Foolproof Roast Turkey and Gravy

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With the return of autumn and the cooler months comes the holiday season. The traditional kick off of the holidays has always been Thanksgiving and its harvest celebrating meal centered around a roast turkey.

Whether for Thanksgiving or Christmas or anytime you want to serve a roast turkey, we will help you with our foolproof turkey guide.

A turkey can easily become overcooked in parts and undercooked in others. I’ve tried just about every method there is and this is the most foolproof recipe I’ve used. It makes a roasted turkey that is fully cooked and moist, with a beautiful golden brown skin. The best part is that this is also one of the easiest ways to prepare a perfect roast turkey.

How Much Turkey

How much turkey do you need? Figure 1.25 to 1.5 pounds per person. If serving a lot of side dishes and starting with a pre-meal cocktail and appetizer hour I would recommend 1.25 pounds per person. 

If you’re just having a sit down with two or three sides then I would plan on 1.5 pounds per person.

I like to cook a larger turkey anyway because I love leftover turkey. If you’re after plenty of leftovers go ahead and go 2 pounds per person.

The Roasting Pan

A good quality roasting pan with a rack is a great help in preparing a turkey. A rack elevates the turkey allowing the dripping to collect and brown in the pan. The turkey raised on a rack will get browned all over – no more soggy bottom.

When the turkey is done roasting you can place a roasting pan directly on the burner to make your gravy. If you use a disposable aluminum roasting pan I would at least get a rack to hold the turkey above the pan.

I use a 14 inch long pan because I used to have a small 24 inch wide stove. The 14 inch by 11 inch  pan was the only one that would fit in my oven. 

How big of a turkey can a 14 inch roasting pan hold? The turkey shown here in my roasting pan is 20.52 pounds. It had room to spare side to side. From front to back was a bit tight. I placed a sheet of foil under the pan in case any dripping went over, but thankfully they didn’t. 

Raw turkey in a roasting pan.

I would probably not go above 18 pounds in this smaller roasting pan. Most roasting pans are 16 inches long, but if you have a smaller oven I can assure you that a 14 inch one works beautifully. This is the pan I use. If your oven can accommodate a larger roasting pan I suggest getting one that is at least 16 inches.

Thaw Your Turkey Completely

If your turkey is frozen it must be thawed completely before cooking. Putting a partially frozen turkey in the oven to cook is a recipe for disaster.

The best way to thaw a frozen turkey is in the refrigerator. Allow 24 hours in the refrigerator for every 5 pounds. As a buffer I like to add one extra day in the refrigerator. So for a 20 pound turkey allow 4 days plus 1 day buffer for a total of 5 days of thawing.

Quick thawing in the sink is an option. You need to submerge the frozen turkey in cool water. You need to change the water every 30 minutes. Allow 30 minutes per pound. More info at the USDA’s site.

Brining

If your turkey has been frozen it most likely has been injected with a solution of water, salt and spices already. This helps prevent moisture loss during thawing. These don’t benefit too much from brining in a solution of dissolved salt and flavoring.

Dry brining, the technique developed by Zuni Cafe chef Judy Rodgers is a simple and effective way to flavor your turkey.

All you need to do is put on a salt based dry rub at least 24 hours in advance of cooking. The flavors are slowly absorbed into the turkey and infuse flavor inside and out. This recipe is just a simple salt and pepper coating, but feel free to add your favorite flavors. Powdered garlic is always welcome (fresh tends to burn with the long cooking times). Sage gives a traditional Thanksgiving flavor. Cumin and cayenne lend a warm, smoky and spicy taste.

The dry brining technique also works even if your turkey is still frozen and thawing. Sprinkle any leftover seasoning in the cavity.

Stuffing

Stuffing is probably my favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal. That said, it is best cooked in a dish and not in the turkey. Stuffing the turkey increases the cooking time. By the time the stuffing reaches a safe temperature, minimum of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, the white meat easily becomes overcooked and dry. 

In hindsight my fond memories of stuffing may be due to our turkey always being overcooked.

You can have moist turkey, just cook the dressing separately. I have no problem calling dressing cooked in a casserole dish ‘stuffing’.

Basting

How many times do you need to baste a turkey to achieve that deep golden brown color? Only once – that’s right. I only baste once, and even that is optional.

Coating the skin with softened butter is all you need to do before cooking to ensure a perfect skin. I cover the breast with foil for the first part of cooking – the last hour and a half I remove the foil to let the skin brown and the breast meat will end up cooking at the same rate the legs do.

If you feel like basting this is the one time to do it – when you remove the foil from the breast. Use softened butter to initially coat the skin. That way you get all the fats from the butter but also the milk solids that together contribute to a beautifully browned turkey.

Roasting Times

Use this as a guide and always check your turkey using an instant read thermometer.

Roast the turkey until the thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 165 degrees. 

8 – 12 pounds 2 ¾ hours – 3 hours
12 – 14 pounds 3 hours – 3 ¾ hours
14 – 18 pounds 3 ¾ hours – 4 ¼ hours
18 – 20 pounds 4 ¼ hours – 4 ½ hours
20 – 24 pounds 4 ½ hours – 5 hours

Start checking the temperature 30 minutes before the estimated completion time.

Resting Time

 Allow at least 20 minutes resting time once your turkey is done. You can let the turkey rest about 45 minutes if you need to and it will still be plenty hot enough to serve.

Resting the turkey gives you time to make gravy.  Put any dishes that need to be finished in the oven at this time.

Drippings into Gravy

If the turkey is the centerpiece of the table, the gravy is what holds everything together. A roast turkey dinner means never having to feel bad about putting gravy on everything.

I like to roast the neck of the turkey in the bottom of the pan along with plenty of liquids to help create rich flavorful drippings. I also have premade about 2 quarts of turkey stock, made from turkey legs and wings purchased previously.

Once you move your turkey to a serving platter or carving board strain the drippings into a large fat separator. Pour the fat into a measuring cup and reserve the drippings and you’re ready to make gravy right in the roasting pan set over one or two burners on your stove.

Foolproof Roast Turkey with Gravy

1 18 pound turkey – fully thawed or fresh
salt and pepper
1 lemon, quartered lengthwise
2-3 cloves of garlic, lightly crushed
8 tablespoons butter (1 stick), softened at room temperature

For the gravy

unsalted butter, melted, if needed
¾ cup all purpose flour.

Place your turkey on a rack in a roasting pan. Remove the neck and place in the roasting pan. Remove the giblets and place them in the roasting pan if desired – remove the liver as it can turn bitter with long roasting.

Season with salt and pepper. Do this 24 hours before roasting if possible. Place the quartered lemon and the garlic in the turkey’s cavity. Add any other herbs or seasonings if you like. Refrigerate 24 hours or proceed directly to the next step.

Preheat the oven to 325º Fahrenheit, place the oven rack in the lowest position.

Spread the softened butter all over the turkey skin and work some under the skin of the breast.

Tie the legs together or use the holder that most turkeys come with.

Cover the breast tightly with foil. Tuck the wings under if you like. I don’t because I like them to get dark brown and use them to make stock.

Pour about 3 cups of the stock in the bottom of the roasting pan.

Roast for the time on the chart less about 1 ½ hours. For an 18 pound turkey roast for 3 hours.

Remove the foil from the breast. If you want to baste, now is the time.

Add more stock to the pan to make sure it’s not drying out. Another 2 cups is usually enough.

Roast for the last 1 ½ hours. Start checking the temperature after 1 hour.
Check the temperature in the thickest part of the thigh, you want to reach 165º F.

When the turkey is done remove from the oven and place on a carving board or serving platter. Let it rest at least 20 minutes. Use this time to make gravy and finish any dishes that need the oven.

Remove the neck from the pan and strain the drippings into a large fat separator. Pour the fat into a measuring cup – you’ll need ¾ cup. If there’s not enough fat just add melted butter to make ¾ cup.

Measure the drippings – you’ll need 8 cups. Add enough previously made stock to make 8 cups if needed.

Place the roasting pan over one or two burners set on low. Add the fat / butter mixture. Slowly whisk in the flour and cook until just slightly browned – 2 – 3 minutes. Slowly whisk in the stock, stirring constantly to prevent lumps from forming. Cook until thickened, about 7 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Carve the turkey and pass the gravy!

Serve with your favorite sides and accompaniments.

We love roast turkey with our Spiced Cranberry Relish.

Thanksgiving, Christmas, or anytime, roast turkey always means a wonderful meal.

For a show stopping dessert, try our Pumpkin Soufflé with Crème Anglaise

Looking for other Holiday Ideas? Try our Baked Ham with Brown Sugar Bourbon Glaze.

Make sure you have everything you need to create the best Thanksgiving with our checklist post: Thanksgiving Essentials

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