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. Woah, does this mean you made a turkey the week before turkey week JUST to show us how to make a turkey?? You need an award.

  2. I was going to say – pretty much the same method as Alton Brown. I’ve been using Alton Brown’s brine recipe and Roast Turkey recipe for a few years now and it is truly THE BOMB. My husband says it’s the best turkey ever. So, I’m sure yours is great.

    I do, however, make homemade veggie broth. I like the smell on Tuesday of having vegetables cooking in a gallon of water in the crockpot (carrots, onions, peppers, green onion stalk, celery, etc.). Makes a wonderful (and cheap) broth.
    Then I refrigerate it Tuesday night & it’s ready to brine the turkey on Wed.

  3. i’ll be brining this year too! the only part of this post that unnerved me was the fact that Kate won’t use a better turkey. I’m committing to buy organic and free range for 2013 and I already ordered my Diestel turkey! So excited to try brining!!! won’t be using a bag though..i’m a baster!

  4. Since 2006 I have used the Good Eats turkey that uses a brine. I have been a brine lover ever since. And frankly often disappointed when I go to other people’s houses for Thanksgiving and the turkey is bland and dry – bleck!! We are back to hosting T-day at our house and I am glad! I might try yours -although I must say, turkey bags DO freak me out ;o)

  5. I made this turkey last year, and it was well worth every step! I love it. Thanks again for this one!

  6. Wow, this is more like a medical procedure. I was going along with it just fine until the rubbing of the butter into the meat under the skin…then I shivered and gagged. A hypodermic needle?! Oh my, no, my legs went all jelly on me. This isn’t for the squeemish. But I do know well that a brined turkey makes all the difference in the world to a quality end product. I remember so many tasteless, dry, stringy turkeys past. This is a great step-by-step brining tutorial. I especially like the herb varieties you’ve included. I just love the addition of apple with veggies in the cavity of the turkey, a brilliant idea. I’ll bet it has a heavenly fragrance. Thank you for sharing this recipe and technique.

  7. The next time I’m in charge of the turkey, I’m going to try brining. I wanted to last year, but I was 8 1/2 months pregnant and had to scale back my ambitions. I may even make a small turkey just for my family and for plenty of leftovers after Thanksgiving and will definitely brine if I do.

    None of the rest of my family is really into trying new recipes or cooking methods, and frankly, they’re not the best cooks. But we have always used turkey bags and the turkey is always good and moist (even if the gravy is lumpy and the mashed potatoes are bland).

  8. I have used Alton Brown’s brining recipe for 4 years and this will be my 5th. Turkey always comes out very moist and tender with wonderful flavor. As you stated in your disclaimers, “salt, salt, salt…” It makes for great taste, HOWEVER, last year I made the mistake of using a Butterball turkey, which has already been heavily salted and injected. It made for a turkey which was almost uneatable because of the overload of salt. I researched it later and found numerous sites stating Butterballs should not be brined for this reason. I plan to brine my turkey again, but not a Butterball. Just my personal experience.

  9. I made this turkey last year. It was my very first EVER time hosting a Thanksgiving and making a turkey and this recipe was my HERO! The turkey was beyond moist, flavorful, and DIVINE! Almost a year later, I still have saliva coming down my mouth from the memories. No one could believe that it was my first time making a turkey. I’m so excited to make it again this year!

  10. Kate, we are having about 26-28 people over for Thanksgiving and so I am making 2 turkeys. Do you think using this recipe for 2 18lb turkeys will still turn out OK?? I know you say no more than 14lbs, but 2 14lb’ers just won’t be enough for my family!! 🙂

    1. The thing with larger turkeys is that they just don’t taste as good and they’re harder to cook accurately because the outside is done long before the inside. BUT. This will still make it better than your average turkey. 🙂

  11. This will be my first year making turkey since we live far from family.. can you tell me what thermometer you have? Also what is a good gravy that doesnt require me using the giblets? the thought of that makes me want to gag lol (can you tell i havent cooked much?!)
    anywho LOVE your blog! thanks so much for everything!

  12. I agree–brining is best!! I use my (sterilized) cooler to brine it in if I don’t have room in my fridge for the water bath canner I also use. And you are right about cooking it to a temperature as opposed to a time to weight ratio; my first turkey that I brined was overdone the first time I checked it (something about the salt makes it cook faster than normal). I’ll have to try your herb combination in my brine–I generally just do molasses and rosemary, but I love sage and parsley too, that sounds delicious. 🙂

  13. i use more or less the same brine method, except i put the frozen bird in the brine and let it defrost and brine in one. i use the frozen birds with the popup thermometer and never had any problem. the brining makes the meat moist, flavorful and adding butter under the skin, makes it juicy. we never use the gravy, the meat is already moist by itself. thanks for your very useful comments and suggestions.

  14. I was wondering, do you still use a bag if you are using a roasting oven and not a conventional oven? Thanks!

      1. I checked the roaster bags at the store and they say not to use it in a roaster oven.

  15. This is the most delicious turkey ever! My mom refused to brine the turkey for Thanksgiving and I was very disappointed. My sister used this recipe and had my mom over for Christmas eve dinner and she said she will always use this recipe from now on. Yay! I am making it for Sunday dinner and can’t wait. Thanks!!

  16. I would love to win the jam, I like it on toasted English Muffins and on Waffles yum thanks

  17. Thanks for this great recipe! I made my turkey last evening and it turned out not just delicious, but beautiful as well.

  18. You made Thanksgiving amazing this year. I followed your instructions and we had a fabulous turkey. Thanks so much!

  19. So I got some of those turkey cooking bags, and when I read the instructions, it says for turkey to cook until 180 degrees. Your directions say 165. Which is it?

    1. The breast needs to be 165 and I’ve generally found that if you cook the breast much beyond 165, it will be too dry. Also, it will continue to cook after you pull it out of the oven. I like the bags because it’s been my experience that they help get the dark meat done quicker at around the same time as the breast (every time I’ve cooked a turkey without a bag, the breast comes out perfect, but the dark meat is never done, or the breast is dry, but the dark meat is perfect). That’s also why I like smaller birds. If you feel more comfortable, you can find a temp somewhere in between! 🙂

  20. Kate-
    I made this turkey for Thanksgiving (my first time EVER!) and it turned out PERFECT!! Thanks so much!

  21. Kate…the turkey was perfect!!! I will never search for another way to cook it. Moist tender and juicy just like you said it would be.
    Thanks for making this the best Turkey yet!!

  22. I used this recipe last week, and it was so much better than the dull, dry turkeys I’ve baked the past few years. Thank you!

  23. Made this turkey today for our family “After Thanksgiving dinner because we’re craving leftovers” feast and OH MY! This was hands down THE BEST turkey I have ever had. My turkey cooked super fast (12.5 lbs in under 2 hours) and ended up overcooking a tad, and was still so juicy. Mmmmmm….lunches this week are going to be heaven! Thank you thank you! This is my new turkey tradition!

  24. Hey Kate . . . I think the flavor injector was one of the funnest things in this tutorial, and I was able to involve my boys 🙂 They enjoyed giving the turkey “shots.” So much fun.

    1. LOVE it!! It’s one of my favorite parts of making the turkey, too! 🙂

  25. I didnt cook for Thanksgiving, (I mooched). However, I just went to my local fresh market and bought a free range whole chicken, and Im going to do your “turkey recipe” on the chicken. Can’t wait to try it.