to. By some stroke of luck, it was delicious. The turkey was crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. And I have used the same turkey recipe without any changes or additions every year since.
The trick, I learned, is brining. Soaking the turkey overnight in a sugar-salt mixture makes the turkey super juicy, and I don’t really add much seasoning past that!
It turns out that cooking a delicious, juicy turkey is really easy. It takes a long time, but not a lot of attention. So if you’ve ever been too afraid to cook a turkey, fear no more. Give it a try and I promise you’ll find it’s a lot easier than you think.
What you’ll need:
2 gallons water
2 cups salt
1 cup brown sugar
1 12-13 pound turkey
8 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons garlic salt
4 tablespoons Italian seasoning
2 small onions
4 stalks celery
**Tip: You can scale the ingredients up or down based on the size of your turkey.
What you’ll need to do:
The night before Thanksgiving, start by cleaning and brining the turkey. Remove everything from the cavity (giblets, neck, and plastic bag) and discard. Place the turkey in the sink and thoroughly rinse the inside cavity and skin with cool water. This helps remove any bacteria within the cavity or on the skin.
In a very large pot, heat about 2 quarts of water, salt, and sugar over high heat. Stir until the salt and sugar dissolve. Add the remaining gallon and a half of water to help it cool faster. Cool to room temperature then submerge the turkey in the brine. This takes about an hour to prepare the brine, so don’t do it too late! Refrigerate overnight.
Remove the turkey from the brine. Pat the turkey dry and place in a roasting pan. Brush the turkey all over with melted butter, and season with garlic salt and Italian seasoning. Cut your two small onions in half and remove the skins. Cut the celery stalks into 4 pieces each. Stuff the turkey cavity with the onion halves and celery stalks for added taste and juiciness.
Put the turkey in the oven at 325 degrees. Here’s a timetable for roasting the turkey from the USDA:
- 8 to 12 lbs: 2 3/4 to 3 hrs
- 12 to 14 lbs: 3 to 3 3/4 hrs
- 14 to 18 lbs: 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hrs
- 18 to 20 lbs: 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hrs
- 20 to 24 lbs: 4 1/2 to 5 hrs
Every hour or so, brush the turkey with more melted butter. This makes the skin nice and crispy. Cook to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
**Tip: I can’t stress the importance of having a good meat thermometer. They’re not expensive, but they really help when cooking meat in the oven. They save you from having to cut open the meat to check doneness and letting the juices all run out!
After the turkey is done cooking, transfer to a cutting board and tent loosely with aluminum foil. Let it rest for about 30 minutes before carving.
Turkeys don’t have to be cooked only for Thanksgiving. Try cooking one in the off-season. I already have a couple small turkeys in my freezer waiting for a good winter weekend.