In the test kitchen, we’ve been in pursuit of perfect turkey recipes for more than a decade. Countless birds have been oven-roasted, grill-roasted, and high-roasted, with careful evaluations of brining, air drying, basting, and trussing along the way. This year, we revisited our existing recipes to answer your questions and summarize 11 years of kitchen research.
How to brine a turkey? What’s the basic formula for brining? Does it change depending on the size of the turkey?
A four-hour soak in a solution of 1 cup of table salt per gallon of water does the job for moderately sized 15-pound turkeys, but we were curious to see if the salt levels should be adjusted for smaller and larger birds. We soaked lightweight, middleweight, and heavyweight birds in brines with salt levels ranging from 1⁄2 cup to 4 cups and then refrigerated each bird for four hours. After roasting the birds, we asked tasters to give us their impressions of white and dark meat carved from each one. Apart from a distaste for the meat brined in the weakest and strongest solutions, tasters found most permutations to be acceptable. In fact, after several attempts, we found that consensus was nearly impossible to come by; tasters just weren’t very sensitive to minor variations in salt levels. Even for a rather large or small bird, then, our standard formula—1 cup of table salt per gallon of water—is just fine.
My schedule would work better with an overnight brine rather than a four-hour brine. What adjustments should I make?
For an overnight brine, halve the salt—use 1⁄2 cup table salt per gallon of water.
If a bird spends more or less time in the brine than recommended, what will happen?
We didn’t find significant differences in birds brined for an hour or two longer than our standard four-hour or overnight brine; but if you go much beyond that, the bird will be too salty. And if you brine a turkey for only two or three hours, you won’t get all the benefits of brining (moisture retention, thoroughly seasoned meat, and a better ability to withstand hot oven temperatures, which is essential for crisp skin).
I prefer to use kosher salt, not table salt, when brining. How do I adjust the recipe?
Because kosher salt is less dense than table salt and one brand of kosher salt is even less dense than the other, our standard formula must be adjusted. Substitute 2 cups of Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt or 1 1/2 cups of Morton Kosher Salt for 1 cup of table salt.
How does koshering differ from brining?
Though their purposes are quite different, koshering and brining have similar effects on turkey meat. While brining consists of a single soak in salt water, the koshering process involves several steps. The turkey is first soaked in water for one-half hour. Then it is heavily salted and placed on an incline for about an hour to encourage the removal of blood. Finally, the bird is showered with final rinses of cold water. Because both koshering and brining encourage the absorption of water and salt, we do not recommend brining a bird that has been koshered.
Why do I sometimes see a “fresh” turkey being sold in a freezer case at the market?
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, poultry that has never been stored below 26 degrees Fahrenheit can be labeled “fresh.” While this temperature is below the freezing point of water (32 degrees), it is not cold enough to freeze enough of the water in the bird for it to qualify for the USDA’s definition of “frozen.” The USDA considers poultry that is “still pliable and yields to the thumb when pressed [to be] consistent with consumer expectations of ‘fresh’ poultry. Any turkey that has fallen below 26 degrees should be stored at or below 0 degrees and must be labeled “frozen” or “previously frozen.”
How much salt is in kosher and natural birds? What would happen if I brined a self-basting bird?
We get a lot of questions about salt concentrations in treated birds. We sent a skinless breast from each of five turkeys to our lab for sodium analysis. Note that 1 percent sodium by weight translates to about 1.9 teaspoons table salt in every pound of turkey.
Fresh turkey brined for 4 hours (1 cup of table salt per gallon of water): 0.22 percent sodium by weight
Fresh turkey brined for 12 hours (1⁄2 cup of table salt per gallon of water): 0.21 percent sodium by weight
Unbrined self-basting frozen turkey: 0.27 percent sodium by weight
Brined self-basting frozen turkey: 0.34 percent sodium by weight
Frozen kosher turkey: 0.16 percent sodium by weight
The short answer to your question? Don’t brine a self-basting turkey; it will be unpalatably salty.
On Thanksgiving, my refrigerator is packed. Is there a way to brine outside the refrigerator?
A large, foodsafe container (such as a cooler) can be used to hold the turkey if the refrigerator is not an option. It is important to thoroughly clean and sanitize the container before and after use. Because the container is not going to be stored in the refrigerator, you must add a sufficient number of ice packs or bags of ice to maintain a temperature below 40 degrees. Choose a container that’s large enough to keep the bird completely submerged.
What’s your stance on stuffing?
Most of the time, we roast unstuffed birds. Cooking the stuffing in a stuffed bird to a safe internal temperature takes quite a while and usually results in overcooked meat. If it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without a stuffed turkey on your table, you can reduce the roasting time (and the risk of dry turkey) by heating the stuffing before spooning it into the cavity of the turkey. Heat the stuffing in the microwave on high power until very hot (120 to 130 degrees), or 6 to 8 minutes.
I don’t have a roasting rack. What should I do?
A V-rack is important for two reasons. First, the rack holds the turkey in position during roasting and keeps it from rolling to one side or the other. Second, it elevates the meat above the roasting pan, allowing air to circulate and promoting even cooking and browning. If you don’t own a V-rack, cooking grates from a gas stove can be used to create a makeshift roasting rack. Wrap two stove grates with aluminum foil and then use a paring knife or skewer to poke holes in the foil so that juices can drip down into the pan as the bird roasts. Place the grates in the roasting pan, leaning them against the sides of the pan so that the bottoms of the grates meet to create a V shape. Roast the turkey as usual.
Do I really have to turn the bird during roasting?
Repeatedly rotating a hot turkey during the frenzied preparation of a holiday meal is troublesome at best and ultimately not worth it, we decided, for the minimal extra browning provided. Still, one flip protects the delicate breast meat during the first half of the cooking time and results in meat that is more moist—and that is worth the bother.
Do I have to baste the bird?
Yes, but only at the outset. Brushing the turkey with butter before roasting is very little extra work, contributes to browning, and adds a mild buttery flavor. Conversely, basting during roasting is an unnecessary extra step. As a matter of fact, basting in the last hour of roasting can actually turn crisp turkey skin soft.
How do I know when the turkey is done?
Getting an accurate temperature reading on a turkey can be a challenge. In several instances, we recorded temperatures that varied by as much as 20 degrees when taken in the same spot on the same bird at 10-second intervals. To reduce the margin of error as much as possible, follow the procedures illustrated above when taking the temperature of the bird. Roast the turkey until the legs move freely and the thickest part of the breast registers 165 degrees and the thickest part of the thigh registers 170 to 175 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.
Thirty minutes seems like a long time to rest the turkey after roasting. Is it really necessary?
Yes. Resting allows for the redistribution and reabsorption of the juices in the meat. This makes for ultramoist, flavorful meat while also giving the bird a chance to cool for easier carving. Skip this step and you’ll both burn yourself and end up with a flood of juices on your carving board, not to mention dry turkey. To get an idea of how much juice is lost by slicing the meat too soon, we roasted six skin-on turkey breasts and weighed them. We sliced three straight from the oven and waited 30 minutes to slice the others. On average, we found that the rested turkeys weighed 2 to 3 percent more than the unrested turkeys, which translates to a great deal of juice saved. Plan on a 30-minute rest for most birds and up to 40 minutes for very large birds.
You sometimes recommend air drying. Is it necessary?
If you have the time and refrigerator space, air drying produces extremely crisp skin and is worth the effort. After brining, rinsing, and patting the turkey dry, place the turkey breast-side up on a flat wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate, uncovered, 8 to 24 hours. Proceed with the recipe.
Do I have to truss the bird?
Trussing with kitchen twine is done to keep the legs of the turkey from splaying during cooking. Don’t bother with complicated trussing. Instead, secure the legs by tucking the ankles of the bird into the pocket of skin at the tail end. Tuck the wings behind the bird.