Living Well: 7 Secrets To The Juiciest Thanksgiving Turkey

November 7, 2012

tutorial for the best Thanksgiving Turkey

By Lindsey Johnson.

It can seem like a daunting task to roast a turkey! I know I was a little panicked when I hosted my first Thanksgiving dinner. I put a lot of pressure on myself because I wanted the turkey to steal the show. (I knew the sides would take care of themselves.)

After consulting my gigantic stack of cookbooks and foodie magazines, I felt prepared. As I slid the roasting pan into the oven, I wiped my hands on my apron and said, “Well, that was easier than I thought it would be!”

Follow these tips and you’ll be saying the same thing!

tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey
tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey
tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey
tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey Plus, you and your guests will be enjoying the juiciest Thanksgiving turkey ever.

tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey


Before we start, there are several different kinds of turkeys available — self-basting, kosher, and natural. You’ll find these fresh or frozen. (Note: some turkeys are partially frozen and still labeled “fresh.”) In this tutorial, I’m using a fresh, all-natural, free range turkey. While I don’t mind using the turkeys treated with salt solutions, I do prefer seasoning them myself for greater control. But that is just a preference.

tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

The first step is to thaw your turkey. If you have a fresh turkey, you can skip this step. Make sure to thaw your turkey at the proper temperature to avoid bacteria growth. Thawing can be done in the refrigerator or in cold water, which takes about 3/4 the time. Be sure to thaw the turkey over a rimmed baking dish so the juices don’t run all over and contaminate other foods and surfaces.

Secret #1: If you’ve never cooked a turkey before, you may be shocked to find out how long it takes to thaw a turkey. Use this handy reference and plan ahead!

tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

Once the turkey has been thawed, remove the giblets — if you like, you can save them to make homemade turkey stock. (In fact, I recommend thawing the turkey a day or two before you roast it and make the stock so it’s ready to go for gravy.) Rinse the turkey inside and out in cool water and pat dry with paper towels.


When I buy a fresh, natural turkey, like the one pictured, I like to brine it to help make it as juicy as possible. If your turkey has been pre-salted (check the label), go ahead and skip this part.

Think of brining like marinating. It helps season and draw moisture into the meat to keep it flavorful and juicy. A good rule of thumb is to use 1 cup of table salt (2 cups kosher salt) and 1/2 cup sugar (white or brown) for every gallon of water. Brining recipes vary greatly on how long the turkey should brine. I allow plenty of time, at least 8-12 hours.

Secret #2: Brining means you can skip the basting later on.

how to properly brine a turkey

Dissolve the salt and sugar in the water and add any seasonings you want to use. I like to use a combination of herbs and spices — rosemary, thyme, bay leaves, peppercorns, whole cloves and allspice, plus I put in some leek tops and halved garlic cloves for extra flavor.

Place the turkey and the brining solution into a sterilized plastic or non-reactive metal container. You can also use brining bags and place it in a plastic tub in case it leaks. You want to keep the turkey at 40 degrees F, so you’ll either want to refrigerate the turkey in the brine, or leave it someplace cool and add ice or gel ice packs. If it’s cold enough outside, you can even put the turkey in a safe place and let it brine there.

how to properly brine a turkey
how to properly brine a turkey

I had a tough time finding a container that was tall enough, so I ended up using a much larger plastic tub than I wanted.  If you have the same problem, just be sure to follow the ratio of salt and sugar to water and you’ll be fine.

Secret #3: To keep the turkey totally submerged, top it with a heavy metal lid or plate.

One the turkey has brined long enough, remove it from the brine and rinse it well with cold water. Discard the brine.

tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey


Let the turkey continue to air dry (you can do this overnight in the fridge too) and allow it to come to room temperature for a few hours before you roast it.

Preheat the oven to the temperature in your recipe. I prefer to start out with very high heat, such as 450 degrees for a half hour, then lower the heat to 350 degrees for the remaining time.

tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

If your turkey comes with a plastic pop-up timer/thermometer, you should leave it where it is, but ignore it!  If you gauge done-ness by the pop-up timer, the white meat will be bone-dry and overcooked. Instead, use an instant-read thermometer. If you have a fancy digital one, even better. Just insert it into the thickest part of the breast and set the temperature for between 161-165 degrees F.

tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

A roasting pan is one of the most important tools for the perfect turkey. You can certainly get away with using a disposable aluminum pan if you are on a tight budget or don’t have storage space to accommodate a large pan. However, I recommend using either the roasting/broiling pan that comes standard with most ovens, or investing in a good-quality roasting pan that comes with a flat or V-rack. If you don’t have a rack, you can make your own using aluminum foil.

Here’s why that is important: You want the turkey to be elevated a bit to allow for air circulation, which leads to more even cooking, and also because as the juices drip down, they will get nice and brown on the bottom of the pan. (That’s one of the keys to really great gravy.)

I also like to dice carrots, onions, and celery to put on the bottom of the pan for extra flavor, but that is totally optional.

what to put in your turkey instead of stuffing
tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

Secret #4: I never cook the stuffing inside the turkey. I prefer to bake it separately in another dish. A turkey with stuffing takes longer to cook and can be a huge pain.

While I prefer not to stuff the turkey, I do like to place some aromatics inside the cavity — carrots, onions, garlic, celery, and fresh herbs are great.  I’ve also used apples and lemons before as well.

tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

Before placing the turkey on the roasting rack, rub the skin liberally with butter or canola oil. And if you didn’t brine it, sprinkle the whole bird inside and out with salt and pepper, or a spice rub. The butter will help give you crispy, golden brown skin.

tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

I also like to truss the legs together if the turkey doesn’t come with it already done for me. But don’t stress! Most turkeys come with a plastic or wire trussing. So you can just leave it be.

tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

If your turkey has a big flap of neck skin, you can secure it using toothpicks or just tuck it in.

Secret #5: If you are using a v-rack, be sure to tuck the wings back underneath the turkey so they don’t flap around.

tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

You might notice that the turkey is breast-side down in the roasting pan. That’s on purpose! I like to start roasting that way and rotate the turkey periodically so the breast doesn’t get overcooked.

Secret #6: Finishing with the breast side up will also give you that crispy, brown skin everyone loves to fight over.

If you have a turkey larger than 14-15 lbs., then it will be too difficult to turn it over. Just roast it breast-side up for the whole time, covering just the turkey breast (legs uncovered) with aluminum foil. (I’ll give more detail on the foil later.)

Then it’s time to place it in the oven!

tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey


A lot of people baste their turkeys continually throughout the roasting process. If you rub butter over the skin, that will be a good start and you can baste it a few times if you want to. If I brine my turkey, I don’t usually baste it. Otherwise, I baste mine when I turn it over.

Secret #7: Don’t baste the turkey during the last hour or the skin could turn out flabby instead of golden and crispy.

tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

It’s a good idea to pull the pan completely out of the oven to turn the turkey over.  That way the precious heat you’ve built up won’t escape and it will be much easier to maneuver while you turn it over. I use either clean oven mitts or wads of paper towels to protect my hands when I turn the turkey over. If you want, you can also partially turn the turkey over, allowing each leg to brown nicely (about 15 minutes per leg) before finishing with the breast-side up.

tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

Before sliding the turkey back into the oven, I make a foil diamond or triangle and fit it down against the turkey breast, leaving the legs uncovered because they can tolerate more heat.

tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

A lot of people rely on the leg wiggling easily to tell them when the turkey is finished cooking.  I still like to rely on my thermometer. I like to take a reading in both the breast and thigh. The breast should be at 160-165 degrees F. and the thigh should be at least 170-175 degrees F, some say little as 165 degrees, but I let it get a little higher just to be safe.

tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

If it’s not up to the proper temperature, put it back in the oven for 15-30 minutes more and take another reading.

tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

See? Nice and brown. Just like you want.

tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

When the turkey is finished cooking, you need to let it rest for 30 minutes before slicing it. This can be done on a cutting board with a well around it to catch any escaping juices, or on a serving platter.

This resting step is super important. During the cooking process, a lot of liquid is released. Not all of that will drip down into the roasting pan. A lot of it is sitting just under the skin. Letting the turkey rest for a bit will allow those juices to be reabsorbed and you guessed it, the turkey will be juicier.

tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey
tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

While the turkey rests, be sure to tent it with foil or a large metal bowl to retain the heat.

tutorial for the perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

And you’re done!

Uncover the turkey, place it on the platter (and garnish if you like!), and take it to the table to show off. Then give yourself a pat on the back, sit back and enjoy the compliments you’ll get on the juiciest turkey ever.

P.S. — Ready for more? This is a great resource for learning how to properly carve a turkey. Also, you can find all the Secrets to Living Well posts here.

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

1 bree November 7, 2012 at 9:09 am

i brine my turkey in a bag and place it in one of the produce bins inside the fridge. perfect size and easy to handle.


2 Malia O. November 7, 2012 at 10:00 am

Me too! I use the turkey oven roasting bags. If you get most of the air out of it the liquid will cover the turkey nicely. Just put it in breast down so the meatier part is completely submerged. No giant container needed!


3 R. Pyper November 7, 2012 at 9:35 am

I’m not a big cook, but I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your photos, especially the first few of the cooked bird on the platter. Beautiful! Almost makes me want to try cooking a turkey myself.


4 Robbi November 7, 2012 at 10:07 am

Ditto to R. Pyper’s comment. If that turkey is even half as good as you’ve made it look, then I’ll be eating several plates full, thank you very much! Gorgeous photos, gorgeous turkey-styling!


5 Stella November 7, 2012 at 10:58 am

I needed this! It will be my first Thanksgiving as a married woman, and my first time doing a turkey. Thank you, thank you, thank you!


6 Ann November 7, 2012 at 11:21 am

It’s a bit daunting but I may do it! It would be my first turkey ever! Your pictures are mouth-watering!


7 Katherine November 7, 2012 at 2:05 pm

The only time, prior to this coming year, that I cooked a turkey, I bought a prepared, pop in the oven turkey from Balducci’s. It ended up being a crazy Thanksgiving (hospital pick up due to a car accident involving a family member) and I had to keep calling our house giving my brother-in-law instructions to baste, etc. This year, we are hosting again and I am buying a frozen turkey, brining it and my parents sent us a gas grill so that we can grill it because my father loves it that way. I’m crossing my fingers!


8 Ginger November 7, 2012 at 3:32 pm

I brined mine in one of those huge ziplock bags….you know? the one for soccer balls and tennis rackets? & 5 Gallon Bucket from the Shop.
1. First I make the brine- While Cooling
2. I put ice on the bottom of the Bucket
3. Open Ziplock into the bucket and fold opening down over the sides of the bucket, like a liner.
4. Put in a bunch of yummy extras and pour in brine.
5. Put in Turkey.
6. Fold out all the air, and then zip that baby shut.
7. Pack the rest of the bucket all around the Turkey with Ice.
8. I brine for 48 hours.
9. I have a second fridge so I have an entire shelf available, however if it’s cold in your neck of the woods you can leave your brined turkey outside, Or keep your turkey in a very large Igloo Cooler and check the Ice.

Happy Thanksgiving.


9 Martha November 7, 2012 at 4:59 pm

I have to agree completely with your turning of the turkey. Years ago my mom asked my sister to put the prepared turkey in the oven. She had no idea what she was doing and made a very happy mistake of putting it in breast side down. It made the best white meat ever! The juicy-ness from the dark meat drains into the breast and it is amazing!


10 The enchanted home November 8, 2012 at 4:57 am

WOW!!!!!! Best turkey tutorial ever. I can almost smell it cooking now;) How long to brine for? Overnight? i am going to try this……I bet its awesome!


11 Gretchen November 8, 2012 at 5:30 am

Forgive me – my turkey anatomy is a bit rusty – where exactly is the thigh where the temperature be taken? While your photo is lovely I cannot tell exactly where to place the thermometer.
We usually cook the turkey on a charcoal grill. Super yummy and frees up my teeny-tiny German oven for other things!


12 Veeda November 9, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Great post Lindsey!


13 Stoich91 November 10, 2012 at 7:10 pm

Absolutely Stunning! Thanks for the tips! xo


14 juniakk @ mis pensamientos November 12, 2012 at 8:29 am

great tips here. i’ve used all of those in the past and have worked wonderfully for me. the only two things i do differently is 1) separate the skin from the turkey (breast and legs) and put butter under the skin 2) cover the breast and turkey in bacon strips for the first hour with aluminum on top.


15 Mom November 13, 2012 at 9:50 am

Wow. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post and seeing the beautiful pictures. I’d love for my Thanksgiving turkey to turn out like that!!


16 Jenny November 13, 2012 at 11:57 am

That looks amazing! Thanks for the tips. We’ve had success at my house using those big buckets that wheat or rice come in for brining the turkey.


17 Stephanie M November 20, 2012 at 2:22 pm

This is perfect! I have the brine going right now. My turkey is going to be too big to turn. When should I tent the breast with foil? From the beginning? Half way? After it is brown?


18 Lindsey (Cafe Johnsonia) November 20, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Up to about 16-18 lbs. Well, you could turn a larger one, but they are heavy!

Tent the breast with foil when it’s breast-side up. I start from the very beginning. Take it off at the very end if you want the skin extra crispy.


19 Stephanie M November 20, 2012 at 3:05 pm

Thanks! It’s 24 lbs. and I can barely heft it into the oven, so I’m not going to try to turn it :)


20 Stephanie M November 20, 2012 at 10:15 pm

Picture perfect and tasty, too! Thanks for your help!


21 Paula Mello November 21, 2012 at 3:36 pm

Gabrielle, I simply love your step by step!! Amazing photos, all the tips, I really want to share your post on my blog if you allow me. Here in Brazil we eat turkey at Christmas and fresh fruits as a side dish. Well, let me know, ok?

best wishes


22 LK November 22, 2012 at 1:33 pm

Thank you for sharing! Will definitely be trying this next year.


23 Melissa November 22, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Thank you for this post! I made my turkey following your instructions with the brine and it was the best Turkey I have ever made. Our family will be using this every year from here on out.


24 Monica November 22, 2012 at 5:32 pm

I made this turkey today and it turned out great!


25 Brittany November 23, 2012 at 7:36 pm

My mom and I used this recipe for thanksgiving this year. We had never even heard about brining a turkey until we read the recipe. We followed the recipe right through and our turkey was such a hit! It was so moist and juicy and flavorful and to our surprise, not salty! We used a 5 gallon lemonade container to brine it in, which was kind of genius because we had to carry it up and down a few flights of stairs. When it was done brining in the morning we just used the dispenser button and drained most of the brine before carrying it back upstairs so it was lighter for us. We had a 25 pound turkey so the only thing that we didn’t do was roast it breast side down because we didn’t know how we were going to flip it. This turkey belonged in a restaurant! The family was so impressed. Thank you for your recipe we will be using it from here on out!


26 carrie September 7, 2013 at 4:15 am

Doesn’t brining make the turkey salty?


27 Matthew November 2, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Instead of using the oven can you use just a regular roaster for this recipe?


28 judy November 3, 2013 at 3:51 pm

I prefer to dry brine my turkey.It is so much less effort. Rinse, rub with kosher salt,place in a bag.Put in fridge for 3 or 4 days turning each day.Then roast as above. Best turkeys I have ever roasted.Happy Thanksgving.


29 Jill M November 10, 2013 at 8:20 pm

I do this also. It’s so much easier to dry brine. Will never wet brine my turkey again! It’s too much of a hassle.


30 Jenne November 6, 2013 at 11:59 am

I never ever basted my turkey. It dries out the meat. I used to do it for years and just once tried it without and it was so much more moist. Stuffing bacon under the skin is fantastic too! Cool guide BTW.


31 Decor Zone December 1, 2013 at 12:23 pm

this idea is amazing. i had to make one as soon as i saw it. thank you for posting such a unique idea. ours turned out beautifully .. :)


32 Joanne December 11, 2013 at 9:44 am

Thank you for posting this. I am roasting a turkey for the first time and this has been an immense help! I can’t wait for it to finish.


33 svaya November 18, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Does it have to be unsalted or salted butter?
Does it need to be melted as well?


34 Jill Marie November 25, 2014 at 2:19 pm

This will be my first time brining. I will use your methods. Quick question–my oven has a roast and bake option. It’s also for
Convection options. Which would you suggest? Roast
Convection, bake convection or regular roast or regular bake? Decisions decisions.
This recipe sounds and looks delicious


35 Shannon November 21, 2015 at 8:22 pm

At what point do you turn it over? Half way thru?


36 Ingrid December 26, 2015 at 3:53 pm

I live and work in Europe and this is the first time I have hosted a Thanksgiving Dinner for friends. Your tips made my dinner an absolute success. I have never had a turkey SO moist and tasty thanks to the brining and oven tips.
THANK YOU! The extra work was well worth the effort. If anyone is interested in cooking the perfect turkey – these 7 secrets are a must.



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