Demystifying the Roast Turkey

Demystifying the Roast Turkey

After Thanksgiving I was chatting with a young friend who told me she ‘could never make a turkey for her family’, she said it was just too complicated. I laughed then explained her mother had come to me with the same complaint. I shared what I’d said to her mother ‘cooking a turkey is one of the easiest things to make’. After our conversation I ventured to ask other friends if they liked roasting turkeys. It really surprised me how many people my age and older had NEVER roasted a turkey out of fear of the task. 

At any time this gets overwhelming skip to the bottom of this page for "The Basics Only" and the "Items & Ingredients" lists. 

Not one to give up on a culinary challenge I decided to demystify roasting a turkey for a holiday dinner – or for a random Monday evening!

Let’s just face the first fact of roasting turkey fear – raw turkeys are ugly. They’re slimy with a weird bumpy texture. It really is the raw chicken’s crazy cousin. Not saying all cousin’s are slimy, weird and bumpy… also not saying they aren’t (wink wink). It’s that slimy and funky appearance though that I think is the beginning of many people’s concerns with the bird.

Due to the change in Christmas traditions this year, my household will NOT be making a big dinner for the holiday. We have decided to make any and all of the appetizers or treats we desire so we can just hang out munching all day. But that comes with one big draw back… no leftover turkey sandwiches. In our quest of the ‘best of both worlds’ we had a pre-holiday turkey dinner. As I was getting ready to cook it came to me that this may be the best opportunity to demonstrate the ease of roasting the bird. Understand that I think it can be done much easier than even I do it and I’ll explain that along the way, but the point is that with just salt, pepper, a turkey and a baking pan you could have a turkey dinner. 

Be sure it is defrosted by taking it out of the freezer 3 full days before you plan to roast it, put it, bag and all, in a large bowl or on a sheet pan (fancy title for a cookie sheet) then putting it in the refrigerator. Defrosting on the counter is a good way to make your turkey not only slimy but covered in bacteria – so don’t do that!

Planning Your Roasting Time

With your defrosted turkey and two pieces of information you can now solidly plan your cook time.

To determine your start time you will need: 

  • The time you want to eat.
  • The size of your turkey. 

A good rule of thumb is 12 minutes per pound of turkey for a roasting time. (12 mins x 15 lbs. = 180 divided by 60 minutes = 3 hours). I know this will add to your math but also add 15 minutes to that time to prep your turkey and 30 minutes to rest your turkey. Luckily once the first 15 minutes is done you pretty much get to rest and relax. And now that we have that math added in – if dinner time is 6PM and you’re doing a 15 lb. turkey you want to start your prep at 2:15pm (15 min prep, 3 hours roast, 30 min rest). 

Heat Up Your Oven

Fix your oven so that only the bottom rack is still in the oven. Then set the temperature at 375°F. We will be lowering it down in a bit, however, I suggest starting your roasting at 375° for 25 minutes, then lowering to 325°F for the remainder of your cooking time which gives you a crispier prettier skin.  

Prepping Your Turkey

In a clean sink, put your wrapped, defrosted bird onto the sink bottom. I swear this is the messiest part and if you can get past it all the rest is pretty clean. Cut open the turkey bag but keep it under the bird so the bird isn’t just sliding around in the sink. You may need to turn your turkey over if it isn’t legs toward you. You’re about to get up close and personal with your turkey. 

Generally, all turkeys come with two things stuffed in it, the neck and the giblets. While these things are all edible, they don’t cook with the turkey. Some people just toss them out and some cook them to add to their stuffing or gravy. Simply, you can put them in a pot with salted water, bring to a boil and then simmer until cooked through. For this post though the most important thing is to get them out of your bird. Sometimes the neck is in the bottom cavity and the giblets in the neck (almost always in a bag), but they can also all be in the cavity. Grab them and put them aside, throw away or cook, for our purposes we won’t be dealing with them again. 

Give your turkey a quick rinse, or don’t, really doesn’t change a thing in my opinion, but many people believe you need too. If it makes you feel good – do it – if not we can just move on. Tip it front to back to be sure you have as much liquid off of it as you can, then leave it there while we prep the baking pan. 

Do you need a roasting pan? 

I don’t believe so. To be honest, I try to have as few needed pans as possible, and even then it seems we have more than we have room. A roasting pan is huge and cumbersome to store. Instead, you can use any sided pan that is large enough to hold your bird without anything hanging over the sides. In the example photos, I am using the bottom to our broiler pan, but I’m just as likely to use a sheet pan. Sheet pans, cookie sheets with rims and broiler pans work, however, if you have a roasting pan this is your opportunity to use it. 

As the picture above shows, I put onion chunks (sliced, quartered or chopped), celery ribs and a couple carrots cut into pieces on the pan to raise the turkey up from the bottom of the pan. That is more than you need to do but adds flavor to the juices to make beautiful rich gravy from the drippings. An easy way to elevate your turkey literally and culinarily. No need for greasing the pan but if you are concerned about clean up cover the pan with foil.   

Take some paper towels and pat dry your turkey. A dry turkey really is one of those keys to a crisp skin, and it ends the slimy factor! Put your dry turkey on top of the veggies on your pan. 

Season Your Turkey

For me there are two ways to season or add additional flavor to your turkey: dry rub and basting. If you have hit the web or seen cooking shows you know there are many other ways – brining, injecting, rubbing under the skin, covering in oil or butter, but for my kitchen and love of simple roasting all those techniques require too many ingredients, time or tools.

In full disclosure, I should tell you that even my mom says there is no reason to baste. I know that a turkey can be roasted without basting, truly it can, but it’s easy and adds so much flavor that my answer is why not. ​

If you don’t want to get into any of the dry rubbing or basting then just toss some salt and pepper on the inside and outside of your turkey and call it good. I won’t judge. It works great that way too. Add some ‘poultry seasoning’ in there, since almost everyone has a jar of it hiding in the pantry, and you have already stepped up the flavor game. If you’re happy there I guarantee that your family will still be thrilled with your turkey. 

Making a Quick Dry Rub

In a clean bowl or ramekin add:

3 tsp salt, (Kosher, table, sea or Pink Himalayan)

2 tsp ground black pepper,

1/2 tsp thyme,

1/2 tsp ground sage,

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

If you’re stepping it up, make a dry rub in a clean bowl or ramekin, that way you can grab what you need, rub it on and grab more without contaminating your spice jars. A good chef tip to know if you have enough seasoning and spices is to imagine stars in the sky. Your coverage should be like a starry sky on a clear night. Rub your mix on the inside and outside of the whole dry turkey.

Now you’re ready to stuff your turkey – NO WE ARE NOT MAKING STUFFING – we are just adding more flavor. You might notice a trend but you don’t need to stuff it with anything if you don’t want to. Seriously, at this point you could just put it in the oven, dust your hands off like a poker dealer and move on with your day. But if you want an especially juicy turkey I think this adds a lot of flavor and a bit of steam to the inside of your bird. All you need is a washed lemon cut in half, a couple ribs of celery and a couple carrots.  

Roast It Up!

​Now that you have a seasoned, stuffed (or not) turkey on a bed of veggies (or not) in a pan, you’re ready to roast it up. Put it in the 375°F oven for 25 minutes, set a timer! Then when that timer goes off baste the turkey (or not) and turn the temperature down to 325°F for the rest of your determined roasting time from the math above. Set your timer for 30 mins less than the determined time. That is a good point to start looking at your turkey (if you haven’t been a basting..). 

Making a Basting Liquid

In a small saucepan:

1 lemon, washed and cut in half,

2 cups chicken broth

1/2 tsp thyme,

1/2 tsp ground sage,

1/2 tsp red pepper flakes

1/2 onion, chopped, sliced or quartered,

1 stick butter

​ Warm gently on low until butter is melted.

Basting Your Turkey 

If you’ve chosen to baste your turkey – yay! The skin gets crispier, meat juicier and drippings have even more flavor for gravy making. Start basting when turning the oven temperature down then every hour or so followed by one more time when you’re ready to take the turkey out. I use a turkey baster – because there’s been one in the drawer since I was a kid – but a long spoon or ladle works just fine. The trick is to do it quickly so you’re not letting out too much heat. Try to get some of the liquid on the top of the breast and on the legs. Turning your turkey mid way through the bake also ensures you cover it all. 

Time to Test for the Magical Temperature

​​There are so many thoughts on what temperature you need to reach before removing your turkey. It can get confusing when all you want is to be sure your family doesn’t get sick and you still get a juicy bird. Here is my thought – don’t mess around with temp when you are feeding people. If you’d ever trained with me in a professional kitchen you’d know my mantra is ‘don’t make anyone sick’. It’s partially from being a bit of a germaphobe! Always error on safety. Besides who wants to pull out a bird then start cutting only to find its not quite done. 

Everyone needs an instant read thermometer. If you don’t have one almost every grocery or big box store has one for about $15. I use one like this. Get one… it should be an often used tool in your kitchen. 

A clue its getting time to check the temperature is when the skin begins to pull up on the birds legs. If it looks like your turkey is wearing short shorts it is beyond time to check. 

​With your instant read thermometer place it in the thigh of the bird, if you hit bone pull it out a 1/4 inch or so. You want to be near the bone but not touching it. When the temperature reads 180°F carefully take your turkey out of the oven. There will be liquid in the pan, especially if you added veggies and basting liquid to it. 

Take a piece or two of aluminum foil and loosely tent your turkey. It will continue to raise in temperature to above 185°. That’s a good thing. 

Wait 30 minutes as the juices settle down in the turkey so it is moist and lovely. This is the perfect time to remove all the drippings to make gravy. (That is a recipe for another day.)

Last step – Carve it up!

I could (and should) give you detailed info on that but I got too excited and didn’t take any pictures of the process. Trust me that by the time you get to this point, does it really matter how fancy you cut it?! Just slice that baby up and serve it. 

You Can Do This! No more fear, just victory laps around the table. 

The Basics Only:

  • Defrost your turkey 3 days in advance in the fridge.
  • Preheat Oven to 375°F
  • Put turkey in the sink 
  • Remove it from the wrapping bag
  • Take out the neck and giblets
  • Pat it dry with paper towels
  • Place it on a rimmed pan
  • Season it inside and out
  • Put in Oven 
  • After 25 minutes reduce heat to 325°F
  • Roast for estimated time
  • Check for doneness with Instant Read Thermometer
  • When thermometer reads 180° remove turkey
  • Cover loosely with aluminum foil
  • Wait 30 minutes
  • Carve & Serve

Items needed: 

  • A Rimmed Pan
  • Paper towels
  • Salt & Pepper
  • ​Timer
  • Instant Read Thermometer
  • Aluminum Foil

Optional Items: 

  • Small bowl or ramekin
  • Baster, Spoon or ladle
  • Small saucepan

Optional Ingredients: 

  • Spices – Salt, black pepper, thyme, ground sage, cayenne pepper, red pepper flakes
  • 2 Lemons
  • 2 Onions (chopped, slices or quartered)
  • 4 Carrots
  • 6 Ribs of Celery
  • 1/2 Cup (1 stick) Butter
  • 2 Cups Chicken Broth​

Coming before the next holiday… Gravy Making & Turkey Carving!

Johnann Johnson

As a classically trained Chef and Holistic Nutrition Specialist, Johnann finds joy in sharing knowledge and humor about healthy food, for the beginner to the home chef.