I dug out our family Thanksgiving turkey recipe and thought I would share my tips for cooking a moist, delicious turkey. The secret? Start with a great bird and use my secret basting method for a delicious turkey.
Moist, Delicious Thanksgiving Turkey Recipe
It’s the most wonderful time of year…the time of year when Halloween, with its spooky movies and candy, morphs into Thanksgiving with family, friends, and food. And then Christmas. Christmas! Follow that up with New Year’s Eve and what a wonderful time of year it is.
Let’s talk turkey for a moment. Turkey is, of course, the quintessential Thanksgiving day feast. As school children, we drew turkeys made from an outline of our hands and recognize the holiday by the food on the festive table. Now as adults, we may be called upon to actually create the feast.
But some of us (myself included) did not grow up with memories of mom cooking Thanksgiving feasts. My husband taught me how to cook a Thanksgiving turkey. His mother became too sick to cook starting in the late 1990s so he took over cooking duties for his family. He became a proficient cook and I always credit his great-grandfather, the chef, for giving him the cooking genes!
This is his secret method for cooking a moist turkey. It’s counter-intuitive. When you read it, you may scratch your head and think, “This is the Thanksgiving turkey recipe?” Those who have eaten a turkey at our house, either for Thanksgiving or during our annual Christmas party, know that when we talk about a moist turkey, we mean a moist turkey.
The Secret to a Moist Turkey: Start with a Good Bird
The secret to a great Thanksgiving turkey recipe starts with the bird itself. The National Turkey Federation(there is such an organization – honestly, it’s real) advises that there is no difference between a fresh or frozen bird. In my experience, frozen offers more choices in size and quality of bird than fresh.
There are five types of frozen turkeys you’ll find in the average supermarket:
- Self-basting (also called basting): These are conventionally raised turkeys that are flash frozen to prevent ice crystals from forming in the meat. Self-basting turkeys are either brined or injected with a solution of edible fat (such as butter), seasonings and spices, water, broth and flavor enhancers. The fats, combined with the seasonings, melt during cooking and make a tender, moist turkey. This is our turkey of choice and gives you a good head start on your Thanksgiving bird.
- Free range (free roaming): This term refers to how the turkeys are raised rather than to their meat. Free range turkeys access the outdoors during the lives; they often live in cages but are given time outside to roam around. If you are concerned about the kind treatment of animals, free range is for you, but it doesn’t affect the taste too much. By the way, free range does not mean organic, natural or healthy – it simply means that the animals were able to move about freely outdoors during their lives. They may have been conventionally raised and the meat may or may not be any better than other birds.
- Kosher: Kosher turkeys are killed and treated according to Jewish dietary laws. They are salted inside and out after slaughter to remove all traces of blood. The birds are then washed so the salt is removed. Many people like kosher turkeys because their flavor is said to be better. I’ve found them to be flavorful and just as good as self-basting turkeys.
- Natural: Natural turkeys may be labeled as such if no artificial colors, flavors or enhancers are added.
- Organic: Organic turkeys must be raised outdoors, with access to sunlight. Their diet contains no chemicals or antibiotics. Their feed must also be raised organically.
Which do we have on the Grunert family table? We almost always purchase and cook a self-basting turkey. Several years ago, when my employer gave out free turkeys to employees for Thanksgiving, we received kosher turkeys. These were delicious as well.
Keeping Self-Basting Turkeys Moist
Here’s the simple, easy secret to cooking a moist self-basting turkey: water.
That’s it. Water.
I know, it sounds crazy. But this is how I cook a moist turkey every year. Thaw the turkey for several days in the refrigerator. Place it in a pan to catch any water or drips. You can estimate how long a frozen turkey will take to thaw by the rule of thumb that it takes one day for every 5 pounds of turkey to thaw. A 20-pound turkey takes four days to thaw completely.
A great chart to help you determine cooking times may be found at All Recipes.
Before cooking the turkey, remove the exterior wrapping. Reach into the interior cavity and remove the gizzard package. Many larger turkeys contain a package consisting of the neck, heart, liver, and kidneys. These can be used for gravy, cooked separately for the pets (heart, liver, and kidneys) or discarded.
- If you are cooking a kosher or self-brining turkey, rinse it under cool water.
- Stuff the turkey with my Italian stuffing recipe or the recipe of your choice.
- Place the turkey breast-side down on the roasting pan or rack. Add 1 cup of water, pouring water over the turkey. The excess water should run into the roasting pan.
- Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the turkey breast. Turkey should be cooked until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees Fs on the meat thermometer.
- Preheat the oven to 350F.
- When the oven is preheated, put the turkey into the oven. Set the timer for one hour. The turkey will take about 15-20 minutes per pound to cook, so time your roasting accordingly. If you want to eat dinner at 6 p.m., and you are cooking an 18-pound turkey, it will take at least 3 to 4 hours. It will take longer if the turkey is stuffed.
- After an hour, pour half a cup of water over the turkey. Repeat every hour until the turkey is completely cooked and the internal temperature reached 165 degrees F.
I know a lot of cooks will disagree with me on this…pour water on the turkey? But yes, this is what we do and it bastes the turkey beautifully. As my guests will attest, our turkey is moist and delicious!
Jeanne Grunert is a certified Virginia Master Gardener and the author of several gardening books. Her garden articles, photographs, and interviews have been featured in The Herb Companion, Virginia Gardener, and Cultivate, the magazine of the National Farm Bureau. She is the founder of The Christian Herbalists group and a popular local lecturer on culinary herbs and herbs for health, raised bed gardening, and horticulture therapy.