Turkey 101

Mama told me the most shocking thing this week – she’s never roasted a turkey. I was absolutely, positively flabbergasted. I didn’t believe her. She said that Meme always cooked it — and then I took over cooking the bird.

What? Really?! How on earth did that happen?

We’ve cooked one together, this I know. In fact, the first time I ever brined a bird was with Mama over 10 years ago. I had read about it in Cook’s Illustrated. You know those folks like to brine. They’ll brine anything that doesn’t move fast enough. I was pretty curious so we thought we’d give it a try. We tried an overnight brine with salt, sugar, and spices. The bird was moist and tender with the most beautiful caramel-colored golden brown skin.

It was then I decided I would never not brine a turkey.

We brined and cooked one again this past weekend. We celebrated Thanksgiving on Sunday as I am in New England for the next few weeks. It was just the three of us at Mama’s, so we didn’t need a big bird. Then Mama and my sister are going to celebrate again on Thursday. We all like dark meat, so a breast wasn’t going to work. I wasn’t certain what to do – then, I had one of my better ideas. I bought a small bird and brined it overnight as I always do, then I halved it! I cut the backbone out and split it down the breast. It was an absolute revelation – and only took about an hour to cook. Splendid. Something to keep in mind if you need a smaller-than-normal bird. You can always freeze the other half. Mama is finally going to cook a bird! Well, technically, it will be half a bird, but I think we’ll give her credit.

Brining Basics

What’s all this business about brining? Brining – soaking meat in a saltwater solution – is the key to a juicy, tender turkey. Salt causes the food proteins to form a complex mesh that traps the brine so the muscle fibers absorb additional liquid during the brining period. Some of this liquid is lost during cooking, but since the meat is juicier to begin with, it cooks up juicier at the end. It sounds a little complicated, but think of a cup filled “over the rim.”

The size of the salt grains used in a brine is very important. Grains of table salt are very fine, while those of kosher salt are larger. The crystals of the two most widely available brands of kosher salt, Morton’s and Diamond Brand, differ. Half a cup of table salt is equal to 1 cup of Diamond Brand kosher salt or 3/4 cup Morton’s kosher salt. My recipes call for Diamond Brand because the conversion is easy at 2:1.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule for brining – it all depends on how long you want to brine. However, keep in mind that the stronger and more concentrated the brining solution and the smaller the piece of meat, the shorter the brining period. A turkey is best brined in a weak solution for a longer period of time. For smaller pieces of meat, my philosophy is to use a strong brine that takes an hour or less.

However, for a turkey, I prefer an overnight brine. With a 10 to 15 pound turkey, dissolve 1 cup Diamond Brand kosher salt and 1/2 cup sugar in 1 gallon of hot water. Stir until dissolved, then add 1 gallon of ice water to cool the solution. The total amount of water depends on the size of your container. Since most of us don’t have a refrigerator to place a turkey in a 5-gallon bucket, I suggest using a cooler with ice and ice packs. I store the cooler outside since it’s cold. Having said that, make sure to weigh down the lid of the cooler so a curious raccoon or other critter doesn’t take a peak, look-see, or a nibble.

Brining? Check.

What about Roasting? There are recipes at the bottom of this post for whole roast turkey and a turkey breast. I roast at a higher temperature to start, then reduce the heat to finish cooking. In general, The main point about roasting a big bird is food safety. I suggest using an instant read thermometer. Instant-read thermometers are indispensable when cooking a large piece of meat because, while the doneness of steaks and chicken breasts can often be gauged by touching the meat and feeling for firmness, a large piece of meat such as a turkey needs a thermometer to really see what’s inside. The plastic pop-up timers found in many turkeys are unreliable, often resulting in an overcooked bird. A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F as measured with an instant read thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.

Here’s a general guideline for cooking times for  unstuffed birds:
4 to 8 pounds (breast) 1½ to 3¼ hours
8 to 12 pounds 2¾ to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3¾ hours
14 to 18 pounds 3¾ to 4¼ hours
18 to 20 pounds 4¼ to 4½ hours
20 to 24 pounds 4½ to 5 hours

What about Carving? What on earth do you do once your’ve cooked your  bird? Here you go!

How to Carve a Cooked Turkey

When carving a turkey, let the bird guide the way. This may sound funny, but the parts should separate at the joints with little or no effort. I often tell my students that if the bird is fighting you, the knife is not in the right place.

Set the turkey breast side up on a cutting board, preferably with a moat to catch the juices.  If the bird is hot, I use a clean kitchen towel to protect my hand and fingers instead of a carving fork, but you can use a fork. I prefer to use the towel because it doesn’t tear the skin and I have those chef asbestos fingers. Do what feels comfortable to you.

Pull the leg and thigh back to expose the joint that attaches it to the body.

Somewhat forcefully bend a leg away from the body until the joint pops apart. Use a sharp knife to sever the leg from the body, cutting through the separated joint. As you separate the leg, using the tip of the knife, be sure to get the “oyster,” a yummy nugget of delicious dark meat toward the back of the turkey, just above the thigh. Repeat the process with the other leg and thigh.

Place each leg quarter on the cutting board, skin side down. Use a chef’s knife to cut through the joint that connects the leg to the thigh. (It should be fairly easy to cut through the joint.) Look for a line of fat, and if the knife meets resistance, your knife is hitting bone and is not placed at the joint, which is easy to carve through. So, reposition the blade slightly and try again.

Place the turkey breast side up on the cutting board. Feel for the breastbone, which runs along the top center of the carcass. Begin separating one side of the breast from the body by cutting immediately alongside the breastbone with the tip of your knife. Work from the tail end of the bird toward the neck end. When you hit the wishbone, angle the knife and cut down along the wishbone toward the wing, then make a cut between the breast and the wing.

Finish separating the breast by simultaneously pulling back on the meat and using little short strokes of the knife tip to cut the meat away from the carcass. Slice the breast into 1/4-inch thick slices. (Do the same to remove the breast meat on the other side.)

Find the joint where the wings connect to the body and bend until the joint pops apart. Use a sharp knife to sever the wing from the body, cutting through the separated joint. Using a chef’s knife or your hands, remove whatever meat remains on the carcass. (Reserve the carcass for stock.) Arrange the legs, thighs, wings, and meat on a platter, pour over any accumulated juices to moisten the meat, or use in pan sauce, and serve.

There you are – Turkey 101 – Brining, Roasting, and Carving. Whether this will be your 1st bird or your 50th, I wish the best for you and yours.

A couple of thoughts before I sign off — We’re on the official countdown!! One week until my appearance on Chopped! Make sure to watch 11/27 at 10 pm EST! If you’re on twitter follow with the hashtag #Chopped AND #letschophunger!

Lastly, as you start your holiday shopping, please know that both of my cookbooks are on sale on Amazon for an amazing price of $23.10. I’m happy to send you a signed and personalized bookplate if you shoot me a note to info@virginiawillis.com with “bookplate” in the subject heading.

Happy Thanksgiving!
Bon Appétit, Y’all!


Makes 8 to 10 servings

2 cups kosher salt
1 12 to 14-pound turkey, neck and giblets reserved for stock
1 stalk celery
1 apple, halved
2 sprigs fresh parsley
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh oregano
4 fresh sage leaves
2 sprigs rosemary
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
1 onion, peeled
¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Apple Cider Gravy, recipe follows

Using a 5-gallon bucket lined with a large heavy-duty plastic garbage bag, combine 2 gallons of water with 2 cups kosher salt as directed above. Add the turkey, cover and chill for 8 to 10 hours.

Heat oven to 425°F, place oven rack in lowest position. Rinse turkey inside and out and pat dry. Rub turkey inside and out with salt and pepper. Place celery, apple, parsley, thyme, oregano, sage, rosemary, bay leaf and onion in cavity. Working from large cavity end, run fingers between skin and flesh of breast to loosen skin without tearing. Put 2 tablespoons butter under skin and spread butter evenly. Tie drumsticks together with kitchen string and fold wings under body. Put turkey on rack in a large roasting pan. Brush remaining 2 tablespoons butter over turkey, roast 30 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350°F. Baste turkey with pan drippings and continue roasting, basting every 30 minutes, until a thigh registers 165°F on a thermometer, about 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

Carefully tilt turkey to release any juices from inside cavity into roasting pan. Transfer turkey to serving platter. Discard celery, apple, parsley, thyme, oregano, sage, rosemary, bay leaf and onion from cavity. Allow turkey to rest 30 minutes before carving. Serve with Apple Cider Gravy.


1 cup hard cider or sparkling hard cider
4 cups turkey stock
2 large onions, finely chopped
¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter,
4 fresh sage leaves, chopped
1/3 cup all-purpose flour

Remove rack from roasting pan and pour pan juices through a sieve into a 1-quart glass measure. Place roasting pan across two burners over high heat, add cider and deglaze pan, stirring and scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Cook until reduced to 1/2 cup, about 5 minutes. Pour cider through sieve into glass measure with pan juices, skim fat, reserving 1/4 cup. Add enough turkey stock to drippings to equal 4 cups.

Using a large sauté pan over medium heat, add butter. Sauté onions, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add sage and cook, 1 minute. Add turkey stock mixture and any turkey juices accumulated on platter and bring to a boil. Using a small bowl whisk together flour and reserved 1/4 cup fat. Whisk into gravy, reduce heat and simmer, whisking occasionally, until thickened, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Want something a little smaller?

Brined Roast Turkey Breast with Herb Pan Gravy
Serves 6 to 8

Several years ago I was asked to style the food for a commercial with Paula Deen. They called me during the ten-day photo shoot for my first cookbook, Bon Appétit, Y’all. I was exhausted, but it was good work, and I have an attitude that you can do anything for two days. I drove south and, with toothpicks holding my eyes open, did my work. On the afternoon of the second day, her assistant told me Ladies Home Journal was coming to shoot the Thanksgiving cover story, a big deal in the magazine world. He said, “We thought they were bringing a stylist; they thought we had a stylist. Will you stay two more days?” Well, I can do anything for two days so I pushed through and stayed, creating an iconic roast Thanksgiving turkey cover shot and all.

The experience turned out to be a life lesson. Six months later, Ladies Home Journal posted that my first cookbook was one of their favorite books of the year, and Paula soon thereafter had me as a guest on her show. I believe sometimes you have to put it all out there for good to happen. That, and you can do anything for two days.

1 cup kosher salt
1 cup sugar
1½ gallons water
1 whole bone-in, skin-on turkey breast (6 to 7 pounds)
¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon very finely chopped fresh sage
1 teaspoon very finely chopped fresh thyme
Freshly ground black pepper
3 celery stalks, chopped
3 carrots, cut into chunks
3 onions, preferably Vidalia, quartered
2½ cups homemade chicken stock or reduced-fat, low-sodium chicken broth, plus more if needed
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Coarse salt

Dissolve the kosher salt and sugar in the water in large, clean bucket or stockpot. Set the turkey breast in the brine, making sure it is submerged. Cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or up to overnight.

Remove the turkey breast from the brine. Pat dry and set aside. Place the butter in a bowl; add the sage and thyme. Season the butter well with pepper and stir to combine. Set aside. Twenty minutes before roasting, preheat the oven to 450°F.

Place the turkey on a clean work surface. Using a chef’s knife, remove the remaining portion of the neck and reserve it for the stock and gravy. Remove the wishbone to make carving easier; set it aside with the neck for the gravy. With your hand, carefully release the skin on both breasts to form two pockets. Rub the seasoned butter under the released skin. If there is any extra butter, massage it on the outside of the skin.

Put the celery, carrots, and onions in a large roasting pan. Pour ½ cup of the chicken stock into the pan bottom to prevent the drippings from burning. Place the prepared turkey, skin side up, on top of the vegetables. Place the pan in the oven with the wide neck end toward the rear of the oven. Roast for 15 minutes, then rotate the pan back to front. Roast for 15 minutes more, until skin turns golden. Decrease the oven temperature to 325°F and continue to roast, rotating the pan once more about halfway through the cooking, until the internal temperature in the thickest part of the breast registers 160°F to 165°F, 30 to 45 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven and transfer the turkey breast to a cutting board, preferably with a moat. Cover the turkey loosely with aluminum foil. Pour the remaining 2 cups chicken stock into a saucepan. Add the reserved neck and wishbone and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to simmer.

Place the roasting pan over medium-high heat. Add the flour to the pan drippings and stir until well combined. Strain the warmed stock over the flour-vegetable combination and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to simmer and cook until thickened, 5 to 7 minutes. Strain the mixture into a saucepan (the saucepan that held the stock is fine to use), pressing on the vegetables to get every drop and all the flavor. Check and make sure the sauce is thick enough to coat a spoon; if not, continue simmering the sauce until the correct consistency is achieved. (If it’s too thick, add a little water or additional stock.)

Carve the turkey breast and plate on a warm platter. Add any juices that run into the moat to the gravy. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper and serve with the gravy on the side.

Speaking of sides…

Bourbon Sweet Potatoes on Leite’s Culinaria.

Winter Green and Butternut Squash Gratin on the Cooking Channel.

Five Biscuit Recipes to choose from OR try out Sweet Potato Biscuits.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, virginiawillis.com. Thanks so much.

Copyright © 2012 Virginia Willis Culinary Productions, LLC.