The One Way to Cook a Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

Straight from a world-class chef.

The One Way to Cook a Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

Straight from a world-class chef.

I’ve mastered the art of cooking turkey, an undertaking that has spanned three decades and involved about 750 birds. But that’s exactly why I founded Cook’s Illustrated in 1980—to answer such questions as: “Why does turkey dry out?” “What makes gumbo separate?” “Why is pie pastry tough one time but tender and flaky the next?” A quick tour of the set of America’s Test Kitchen convinced you that we pursued these questions with an unforgiving fervor for the objective rather than the subjective in the culinary arts. We employed 35 test cooks who, on most days, spent hours mixing, sautéing, and chopping, while 22 ovens and 45 burners heated their efforts. You’d also see clipboards, rating sheets, and sharpened pencils everywhere. “You guys don’t cook from the heart,” a viewer once said to me, “you cook from the brain!” I coveted that indictment.

Although my quest for the perfect roast turkey was the driving force in founding the test kitchen, more than 20 years of slow roasting, high roasting, boning and stuffing, grilling, smoking, deep frying, and butterflying turkeys left me unsatisfied. Then we found a recipe in Jean Anderson’s The Food of Portugal that called for brining before roasting. As we soon discovered through our testing, brining the bird, or soaking it in salted water, didn’t cause the meat to absorb any more water than a bird soaked in regular water, but the turkey didn’t lose the water during roasting. The salt, we learned, denatures the protein in the meat, causing it to form a web that traps and retains water. (If you have high blood pressure, fear not: You should limit your sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams a day, and a serving of brined turkey will have fewer than 500 milligrams.) After even more testing, we settled on a brine solution of half a cup of salt per gallon of water.

As in many previous years, this year’s Kimball-family turkey will come from a neighboring farmer who raises just three birds annually, and they’re always named Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. My wife, Adrienne, and I will spend much of the day cooking out of the root cellar–potatoes, shallots, garlic, and apples; baking apple, pumpkin, and pecan pies; making dough for Parker House rolls; and preparing cranberry sauce, sweet-potato casserole, and green beans. The main ingredient, our brined roast turkey, will come out as it always has–perfectly tender and moist. Here’s how to do it, in eight easy steps. And for great ways to keep fit during your holiday season, here are 33 Ways to Stay Lean for Life.

Ingredients:

  • 1 turkey (12 to 22 pounds), rinsed thoroughly; reserve giblets and neck if making gravy
  • 4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
  • Table salt

Directions:

Preparing a thanksgiving turkey.

1
Prepare

Fill a large stockpot or a clean bucket with 2 gallons of cold water. Larger birds may require 3 gallons. Dissolve 1/2 cup table salt per gallon of water. Add turkey and refrigerate for 12 to 14 hours.

Turkey in the oven, thanksgiving turkey.

2
Heat

Adjust the oven rack to its lowest position. For a 12- to 18-pound bird, heat the oven to 400°F. If you’re roasting an 18- to 22-pound bird, heat the oven to 425°F. Meanwhile, line a large V-rack with heavy-duty foil and use a paring knife or skewer to poke 20 to 30 holes in the foil. Set the V-rack in a large roasting pan. If you’re reluctant to rotate a bird that large midway through cooking, don’t line the V-rack with foil: Instead, roast the bird breast-side up for the full time.

Thanksgiving turkey being rinsed.

3
Rinse

Remove the turkey from the brine and rinse well, inside and out, under cool running water. Pat the inside and outside of the turkey dry with paper towels. Tuck the tips of the drumsticks into the skin at the tail to secure them, and then tuck the wing tips behind the turkey’s back.

Thanksgiving turkey being seasoned.

4
Season

Brush turkey breast with 2 Tbsp. melted butter. Set turkey breast-side down on prepared V-rack and brush its back with the remaining 2 Tbsp. butter. If making gravy, scatter 1 cup each of coarsely chopped onion, celery, and carrot, as well as several fresh thyme sprigs, in the roasting pan; add 1 cup water to keep the vegetables from burning. Roast a 12- to 18-pound bird for 45 minutes (1 hour for an 18- to 22-pound bird).

Thanksgiving turkey being rotated.

5
Rotate

Remove the roasting pan and turkey from the oven. Close the oven door to retain heat, and reduce the oven temperature to 325°F. Use potholders to rotate the turkey from a breast-side-down position to a breast-side-up position. Roast for another 50 minutes for a 12- to 15-pound bird, 75 minutes for a 15- to 18-pound bird, or about 2 hours for an 18- to 22-pound bird.

Thanksgiving turkey being checked.

6
Check

Use an instant-read thermometer to check the temperature of the thickest part of the breast and thigh. Continue cooking until they read 165°F and 175°F, respectively, and then transfer the turkey to a carving board.

Thanksgiving turkey resting.

7
Rest

Let the bird rest, which allows the meat to retain its juices during carving, for 30 minutes (or up to 40 minutes for an 18- to 22-pound bird).

A carved thanksgiving turkey.

8
Carve

Start the carving process by removing both wings and legs (bend back the thighs and the leg joints will pop open), and then use a flexible boning or paring knife to remove each breast. Slice the breast meat, cut the drumsticks from the thighs, and serve the turkey on a large platter.

Christopher Kimball, 66, is the founder and former editor of Cook’s Illustrated and former host of America’s Test Kitchen on PBS. He has authored five cookbooks. Ed note: A previous version of this story ran in the November 2007 issue of Best Life. 

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