Turkey Tips! Step-By-Step Guide for Cooking Your Pastured Turkey or Turkey Breast
If you've ever hosted or made a big Thanksgiving dinner, you know how much planning it takes. Seriously, it's literally weeks of planning to pull it off. Thank your hosts, people.
We're here to help you plan the perfect Thanksgiving dinner and make the turkey recipe that will become a tradition. We have thawing tips, brining recipes, and cooking tricks to ensure everything goes off without a hitch!
This article is broken down into several parts:
- Basic timelines for the week to help you plan ahead.
- Thawing instructions.
- Preparation ideas like spatchcocking and brining and why they're important.
- Recipes for buttermilk and dry brines, for both whole turkeys and turkey breasts.
- Cooking instructions for whole turkeys, spatchcocked turkeys, and turkey breast.
Basic preparation timeline for whole turkey, to be brined beforehand and eaten on Thanksgiving:
- Friday or early Saturday morning, 5-6 days ahead of T-day: Get the turkey in the fridge to thaw if you haven’t already. It should be thawed out by Monday / Tuesday. If it needs some help to speed along, use the cool water trick below. Remove the giblets from the inner cavity when possible.
- Tuesday morning: Start the brine (wet or dry).
- Thursday, 3 hours before cooking: Remove turkey from the brine and/or fridge to bring to room temperature.
- Thursday - Get cooking! Anticipate cook time of 30 minutes + 12 minutes per pound of turkey and plan accordingly. If you’re spatchcocking, allow 2 hours to cook. Don’t forget to factor in a rest time of around 30-45 minutes before carving!
Basic timeline for a 5-6lb turkey breast, to be brined beforehand and eaten on Thanksgiving:
- Monday morning, 3 days ahead of T-day: Get the turkey breast in the fridge to thaw if you haven’t already. It should be thawed out by mid-Tuesday. If it needs some help to speed along, use the cool water trick below.
- Tuesday evening or early Wednesday morning: Start the brine (wet or dry).
- Thursday Early, 2 hours before cooking: remove turkey breast from the brine and/or fridge to bring to room temperature.
- Thursday Afternoon - Get Cooking! Anticipate 60-70 minutes cook time for a 5-6lb breast. Don’t forget to factor in a rest time of around 20 minutes!
1. THAW IT - PLAN AHEAD!!!
First things first - let’s thaw this baby out. For a whole turkey, plan for 3-4 days in the fridge to thaw. For a whole 5-6lb turkey breast, the sweet spot for thawing will be around 36 hours. Leave the turkey in its plastic packaging while it thaws in the fridge.
If you have forgotten this step (and boy have we been there), you can speed the process along by submerging the turkey still in its packaging in cool tap water. Change the water out every 30 minutes to ensure the thawing continues. This method takes around 30 minutes for every pound of turkey.
2. SPATCHCOCK IT
- Unless you’re planning to stuff it (Whole turkey only)
Okay, you don’t absolutely need to spatchcock your turkey. You probably haven't even have heard of spatchcocking. But it is well worth the trouble to learn, and will help you get the most out of your turkey.
If you want stuffing cooked inside your bird, you might not want to do this - however, you can cook the stuffing (along with a bed of veggies for moisture and flavor) directly under the turkey for excellent turkey flavor and a lot more stuffing than you could fit inside the bird. Simply transfer the turkey off the stuffing and to a wire rack baking pan once the stuffing is cooked fully.
Basically, spatchcocking a bird means you take out the backbone, allowing it to lie flatter during roasting. That sounds like a lot of trouble, but spatchcocking has several amazing benefits:
- More even cooking. A spatchcocked bird will lie flat during roasting, resulting in a MUCH more even, consistent cook. One of the troubles with turkeys and cooking whole birds is that the breast meat will cook far faster than everything else, resulting in half of your turkey being overly dry. Spatchcocking really help with even doneness across your bird, and keep that moisture locked in.
- More crispy skin! With a spatchcocked bird, that hot oven air that crisps up turkey skin so beautifully can reach more of the skin to crisp it up. Definitely a win.
- Faster Cooking. With the turkey lying flat it slims down its profile, and it will cook much faster. Expect around 80-120 minutes cook time, depending on the size of your bird.
- Fridge space. If you’re tight on fridge space next to the gallons of mashed potatoes, green bean casseroles, and pies, a spatchcocked bird fits in a much smaller bag to wet brine, and lies flatter in your fridge for a dry brine!
- AMAZING Turkey Gravy! You can use the bones removed during spatchcocking (along with the giblets and drippings) to make a fantastic stock for the gravy.
How to Spatchcock a Turkey (Video and Instructions)
Here’s a good video explainer of spatchcocking / butterflying from one of our favorite chefs, Alton Brown!
To spatchcock your turkey, place it breast-side down on a stable cutting board with the larger cavity facing you. Using poultry shears (kitchen shears can work but will be a bit more difficult), start at the larger cavity end and cut alongside the back bone on one side, all the way up. Now you should be able to open the bird up a bit. Then, take the shears and cut down the other side of the backbone, holding it with your hands and pulling it away as you cut with the other hand. Either dispose of the backbone, or set aside to use to make delicious gravy.
Now flip the bird over, so it is breast-side up and the now opened side is down, with the legs pointing away from each other. Now, place your hand on the back of your other hand, and lock your elbows (similar to if you were to try to give CPR to your turkey). Push down on the breastbone until it cracks and your turkey lies flat.
3. BRINE IT.
Okay, you don’t have to brine it either - but we highly recommend it. The foodies on the Bytable team have had great success with a simple buttermilk brine recipe, but a good ol’ dry brine works well, too! Either of the recipes below will work with both a spatchcocked or non-spatchcocked bird.
Buttermilk Brined Turkey Recipe
Inspired by Samin Nosrat's Buttermilk Brine Chicken recipe, and the recipe we use personally on our turkeys!
For a whole turkey:
- ~3qts buttermilk for a medium turkey. You may need 4 for a larger bird.
- 7-8 tablespoons of salt
- the turkey
- 2 gallon resealable plastic bag (or a “brining bag”), and 1 extra for double bagging if needed.
- (Optional) Poultry Herbs such as rosemary, thyme, and sage. 4-8 sprigs of each, to your preference.
- Make sure your turkey has had the neck and giblets removed, and wingtips if you’d like. Set these aside for gravy, along with the backbone if it’s been spatchcocked.
- Place the resealable bag in a large bowl or stock pot, then pour all the buttermilk in and add the salt. Add any optional herbs. Stir or shake to mix.
- Place turkey in the bag and seal it, removing as much air as possible. You may need to double bag it. Squish the bag around to distribute the brining mixture.
- Refrigerate turkey in the brining bag for 48-72 hours, turning every 12 hours to redistribute the brine evenly.
- Three hours before cooking, take the turkey out of the bag and gently scrape off buttermilk and herbs. Set on a rimmed baking sheet and bring to room temperature.
For a turkey breast:
- 4-5 cups buttermilk
- 2-3 tablespoons of salt
- 5-6lb turkey breast
- (Optional) Poultry herbs such as rosemary, thyme, and oregano. 2-4 sprigs of each, to your preference.
- 2 plastic resealable gallon bags
- Follow steps 2-4 above, but only brine for 24-36 hours and take out of the fridge 2 hours before cooking to bring to room temperature.
Dry Brine Turkey Recipe
If you love crispy, crispy skin, this dry brine turkey recipe is for you. This recipe is for a 14-15lb bird. Adjust as needed to size.
- 4-5 tablespoons kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons dried or fresh finely chopped poultry herbs, such as thyme, rosemary, or sage.
- 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- (Optional) add a little brown sugar and any other spices you like with your turkey!
- Mix the dry brine ingredients together in a small bowl.
- Take your prepared turkey (at this point it should have the neck and giblets removed, and be spatchcocked if you’re doing that) and pat dry with paper towels.
- Using your hands, gently loosen the skin over the breast and down around by legs. Try to break through the thin membrane attaching the skin to the meat without breaking the skin.
- Sprinkle then rub around 2 tbs of the dry brine mixture inside the cavity of the bird. Rub about half of the remaining dry brine mixture under the skin wherever you can, focusing on the legs and breasts and making sure to get it into the crevices of the legs.
- Sprinkle remaining dry brine mixture all over the skin.
- Refrigerate uncovered breast-side up on a rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan for at least 1 day and up to 3 days for best results.
4. COOK YOUR TURKEY
To cook a whole turkey, spatchcocked and brined:
- Remove turkey from fridge 3 hours before cooking, to bring it to room temperature.
- Preheat the oven to 400ºF, and position a rack in the upper third of your oven.
- Place turkey, breast side up, on a rimmed baking sheet lined with a wire rack or parchment paper. Tuck the thighs inward and slide it into the oven on the upper rack.
- Roast the turkey, rotating 180º every so often to ensure even cooking and browning, until a thermometer reads 150ºF in the deepest part of the breast and 165ºF in the thickest part of the thigh. (The USDA says turkey is safe to eat if it spends 3.7 minutes or more above 150ºF.) If the breast is cooking too quickly, use aluminum foil to tent it. Cooking should take 80-120 minutes.
- Allow to rest 25 minutes before carving.
To cook a whole turkey, not spatchcocked:
- Follow the brining recommendations above, but if you’re out of time then simply rub it all over with kosher salt before putting it in the oven.
- Make sure your turkey is around room temperature before cooking (take out of the fridge 2-3 hours before cooking).
- Preheat oven to 450º, then drop it down to 350ºF when you put the turkey in the oven.
- Place your turkey either in a roasting pan or on a wire rack placed over a rimmed baking sheet. Add 1-2 cups of liquid (water or broth) to the bottom of the roasting pan or baking sheet. On a rack in the bottom 1/3rd of your oven, roast your turkey breast-side up
- Baste the turkey every 45 minutes - gather the pan juices using a baster or large spoon, and drizzle them over the turkey. For the final baste, you can use butter or oil for an extra crisp skin.
- Cook until a thermometer reads until a thermometer reads 150ºF in the deepest part of the breast and 165ºF in the thickest part of the thigh. If the breast begins to cook too fast, shield it with a tent of aluminum foil.
- Rest your bird for 30-45 minutes before carving.
To cook a turkey breast, brined:
- Remove turkey breast from fridge 2 hours before cooking, to bring it to room temperature.
- Preheat the oven to 425ºF, and position a rack in the upper third of your oven.
- Place breast on a rimmed baking sheet lined with a wire rack or parchment paper.
- Roast breast on the upper rack of the oven until a thermometer in the deepest part of the breast registers 150ºF. (The USDA says turkey is safe to eat if it spends 3.7 minutes or more above 150ºF.) Around 60-70 minutes for a 5-6lb breast.
- Rest for 20 minutes before cutting.