Turkey is the centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner, as is the ever-present anxiety over how to make, cook, brine, baste, stuff said turkey. Regardless of your Thanksgiving turkey know-how, this holiday refresh from cooking pro Elana Horwich may help make things easier. Elana promises this is the easiest how-to-cook-a-turkey tutorial ever, and, given her hostess-with-the-mostess status, we believe her. Get the entire dummy-proof Thanksgiving guide, plus sanity-saving tricks and recipes all week long.
It took a lot of stress and hard work to come up with this hassle-free turkey. Don’t think I didn’t personally slave over it just because I say it’s the easiest ever—it wasn’t easy to get here. Cookbooks were scoured, recipes were sent from friends, gravies were made and thrown out, my refrigerator was packed to the brim with cooked and uncooked turkey, butchers were consulted, and friends were summoned over to taste and critique. Finally, it has arrived.
Let’s start with what makes this bird so darn easy:
No Brining | I call for a kosher turkey, which eliminates the need for brining. Kosher meat is salted and, in general, this creates automatically juicy poultry. Buying kosher—whether you’re Jewish or not—will save you time, stress and a mess. If a kosher turkey is not available, a brined bird will also work well.
No Basting | The idea of having to open the oven at regular intervals to baste completely obliterates all desires in me to make a turkey. I don’t know why. I am sure it’s not such a big deal. It’s simply a psychological hurdle I don’t want to overcome. My food is good. I own a cooking school. People pay me to learn to make my food. I have never ever basted and I’m not starting now. I don’t even own a baster. The end.
Quick Cooking | We’re talking just under two hours for a small bird. And less than three for a larger one. Quicker doesn’t necessarily mean easier, I admit. If the turkey was in the oven for five hours and I didn’t have to touch it, I’d be equally as happy. But cooking the bird at a high temperature (450°F)—as the culinary queen Ruth Reichl recommends in Gourmet—actually adds flavor by caramelizing the surface. And who’s complaining that our turkey will be done so soon?!
No skin lifting + fancy flavorings | It’s just not needed. I’ve tried. We’re sticking to olive oil, salt and pepper. The flavors will come from the pan juices…see below.
And here are the tricks to make this easy turkey extra yummy:
Roast + Turn | We’re going to start roasting the turkey breast down so all the juices run into the white meat breast. Then we turn it over to get a golden brown all over. That’s the only time you’ll have to touch the turkey as it cooks.
how To Stuff | We’re going to stuff the turkey cavity with some roughly chopped and whole vegetables. This will “insulate” our turkey meat and keep it tender, but it will also contribute to a delicious flavor in the pan juices. This turkey will be served “au jus,” meaning with dollied-up pan juices and no floury thickening agents, which would technically make it gravy. Also, we are not putting stuffing into this turkey. That would not make it The EASIEST Turkey Ever. (Please see my Nobel Prize winning Multi-Grain Stuffing recipe.) Separating the two will make your life easy.
How To Make The Easiest Thanksgiving Turkey Ever
You will need:
+ an instant read thermometer (Don’t freak out, I will walk you through how to use it.)
+ roasting pan
+ roasting rack
+ kitchen twine
Ingredients: (for 12 to 18 people)
For the turkey:
+ 13-16 pound kosher turkey or brined turkey (kosher organic works, too)
+ 2 Tbsp olive oil
+ 1 scant Tbsp salt
+ 1 ¾ tablespoons freshly ground pepper
For the turkey cavity:
+ fresh thyme (half a bunch)
+ 1 onion, cut in quarters, skin on
+ 2 stalks celery
+ 1 russet potato
+ 1-2 carrots or parsnips
+ 2 bay leaves
For the pan juices gravy:
+ olive oil (about one Tbsp)
+ 3 large shallots, finely chopped
+ 4 stalks celery, finely chopped
+ thyme, half a bunch- tied together with kitchen twine
+ 2 ½ cups quality chicken broth, preferably homemade
+ the turkey neck (which comes with the turkey)
+ freshly ground pepper + salt, if needed
For the turkey:
1. Preheat oven to 450°F and place rack on lower third of oven.
2. Remove the neck and the possible bag of gizzards that comes with your turkey. Save the neck for your pan juice gravy.
3. Rinse the turkey and dry it really well.
4. Use your hands to give it a light coating of olive oil. Rub in the salt and pepper.
5. Place it over the roasting pan on your rack and stuff the cavity with the vegetables listed above. You might want to cut some in half to get them to all fit. If you don’t have enough room, use less. If you have more room, put more in! (This isn’t rocket science.) We’re just creating a flavor base for the pan juices.
6. Make sure the turkey is now breast side down and add a cup of water or broth to the bottom of the pan. If you see that it has evaporated during cooking, add more. Tie legs together with kitchen twine. If you don’t have any, skip it.
7. Place in oven and look at the clock. Calculate approximate cooking time. Please note: Cooking times vary widely as not all ovens and turkeys are the same. I prefer to underestimate the cooking time so as not to overcook the bird. Ovens vary. Don’t worry, this isn’t hard…
+ For a 13-pound bird, about 1 hour 50 minutes…start checking temperature at 1 hour 30 minutes.
+ For 14-pound bird, about 2 hours…start checking temperature at 1 hour 40 minutes.
+ For a 15-pound bird, about 2 hours 10 minutes…start checking at 1 hour 50 minutes.
+ For a 16-pound bird, about 2 hours 20 minutes…start checking at 2 hours.
8. Read note on how to use the instant read thermometer.
9. After an hour of cooking, take bird out of the oven and shut door. Use clean oven mitts and flip the bird over so it is breast side up. (Ok, so you dirtied some oven mitts. They can get washed.) Put bird back in oven.
10. When you have checked turkey on both sides of the thighs and it registers 160°F, take it out of oven. Place the rack over a cookie sheet or another roasting pan so you can get and use the yummy juices in the pan you just cooked in. Loosely tent the bird with tin foil. Let rest for 30 minutes before carving. (See note on carving below.)
For the pan juices gravy:
Gravy is a thickening of the pan juices. I don’t “thicken” my gravy for many reasons, starting with it’s less healthy and ending with it’s one more pain in my tuchus. And it’s less pure. We want the flavor to be as fresh as possible so here you go. Note: I recommend starting this as your turkey cooks to make your process less stressful.
1. Place pan over medium high heat and add a tablespoon of olive oil.
2. Add the shallots, celery, half a bunch of thyme, still on its branches and the turkey neck, let cook for about 7 minutes.
3. Add broth, adjust heat to low flame and let cook down for about 40 minutes or until the vegetables are really soft and the broth is condensed.
4. Once turkey is done, pour all the juices from the roasting pan into a glass Tupperware container and place in freezer for a few minutes. You want the fat to separate. If there is a lot of fat, use a shallow spoon to scoop it out. You can also use a bunch of paper towels to soak it up, but you do want some fat to remain. A thin layer is sufficient. Pour into sauté pan.
5. Now take the pan you roasted the bird in and place it over 2 burners on your stove, on medium high heat. Pour in a cup of broth and scrape out all the yummy bits on the bottom. This is good stuff! Pour it into your sauté pan.
6. Let your juices cook on low flame until you are ready to serve with your turkey. Remove the thyme branches and the turkey neck. You can either: Use a wooden spoon to smash down the veggies into a mush OR place the whole thing in a blender OR strain out the vegetables OR simply serve as is. I like to pour it directly on the platter of turkey, but you can also serve on the side.
A Note on Carving:
Make sure you parade your gorgeous turkey around so everyone can see how fabulous you are. But then carve it in the kitchen. You need a big cutting board and a large sharp knife. The meat closest to the bone is the juiciest so you want to remove all the breast meat from one side in one fell swoop, and then cut it into pieces horizontally. Use a fork to balance and slice the breast off from the bone, lay it down and cut across into slices. Easy.
For dark meat, ideally you want to cut the leg and thigh away from the rest of the turkey, but this isn’t always easy. So just hold the leg out and use your knife to carve off the meat into pieces.