The Best Thanksgiving Turkey

For all of you who are making the big Thanksgiving turkey or thinking of making the turkey or dreaming of making the turkey, this one’s for you–the OBB turkey that people fall in love with year after year.

The best Thanksgiving Turkey recipe

We know that Thanksgiving is not the time when people generally go and start experimenting with other peoples’ recipes. One of the reasons why we do what we do is because we feel like we can express love to those we care about through food and food-related traditions, and those food-related traditions are never stronger than during the holiday season.

The best Thanksgiving Turkey recipe

There are some common complaints out there about turkey. First, it can be dry and flavorless. Second, it can taste gamey. Third, if it’s not overcooked, you run the risk of under-cooking the turkey, especially when you’ve got large quantities of light and dark meat involved.

The solution? Brining the turkey overnight and then injecting it (literally – using one of these) with chicken broth, butter, and garlic for flavor and moisture, then using an oven bag to ensure that it’s evenly cooked and moist. The result? A super-flavorful, super-moist Thanksgiving turkey.

Ingredient and Supply Notes

  • Bucket – You’ll need a 5-gallon bucket (or something similar).  I bought this one at Walmart in the paint department and as you can see it’s labeled safe for food. Even if it’s not labeled as such- I don’t stress too much about it.

The best Thanksgiving Turkey recipe

  • Thermometer– You’ll also need an accurate meat thermometer that can be inserted into the turkey and left there while it’s roasting in the oven.  Our very favorite is this Chef Alarm from Thermoworks, but there are lots of affordable options on Amazon as well.
  • A Turkey Injector- You can find them in the small cooking tools aisle of a department or grocery store, or I have this Grill Beast one and it is THE best I’ve ever used.
  • Pan– A heavy roasting pan.
  • Roasting Bags – you can find turkey-size disposable roasting bags in the grocery store, usually near the foil and zip-lock bags.
  • Nitrile Gloves – If you’ve been around awhile, you know I always have a box of nitrile gloves in my kitchen. They make working with raw meat much easier. If you are squeamish about handling a large, raw turkey, these are a must!
  • Fat Separator – While not 100% necessary for cooking the turkey, you will want a fat separator (like this OXO Fat Separator ) to help separate the cooking juices, which makes making the gravy a breeze!

The best thanksgiving turkey recipe

Recipe Notes

  • Size Matters– When it comes to your turkey, bigger isn’t always better. Or ever, actually. A big turkey is super impressive, but I wouldn’t buy a turkey larger than 12-14 pounds; if you need more turkey, just buy another one or buy a bone-in breast. Bigger turkeys are older turkeys, meaning their meat is not as tender and often more gamey. Also, it’s more difficult to properly cook a a very large turkey; if the outside is perfect, the inside may not be quite done.
  • Time Matters – The other thing you’re going to need is lots of time, especially if you’re buying a frozen turkey. Even if they tell you that your turkey will be defrosted in a couple of days in the fridge, I would give the turkey a week in the fridge to thaw or about 1 day for every 4 pounds.

Ready? Scared? Don’t be! The thing I love MOST about this recipe is that it’s nearly fail-proof.

How to Make the Best Thanksgiving Turkey

Step 1: Brine the Turkey

The day before you roast your Thanksgiving turkey, make sure your turkey is thawed. Open the packaging and remove all the insides. This means you’ll have to check the body cavity and the neck cavity because that is where the pieces are usually hidden. If you’re planning on using the giblets and the neck to make gravy, rinse them off and refrigerate them in a Ziploc bag. Otherwise, discard them. Rinse the turkey inside and out and let it drain.

To a very large stock pot, add 1 gallon of chicken stock.  That’s 4 boxes/cartons or 8 normal cans.  OR if you can find these jumbo cans it’s a little less than 3 of those.

The best thanksgiving turkey recipe


You’ll add a whole cup of kosher salt and an array of spices and herbs, like peppercorns, sugar, dehydrated onions, garlic, parsley, thyme, sage, and rosemary.

The best thanksgiving turkey recipe

Bring this mixture to a boil and then let it cool to room temperature.

The best thanksgiving turkey recipe

When the brine mixture has cooled, place the turkey in the 5-gallon bucket and cover it with 8 cups of cold water and 8 cups of ice.  Then pour the cooled brine mixture over it.

The best thanksgiving turkey recipe

Then cover the bucket with a lid (you can get the lid at the same time and place that you get the bucket) and place it in a cold place. If it’s cold outside, you can keep the bucket outside–a tight-fitting lid should keep the yummy smells inside and animals away. If it’s VERY cold outside, you could keep it in a cold garage. If it’s not cold at all and you’re wondering if winter will ever happen, you can keep it in one side of a sink or in a bathtub and then regularly pack it with ice so it stays cold. If you have an ice maker, it probably won’t be sufficient for your icy needs and you’ll probably have to go buy bags of ice from the grocery store. This is a small price to pay for deliciousness. Brine the turkey for 24 hours.

Now…because I used the roasting bag, I roasted my turkey according to the times and temperatures on the roasting bag packaging. This meant 350 for about 2-2 1/2 hours. So when you’re ready to begin roasting your turkey, preheat the oven according to the temperature on the roasting bag box.

Step 2: Make an Herbed Butter rub

Soften a stick of butter and mix it with a tablespoon of freshly chopped sage.

The best thanksgiving turkey recipeRemove the turkey from the brine and rinse it in cool water. Tuck the wings behind the body of the turkey and then slip your hand between the turkey breast and the body to loosen the sink.

The best thanksgiving turkey recipe

Grab some of the sage butter with  your hand and rub it all between the turkey breast and the skin.  It helps to pop your butter in the microwave until it’s part-way melted.

The best thanksgiving turkey recipeIf you can get your hand between the skin and the dark meat of the turkey, more power to you–the more sage butter under the skin, the better.  You will probably not use all the sage butter under the skin. Rub the rest of it on top of the skin and all over the bird.

Step 3:  Inject the turkey

In a blender, combine about 2-3 cloves garlic, 1/2 cup chicken broth, and 1/4 cup melted butter until completely smooth. Retrieve your flavor injector.

This part is kind of fun. Suck up the mixture into the syringe and then insert it all over the turkey–in the breast, in the thighs, everywhere. This particular syringe I have is no joke.  Stainless steel and super strong.  It also comes with 2 different tips depending on what type of marinades you are using.

The best thanksgiving turkey recipeStep 4: Stuff the Turkey with aromatics

Slip any remaining rosemary and thyme under the skin of the turkey.  Now is a great time to transfer the turkey into your roasting bag (according to the directions on the roasting bag, although there’s, like, a 99% chance they’re going to have  you shake some flour around in the bag first). Chop a few apples, onions, and some celery

The best thanksgiving turkey recipeand then stuff them into the cavity of the turkey.

The best thanksgiving turkey recipeInsert the meat thermometer into the thickest part of the breast and then seal up the roasting bag, making slits in the bag if you’re instructed to do so.

Step 5: Roast the Turkey

Roast the turkey according to the directions on the turkey bag until the meat thermometer registers 165 in the breasts and 180 in the thighs. My 12 pounder took about 2 hours, maybe a bit more. Remove from oven, cut the bag off the turkey, and then let it stand, tented with foil, for about 15-20 minutes so the juices can redistribute and the turkey will remain moist after slicing. Serve with all your favorite Thanksgiving goodies!

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If you want your turkey skin extra browned and crisp, slip the bag off about 30 minutes before the turkey is done (and turn on the convection oven if you have one). That crisps and browns the skin really well while still keeping the meat tender and moist.

The best thanksgiving turkey recipe

This Thanksgiving turkey has become a family tradition in thousands of homes across the country.  I’m so glad that so many of you love it as much as I do!

Other Holiday Menu Items You’ll Love

Pressure Cooker & Slow Cooker Mashed Potatoes

Homemade Gravy

Candied Coconut Sweet Potatoes

One Hour Dinner Rolls

Caramelized Green Beans

Candied Walnut Salad

Layered Pumpkin Pie Toffee Cheesecake

 

FAQs

 

Kate's Thanksgiving Turkey

5 from 2 votes
Hands-down the best Turkey for the holidays! Tender, juicy, flavorful results every time!

Ingredients

Equipment Needed

  • 1 5- gallon bucket and lid like a brand-new paint bucket and lid, washed well
  • A reliable oven-safe meat thermometer
  • Flavor injector/meat syringe
  • Turkey roasting bags
  • Heavy-duty roasting pan

Ingredients

  • TURKEY AND BRINE
  • 1 turkey no larger than 12-14 pounds
  • 1 gallon chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
  • 1/2 cup brown or white sugar
  • 1 cup kosher salt
  • 5-6 cloves smashed garlic
  • 1 tablespoon dehydrated onion
  • 1 large sprig fresh thyme
  • 1 large sprig fresh sage
  • 1 large sprig fresh rosemary
  • 1 handful fresh parsley
  • 8 cups cold water
  • 8 cups ice
  • HERB BUTTER
  • 3/4 cup salted butter divided
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
  • FOR ROASTING
  • 1/2 cup chicken broth
  • 2-3 cloves garlic
  • 1 apple chopped in half
  • 1-2 small onions chopped in half
  • 4 stalks celery cut into thirds

Instructions

  • About a week before you begin brining your turkey, place it in the refrigerator to defrost.
  • The day before you roast your turkey, combine the chicken broth and the remaining brine ingredients (through the parsley) in a very large stockpot. Bring to a boil and then remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
  • Remove the packaging from the turkey. Remove the neck and giblets (be sure to check both the body and neck cavities) and reserve for later use if desired. Rinse the turkey in cool water and then place it in the 5-gallon bucket. Add the cold water and the ice cubes, then add the brine mixture. Stir to combine. Cover with the lid and then place in a cold place for up to 24 hours.
  • When you're ready to roast your turkey, preheat the oven according to the directions on the roasting bag packaging (usually 350 F). Soften 1/2 cup butter and mix it with 1 tablespoon fresh sage and set aside. Remove the turkey from the brine, rinse it in cool water, and place in the roasting pan. Use your hands to loosen the skin over the breast. Spread handfuls of the sage butter between the breast and the skin, rubbing any excess over the outside of the skin.
  • In a blender, combine 1/2 c. chicken broth, 2-3 cloves garlic, and 1/4 c. melted butter until completely smooth. Use the flavor injector to inject the mixture all over the turkey.
  • Slip any remaining rosemary and thyme sprigs under the skin.
  • Stuff the apple, onion, and celery into the cavity of the turkey. Insert the meat thermometer into the thickest part of the turkey breast and then place the turkey into the roasting bag and roast until the thermometer registers 165 according to the roasting bag directions. When you've reached 165, remove the turkey from the oven and cut the bag away from the turkey. Allow it to stand for 15-20 minutes before slicing to allow the juices to redistribute and keep the turkey juice.
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Best Fall Baking Recipes

 

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Meet The Author

Sara Wells

Sara Wells co-founded Our Best Bites in 2008. She is the author of three Bestselling Cook Books, Best Bites: 150 Family Favorite RecipesSavoring the Seasons with Our Best Bites, and 400 Calories or Less from Our Best Bites. Sara’s work has been featured in many local and national news outlets and publications such as Parenting MagazineBetter Homes & GardensFine CookingThe Rachel Ray Show and the New York Times.

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Questions & Reviews

  1. This is PERFECT timing! I’m making my first turkey for my inlaws this weekend as they’ll be in town. So excited to have two Thanksgiving dinners this year! My mom recommended using the roasting bag so I was happy to see you say to use it too. Can’t wait to make this. Looks like a bit of work, but the end result look Ahhh-mazing, Kate! I’m off to pick up the supplies… including the bird… thanks for the thawing tip too! : )

  2. This looks amazing and I think that I am going to try this one this year after my fail last year. I have a tip for you about the bucket. You can get a food grade bucket generally for free from your local bakery. I usually get mine from Walmart or Kroger. Bring them home and wash and sanitize the they are safe for storing food. I even use them for gardening.

  3. Where is that cute yellow beadboard? I don’t remember seeing that in your kitchen sneak-peek? Maybe we need some updated pics? 🙂

    1. You probably missed it because you were so sad I didn’t (and still don’t, haha!) have my subway tile backsplash up! 😉 No, we painted the dining room yellow. 🙂

  4. Sounds like an awesome recipe! Can’t wait to try it! I have always used turkey bags and the first year that I was in charge of the turkey for Thanksgiving, I thought my mother-in-law was going to have a heart attack she was so nervous about the turkey. She was appalled that I would only cook it for a couple of hours and not for 5 or 6 and didn’t think it would be cooked through. She must have checked in on it 20 times that morning. Needless to say that after she tried the turkey, she now does all of hers in turkey bags, too!

  5. This is my first year cooking the turkey for Thanksgiving. I was just thinking that I needed to start looking up turkey recipes since I didn’t think the whole “buy a turkey and throw it in the oven” method would work so well. It seems like I don’t need to look around anymore!

    Quick question: when you say put it outside if it is cold enough, how cold are you talking about? We are looking at highs in the upper 40’s Thanksgiving week. It may be a dumb question, but I don’t want to serve my family a turkey that will make them sick. 🙂

    1. Sarah, that should be fine, especially if it’s getting colder at night (which is presumably when most of the brining will take place). When it’s on the warm side, I’d probably keep a little ice around it, but all that salt also helps inhibit microbial growth, so you should be fine.

      1. Since the weather is always iffy here during the holidays, I’ve always brined my turkey in a cooler. We have one just the right size that we fill with the turkey, ice, and water and it works wonderfully, regardless of the outside temperature.

  6. I have a big crowd and need to cook 2 smaller turkeys at once…any suggestions on how much longer or any temperature changes you would do? Thanks 🙂

    1. I actually really wouldn’t make any changes–maybe give yourself a LITTLE more time, but with ovens (as opposed to microwaves or convection ovens), quantity really isn’t a huge issue.

  7. I made my first turkey last year and I brined it. I will NEVER cook another turkey without brining it first. I was a dobuter, but now I am a believer. My brine was apple cider and it made it super yummy.

  8. I was wondering too about stuffing the turkey. So do you do your stuffing in a slow cooker? I have always stuffed the turkey and then also made extra that I just put in tin foil in the oven with the turkey and mix together before serving. Thinking maybe I should try something different and not stuff the turkey? Thanks

    1. I just have a pan of it cooking in the oven at the same time. And since the turkey needs to rest after you pull it out, it really only needs to be in the oven at the same time for about 20 minutes and then it can finish up in the oven while the turkey’s resting (unless the stuffing was in the fridge first, then it will probably need to bake a little longer).

  9. I have to do the turkey this year for my entire family, who is coming to visit me. This looks wonderful. I’m giving it a shot!

  10. LOVE LOVE LOVE it! I have been looking for a better brine recipe. I think yours will do FABULOUSLY!!

  11. Thanks Kate! I’ve been wanting to brine a turkey for years, but heard you couldn’t bring frozen store bought turkeys (something about the brine not working out right). AND chicken pox is in the works of visiting my kids, so we wont be able to travel for the holiday this year; so now instead of being stressed/depressed about Thanksgiving I can be excited to try this new recipe. Thanks again.

  12. I recognized Alton Brown is this brine recipe right away. The plastic bucket was the first giveaway;) I use it too and have also heavily adapted it. Thanks for the additional tips.
    Happy Turkey Day!

  13. ok…thank you so much for this. i have to do the turkey this year and it’s my first time. i hope this works…

    a couple questions though. i have been reading about brining and hear that its best to use a fresh turkey that hasn’t been injected with a saline solution so that it’s not to salty. do you try to find a frozen turkey that hasn’t been injected? or does is just all work out in the end? it would be awesome to not have to drive all over the valley finding a fresh turkey! second question, how much turkey per person do you recommend?

    1. I worried about this a lot, too, when I started brining turkeys and have come to realize that it’s not really a big deal. I haven’t had a turkey that’s too salty (although I have had gravies made from brined turkeys that are waaaaaaaay too salty). Just try to stick with one that’s on the lower end of the salt spectrum (it should say on the packaging) and you’ll be fine. 🙂

      1. I have heard the same thing regarding the gravy being too salty. Do you use the drippings from your brined turkey to make your gravy? Or is it generally best not to make gravy from a brined turkey?

        1. I think if you’re careful, it’s okay to use the drippings. I usually make gravy by using a gravy packet (GASP!) and then the drippings as the liquid so yeaaaaah, it can definitely get too salty. To make gravy, I’d boil the heck out of the giblets and use that liquid along with the drippings and then cornstarch as a thickener and you should be fine. But don’t use a gravy packet or chicken broth–it will definitely get too salty.

    1. Natalie, there are some safety concerns with stuffing a turkey–you *can* stuff the turkey, but you shouldn’t eat the stuffing that’s been inside the turkey because it’s absorbing all those drippings, but it’s difficult to cook the stuffing to a high enough temperature to kill the bacteria without really overcooking the turkey. You could stuff the turkey for flavor, but I feel like that would be a waste of perfectly good stuffing because I couldn’t eat it, you know? 🙂

    2. I always stuff my turkey with aromatics like apples and onions and garlic, nothing that I would eat after its been in a turkey anyway. Gives the turkey a nice flavor.

    3. Cook’s Illustrated has a recipe for a roasted, stuffed turkey so that you can eat the stuffing. Basically, you have to microwave the stuffing until it gets to a certain temperature, stuff the turkey with it, and put it in the oven right away. That way, the stuffing is already hot before the turkey even starts cooking.

    4. I can’t stuff my turkey because my daughter has Celiac’s Disease and can’t get gluten. So I save the turkey neck, giblets, etc that come with the turkey. I place them on top of my stuffing when I cook it (covered with foil of course). It really helps to make the stuffing moist and more flavorful. I just chuck the neck and such after its all cooked.

  14. Holy Moly does that look delicious!! I have always used a turkey bag and you are right. It keeps it moist and is a little more worry free than open roasting.

  15. This is how I do my turkey. It is the absolute BEST! I wish more people knew about brining. Super moist & delicious!

  16. You are so awesome. I was going to email and ask if you could do a turkey recipe. This is hopefully my year to shine and, I don’t dare make forays into the unknown without you! My MIL is coming and I don’t want her to do the turkey. Its always so dry. Can’t wait to try this out. Actually, she probably won’t even say if she likes it… but who cares! I want my moist, succulent turkey!

  17. Kate will you clarify…it looks like you have the thermometer right through the bag is that correct? I don’t have one (thermometer) so I will have to get one but I have been wanting one anyway…also have you ever used an electric roaster (on top of the counter roaster)? I have to save room in my oven so I am considering using one for the turkey…any thoughts?
    Thanks for your help!

    1. Well, I used this thermometer:
      http://www.walmart.com/ip/Mainstays-Digital-Meat-Thermometer-with-Removable-Stand-00994W/14913173
      It has a metal probe with a wire coming out of it and then the wire plugs into the temperature register which sits outside of your oven. So I inserted the probe into the turkey breast and the wire is coming out the opening of the bag (before I sealed it all up). Does that make sense?

      As far as a roaster goes, I’ve never used one at home, but I worked at a sandwich shop in college that specialized in hand-pulled turkey and they roasted all their turkeys in roasters and they were delicious. I would totally use one if oven space is an issue.

      1. Okay, I lied, haha! I actually had it coming out of one of the slits I cut in the bag.

        1. Just curious-did you work at Kneaders? I only ask because a) I love Kneaders and b) my cousin used to work at the one in Provo (I assume that’s where it would have been since you went to BYU). Her name is Lindsay Lovell. Any chance you might know her? Just thought I’d ask. And your turkey looks awesome! Can’t decide if I’ll try it or not since I may be making the entire dinner on my own this year. This one looks like a bit more work than what I do, but probably worth it!

          1. Oh, my gosh, yes, I did work at Kneaders and I worked with Lindsday! I also worked at BYU with another one of her cousins; are you related to Kirk Shaw, too?

          2. No, I’m not related to him, so it must have been on her other side. Hopefully you liked working with her. 🙂 We just got a Kneaders in St. George, but I haven’t made it over there yet mostly because I keep forgetting it’s there. Mmmm, I loved their sandwiches–always fresh! And I love your site and cookbook. I use it regularly. I had decided I wouldn’t get any more cookbooks because I already had too many recipes to try. Then I saw yours at DB and decided it was a must have. I use it more than most of my other cookbooks. Plus I love reading your blog just because it’s entertaining and I love all the cooking tips. I love to cook and bake and it so awesome to keep learning how to do it better!

  18. The best part about this post is that you told me to go get my turkey today. I’m cooking the meal and didn’t even think that it’s “time” to go buy the bird! The worst part about this post is knowing I’m going to have to get my hand all buttery trying to slap that stuff on between the skin and the bird, but I’m going to do it anyway because I trust you completely. Can’t wait to make it your way!

  19. This looks like the perfect turkey, Kate!! And aaack!! I need to go buy my turkey TODAY!!

  20. We have turkey for Xmas in the UK. I’ve never heard of brining a turkey before though…we tend to butter the skin, lay bacon (british style- so more like fatty Canadian bacon, soft and not crispy) as a lattice over the top and baste rather than injecting. I guess the bacon lattice is the fat/salt provider in ‘our’ version!

  21. Looks sooooo good. I cant wait to try, even if its not for turkey day. Thanks for all the great food.