No matter how many turkey recipes are out there (thousands? millions?) not a November rolls by that I don’t type “What’s the best Thanksgiving turkey recipe?” in my google search bar hoping to gain some clarity. And although there are many delicious ways to cook ’em, from stuffed to spatchcocked to fried, I think it’s hard to beat the simplicity of a classic brined roast turkey—especially when it’s cooked to perfection with crispy skin and an interior that’s juicy and flavorful.
But as most of us have experienced firsthand, “simple” doesn’t always mean easy. With a bird that’s bigger than what most of us are used to cooking the rest of the year, plus steps like removing giblets or tying back wings, there are a lot of ways to get it wrong and end up with a turkey that’s dull, dry, or both. So, in an effort to finally nail down the absolute best, foolproof technique for a brined roast turkey, I called in the pro: Michael Fojtasek, the owner/chef of award-winning restaurant Olamaie, here in Austin. He stopped by my kitchen, brined turkey in hand, to break down the mysteries of exactly how to cook a turkey, what goes in his favorite brine, and most importantly: how do you get that lacquered, caramelized, crispy skin of our Thanksgiving dreams? Scroll on for his answers.
First, why brine a turkey?
A quick search for the best Thanksgiving turkey recipe will turn up claims that a simple seasoning before roasting is all you need. However, I’ve noticed that almost every chef I know swears by a salt brine to infuse tons of moisture and flavor throughout the entire turkey, not just the skin.
Quite simply, brining is a mixture of water and salt. Since turkey (especially the breast) is quite lean, it needs a bit of extra help to stay moist and tender, without drying out during the long cook time. Enter: brining. During the hours that the turkey sits in the brine, it absorbs the water that helps it stay juicy, as well as the salt that helps break down the protein (ie. tenderizing it) as well as distributing the seasoning throughout.
How to brine a turkey
First, clear some fridge space: a brined turkey does take up some room. You can use a large stockpot, however for many of us, a space-saving solution is a giant Ziploc bag (you can usually find it with the turkey supplies at your grocery around this time of year or on Amazon). Simply place the turkey in the bag with the brine to be sure it’s fully coated. Either way, Fojtasek advises using a non-reactive container, and brine for 24 hours.
What turkey is best for brining?
Fojtasek says, “The best turkey is a nice organic bird that is as fresh as possible. However, if it has been frozen, be sure to let it thaw gently in your refrigerator.” Don’t brine a turkey that’s been pre-salted—since the brine is full of salt, it’s already given your turkey all the seasoning it needs.
How to give your turkey that crispy golden skin
Fjotasek shared his secret ingredient: sorghum syrup, which is often used in classic southern cooking. Sorghum syrup is a similar consistency and color to molasses, but is made using a sorghum cane rather than sugar cane—and when used in this brine recipe, the sugars in the syrup give the turkey a beautiful, caramelized, and crispy skin.
If you have time, the best next step after brining is to remove the bird from the brine and place it uncovered in your refrigerator for another 24 to 36 hours. Allowing the bird to sit breast side up for that amount of time enables the skin to form what we call a pellicle or “the crispy.”
How to roast a brined turkey
When you’re ready to cook the turkey, remove it from the refrigerator two hours in advance, and preheat your oven to 350 F. Stuff the turkey with lemon, onion, garlic, and thyme.
Next, you’re going to truss the turkey, and pour a small amount of oil over the breast and rub all over the bird evenly. This will give it a nice even color when it cooks. Season with salt and black pepper, then pop it in the oven for 2 – 3 hours, until the temperature of the thickest part of the thigh is 160 F.
Scroll on for the recipe, and leave a rating, comment, and tag us on Instagram @camillestyles if you give this turkey a try!
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dairy-free, gluten-free, nut-free
- 1 whole turkey
- 1 lemon - cut into quarters
- 1 onion - cut into quarters
- Half a head of garlic
- A few sprigs of thyme
- Salt & black pepper to taste
- Garnish: chopped parsley and black pepper
- Brine (see recipe below)
- The first thing you are going to do is give the bird a quick rinse.
- Then, you're going to brine it. Make sure you use a container that is non-reactive. I generally use plastic. Brine for 24 hours. If you have time, the best next step is to remove the bird from the brine and place it uncovered in your refrigerator for another 24 to 36 hours. Allowing the bird to sit breast side up for that amount of time enables the skin to form what we call a pellicle or "the crispy."
- When you're ready to cook the turkey, remove it from the refrigerator for two hours and preheat your oven to 350 F. Stuff it with the lemon, onion, a halved head of garlic, and a few sprigs of thyme.
- Truss it. Pour a small amount of oil over the breast and rub all over the bird evenly. This will give it a nice even color when it cooks.
- From there, I season fairly liberally with salt and ground black pepper.
- Then, it goes into the oven until the temperature of the thickest part of the thigh has a thermometer reading of 160 F. This can take up to three hours or even less than two depending on the oven.
- Once it has been cooked to temperature, remove it from the oven and allow it to rest. I like to loosely place foil over the turkey and put it aside while I finish other parts of the meal. It needs to be resting for a minimum of 20 minutes. I prefer more like 35.
- When you're ready to serve, remove the breast completely, then slice. I like to remove the legs and thighs to slice as well. Everything goes on a warm platter and gets a little chopped parsley and ground black pepper. This is a great way to execute a turkey that is all about flavor and beautiful crispy skin without doing anything crazy.
- 1.5 qt Water
- 5 T Kosher Salt
- 1.5 qt Ice
- 1.25 C Sorghum Syrup (Like Muddy Pond)
- .5 head Garlic
- 1 ea Onion (quartered)
- 3 T Whole Black Peppercorn
- 4 ea Lemon (quartered)
- 6 sprigs thyme
- Place the salt, water, garlic, onion, black peppercorn, sorghum syrup, and lemons in a pot. Bring to a boil for two minutes. Pour over ice. Ideally, all of your brine is cool or, at the highest, room temperature.
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