Anyone who knows me knows that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Growing up we always spent it at my grandmother’s house with the entire family, then my uncle took over hosting duties and a few years ago the torch was passed to me.
But no matter who is hosting, we’ve always kept to a pretty traditional menu--turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce (homemade, never from a can), “adult” mac and cheese, roasted brussel sprouts and rutabagas (ok, that last one might be less traditional, but my mother loves rutabaga so it is part of our tradition).
And of course, pies, lots of pies - apple, pumpkin, chocolate.
Before we started hosting Thanksgiving, I had little experience actually roasting a turkey and that first year was a little rough. It was when I learned about the magical powers of brine that we started winning Thanksgiving. For years now, I’ve been working off a brine recipe adapted from Alton Brown, but the real secret to success is not just the brine, but our high-tech turkey briner.
Now, I’m letting you in on the secret of the high-tech turkey briner, a 5-gallon cooler. You can buy one these bad boys for around $40 and for us, it was a life changer. If you’ve ever tried to use a garbage bag in the sink, I don’t need to tell you what a pain that method is. With the cooler, you simply fill it with ice and the brine, drop in the turkey, close the lid and then leave it alone. Trust me, it is the only way to go.
If you want to give it a try, here is the brine recipe and how I cook my turkey.
- 1 cup salt
- 1-gallon vegetable stock
- ½ cup brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 1 ½ teaspoons Allspice berries
- 1 ½ teaspoons chopped candied ginger
- 1-gallon water with lots of ice
- 1 sliced red apple
- ½ sliced onion
- 1 cup water
- 6 sage leaves
- 4 rosemary sprigs
- 1 cinnamon stick
- Canola oil
It probably goes without saying, but we’ve got to get that bird thawed before we can do anything. Typically I’ll put it in the refrigerator on Monday after work which gives it a good 48 hours to thaw. No harm though in starting Monday morning or even Sunday evening.
You can make the brine a few days ahead of time but if you’re trying to do everything the same day, keep in mind it goes through a heating and cooling process so build that into your schedule.
To Make The Brine
To a large stock pot add the vegetable stock, salt, brown sugar, peppercorns, Allspice and candied ginger. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally until it starts to boil. Once it starts boiling, remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature. You can then put it in a food storage container and keep in the refrigerator for a few days.
You want to let the turkey sit in the brine for 10 to 16 hours so depending on when you plan to serve Thanksgiving dinner, you can either start the night before or early on Thanksgiving morning. We like to eat mid-afternoon on Thanksgiving so I usually put the turkey in the brine as one of the last things I do Wednesday night before going to bed.
Time to Brine!
Open up that fancy turkey briner, pour in the brine, water and a bunch of ice. Drop in the turkey breast side down (don’t forget to remove the innards!) and make sure it is fully immersed. Cover and put it somewhere out of the way - at my house that is either the basement or the garage. About half-way through the brining time (for me, this is shortly after I wake up on Thursday morning), pull out the bird, turn it over, put it back in the brine and close the lid.
Time to Cook
Remove the turkey from the brine and rinse thoroughly inside and out with cold water (and pour out the brine, you’re done with it).
Put the bird on your roasting rack and pat dry on all sides with paper towels.
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees and set the rack to the lowest level.
While the oven preheats, it’s time to steep the aromatics. Put the apple slices, onion slices, cinnamon stick and 1 cup of water in a microwavable bowl and microwave on high for 5 minutes. When ready, put the aromatics, the rosemary and sage into the turkey’s cavity.
Tuck the wings underneath the bird--I always find this harder than it sounds, but trust me, you can do it--and then use the canola oil to coat the turkey’s skin on all sides (be sure to get the bottom and in all the nooks and crannies).
When the oven is at temperature, place the turkey on that lowest rack and set a timer for 30 minutes. Do not open the oven door after you put in the turkey!
After 30 minutes, insert a probe in the thickest part of the breast, lower the temperature to 350 degrees and put the turkey back in the oven. We want to cook until the turkey's internal temperature is 161 degrees so either set an alarm on your probe (if it has one) or just keep an eye on it. Either way, for a 12-14 pound turkey, this will take about 2 hours or less. No two ovens are the same, so like I said before, set that alarm on your thermometer or keep an eye on it.
During this time, fight the urge to open the oven door. We’re not doing any basting and opening the door just lets out heat which doesn’t help anything. If you’re really worried about the skin burning, at the stage when you take out the bird to insert the probe and lower the temperature, you can add a layer of aluminum foil to cover the breast of the turkey but I’ve never had to do this.
Once the internal temperature gets to 161 degrees, take the turkey out of the oven and let it rest for at least 15-20 minutes. Just leave it alone... don’t carve it, don’t even remove that little pop-out thing. While it is resting, cover it with foil or a large mixing bowl (this also helps discourage others from messing with the turkey while it is resting).
Now you’re ready to carve and serve.
Happy Thanksgiving! (be sure to save room for pie…)