Bird Brainstorm

Five essential steps for roasting a perfect turkey

Roasting a turkey is easy. Roasting a juicy turkey with perfectly blistered golden brown skin? Not so easy. But it can be. Follow these five tips, and you'll be responsible for a flawless Thanksgiving turkey your guests will always remember.

① Brine and Dry

You must brine your bird using either a wet or dry brine. Both produce a seasoned, juicy turkey, but in different ways.

A wet brine is a salt solution in which you submerge your turkey for four to 48 hours. As the turkey soaks, the salt draws out moisture and replaces that lost moisture with seasoned brine, adding flavor and tenderizing the meat. Meat-centric restaurant titan Vinny Dotolo likes using a wet brine for his turkey, saying the lean meat really benefits from the brine's flavor. His L.A. restaurants depend on classic aromatics like rosemary, thyme, lemon, bay leaf and garlic.

Photo: Katie Foster/Tasting Table

A dry brine refers to a salt cure that you slather onto the bird and then let sit overnight in the fridge and/or at room temperature for one hour before going into a hot oven. The salt works like the wet brine, but because there is no additional liquid, the bird's own juices yield a more pronounced meaty flavor and a crispier skin. Matt Lambert of The Musket Room swears by dry brining but admits that the finished product may not be as moist as a wet-brined turkey. His key to victory is to never add water and sugar. "Sweetness is not a flavor I'm ever trying to impart on meat. Turkeys aren't dessert."

② The Perfect Rack

DIY your rack instead of buying one, like George Mendes of Lupulo does for his Portuguese Roast Turkey. Layer the bottom of your roasting pan with carrots, onion, celery and bay leaf. As the vegetables cook, they release steam, helping keep the turkey juicy and preventing the bird from being overcooked. Get creative with your rack and add dried herb bunches, sturdy vegetables like squash and potatoes, and even halved citrus.

③ Tricks to Avoid Overcooking

Never put a frozen turkey, or even a refrigerated one, directly into a preheated oven. Let the turkey sit at room temperature for at least one hour to raise its internal temperature. This will ensure even cooking from skin to bone.

Always use a meat thermometer to take the temperature of the thickest part of the turkey, located around the thigh, avoiding the bone. The ideal final temperature for a juicy turkey is 165°. The meat will cook an additional 10° as it rests, so remove the turkey from the oven when the temperature reaches 155° to 160°.

Photo: USDA via Flickr

Now, this is important: Breasts cook faster than the legs. Different tactics can be used to avoid overcooking the breasts. Food science writer Harold McGee puts ice packs onto the turkey breasts while letting the bird sit at room temperature before roasting. Mendes removes his turkey from the oven when the breasts reach 155°, lets it rest for 20 minutes and then carves off the breasts. Then he returns the turkey to the oven and continues to roast it until the legs reach a slightly higher temperature, around 160°.

If you own a grill, create a double oven with coals lined in a half-moon shape along the outside edge of one side of the grill. This will create two different cooking temperatures for each part of the turkey. You can spatchcock the turkey and throw it on, allowing the legs to cook closest to the fire (around the outside edges) and the breasts further away from the fire (in the center).

Photo: Dave Katz/Tasting Table

④ Start Hot, Then Double Drop

Always start with a hot oven. To achieve perfectly blistered, golden brown skin, preheat the oven to 475°. After the turkey goes in, immediately reduce the oven temperature to 425° and cook for 20 minutes. Drop to 350° and continue to roast until done. Oh, and you'll need to invest in an oven thermometer to know the exact temperature of your bird as it cooks.

⑤ Give It a Rest

Resting a turkey is not optional. It's as necessary as any step in this process. Let the turkey rest for at least 20 minutes and up to one and a half hours after taking it out of the oven and before carving. This ensures maximum flavor and juiciness. Covering with foil isn't necessary and risks steaming the skin and overcooking the turkey, which, of course, is very bad.