Don’t wash the turkey. Really? You heard me right. Washing the turkey can contaminate your kitchen as water and turkey germs spray. This advice comes straight from the USDA. It’s no joke. Cooking the turkey to the right temperature will kill any bacteria that may be lingering in your turkey–you can’t wash it away; so don’t even try.
Don’t brine. To brine or not to brine? You’ll find chefs who stand passionately on both sides of this issue. I’m not even going to try to settle it here. If you’re a briner, go for it. Me? I don’t find it to be worth the trouble. I get great tasting, moist turkeys using my simple steps explained in this post. I’ve tried brining and didn’t find a significant difference. Sometimes I buy pre-brined turkeys from Trader Joe’s, but I’ve abandoned brining them myself.
Don’t stuff the bird. Again, there are people strongly for and against stuffing a turkey. I’m against it. By the time the stuffing is cooked to a safe temperature, the turkey meat is likely to be overcooked. I personally prefer a drier stuffing with crispy edges; I cook mine in a casserole dish or bundt pan outside of the oven. (Check out my posts Make-Ahead Cornbread Stuffing recipe and Cornbread Stuffing in a Bundt Pan.) The turkey cooks faster and remains moist when it isn’t stuffed.
Don’t cook it low and slow. The outside packaging of every turkey I’ve ever purchased recommends roasting the turkey at 325 degrees. Not me. I cook mine at a higher heat, and the happy result is that the turkey is juicier and cooks in much less time. It doesn’t have to take all day to roast a turkey to perfection.
Don’t baste the bird. Every time you open the oven door to baste, the oven loses heat, and the total cooking time required increases. Basting does nothing to moisturize the meat–it never penetrates the skin. Maybe it will give your turkey skin more unified browning, although even that is debatable. Basting is simply not necessary.
After years of experimenting, here’s what I believe to be the keys to a perfectly moist and flavorful roast turkey:
Do test your oven’s temperature acccuracy. All recipe cooking time and temperature recommendations will be unreliable if your oven temperature reading isn’t accurate. If you aren’t certain whether or not your oven is calibrated accurately, check it well in advance of roasting your turkey. Use an oven thermometer to test your oven. If you set the oven for 350 degrees and the thermometer reads higher or lower, raise or lower your temperature setting until you know where you need to set it in order for it to actually cook at 350 degrees. Also determine the correct setting for an actual temperature of 400 degrees. Those are the 2 temperatures used in this recipe for roasting a turkey. If your oven isn’t heated to an accurate temperature, my time and temperature recommendations may not work for you.
Do thoroughly thaw the turkey. Perhaps the biggest rookie mistake in preparing a turkey is not allowing enough time for it to thaw in the refrigerator. If you buy a frozen turkey, allow at least one day in the fridge for every 4-5 pounds. Never thaw it at room temperature, because the outside will warm to an unsafe, bacteria-friendly temperature before the inside is thawed. Plan on having it completely thawed the day before you’ll cook it to guarantee no last-minute frozen turkey panic. (Been there!) If not completely thawed, it will take the turkey longer to cook completely, and the turkey won’t cook evenly. It will likely be overcooked and dry near the outside before it is completely cooked inside.
Do add flavor from the inside out. Add seasonings, onion, and lemon to the inside cavity of the turkey. They infuse flavor and moisture into the meat and drippings, resulting in tastier turkey and gravy (made from the drippings). See step 7 below for more specifics.
Do cook the turkey at higher heat for the first hour. This seals in the juices and crisps the skin.
Do cook the turkey breast side down in the beginning and flip it over for the last hour. This way gravity sends some moisture in the naturally juicier dark meat above into the breast meat below. Also, the bottom of the turkey gets nicely browned & cooked from being on top in the beginning. See steps 14 & 15 below for more instructions.
Do use a thermometer to cook the turkey to exactly the right temperature. This is hugely important and perhaps the most important of all of these tips. There isn’t another reliable method for knowing exactly when your turkey is fully cooked, because there are too many variables that determine the necessary cooking time–turkey size, type (heritage and organic turkeys can cook faster), starting temperature; anything added to the cavity (dressing or aromatics), type of rack/pan, oven heat (some heat unevenly or have unreliable thermostats, etc.). A remote probe thermometer is recommended–it stays in the turkey while it cooks and sounds an alarm when it has reached the perfect temperature. This eliminates the risk of over- or under-cooking the turkey. (An instant-read thermometer will suffice if you don’t have a remote one.) See steps 16,17 & 18 below for instructions on how, when, and where to insert the thermometer.
Do let the cooked turkey rest for at least 30 minutes. I let mine rest for as long as an hour. This allows the juices to settle in the turkey meat. If you carve it too soon out of the oven, the juices will run out and leave you with a dry turkey. Plus, during the resting time you can use the oven for cooking the stuffing, veggies, or rolls that accompany the meal.