For many, a whole turkey is the largest, heftiest grocery item that most of us haul into our kitchens all year. We hope our Thanksgiving Day bird is bronzed and beautiful, with juicy white breast meat and tender dark meat. But let's be honest — that's not an easy feat.
To that good end, we seek guidance, tips, and hints — year after year. If we roast only one turkey each year, we tend to forget last year's lessons and need to refresh our game plan and seek a little reassurance. If we've never cooked a turkey in our lives, we need detailed how-tos and hand-holding.
With that in mind, I set out to test some of the most popular turkey recipes out there — from Alton Brown, Ina Garten, Martha Stewart, and Ree Drummond — to determine which one might deserve a spot on your Thanksgiving table this year. For the sake of a true comparison, I prepared the recipes exactly as written, no matter what I might have learned from reader comments or my own personal knowledge and years of experience. And I learned something from each, because there are always new tips and hints out there to help us.
Ree's offered a homey, old-fashioned approach that reminded me of the way my grandmother made turkey, but with the benefit of a brine. Martha suggested a fascinating way to shield and moisten the delicate breast meat. Alton's high-temperature blast created perfect browned skin. Ina streamlined a smart, simple path to a wonderful turkey.
So which turned out tops on my list? Here's how they ranked, from my least favorite to most.
The Most Old-Fashioned Approach: Pioneer Woman's Roasted Thanksgiving Turkey
Ree's turkey reminded me of my grandmother's brown-in-bag turkey of yore, which can yield tender meat, but comes up short in the looks department. The meat was nice, but was oddly flabby as though it had steamed instead of roasted. The turkey skin was spongy and mottled. The pan drippings were too salty to use in gravy. Her brine recipe sounded tempting, but the method was cumbersome and slow, and although it made the white meat tasty, wasn't worth the work.
The Juiciest Turkey with the Most Interesting Roasting Technique: Martha Stewart's Perfect Roast Turkey
Martha's turkey had delicious white and dark meat and yielded generous amounts of pan drippings for gravy, but unfortunately they were too salty to use in gravy (at least to my palate.) The skin didn't brown evenly and wasn't stellar. However, if moist meat matters most to you, her clever use of a cheesecloth drape (soaked in white wine and butter) that moistens and shields the breasts is brilliant.
The Turkey with the Most Perfectly Browned Skin: Alton Brown's Roast Turkey
Alton Brown's turkey is aptly named: It was the most bronzed and beautiful of the lot, but the short brining time gave short shrift to the meat, and the screaming-hot oven obliterated any pan drippings needed for gravy. If crisp, pleasantly salty skin is what you love most about a roasted bird, this is the one for you.
Read More: I Tried Alton Brown's Roast Turkey
The Very Best Turkey: Ina Garten's Perfect Roast Turkey
Ina's bird was the clear winner. Her dry brine with a lemon-and-herb salt was easiest to handle and yielded fabulous results with moist, flavorful meat and nice pan drippings for gravy, and neither were too salty. Most importantly, a dry brine eliminates the onerous task of finding a food-safe vessel large enough to hold a big bird and six quarts of liquid brine, which is huge and heavy, not to mention emptying and removing refrigerator shelves to make space for it (at a time of year when our fridge's are already brimming with holiday groceries and provisions for our guests).
Her turkey roasts at the same oven temperature the entire time and she doesn't baste every 30 minutes, which means the oven door stays closed and the bird roasts without cool downs and interruptions that interrupt and prolong the roasting time.
Read more: I Tried Ina' Garten's Perfect Roast Turkey
The Big Takeaway Lessons from All Four
- When in doubt, brine: Roasted whole turkeys (whether fresh or thawed) benefit from brining before they are roasted. It adds desperately needed seasoning and moisture, especially to the turkey breast that is vulnerable to turning out dry and bland. One of the trickiest things about roasting a big turkey is to ensure the dark meat is cooked through while avoiding over-cooked white meat.
- Plan ahead: Brining — whether wet or dry — should start 24 to 48 hours before the bird goes into the oven, depending on the recipe. Some recipes call for 24 hours of air drying after the brine to encourage crisp, golden, delicious skin.
- Optimize your fridge: If you chose a recipe that calls for wet brining, you will need a very large food-safe vessel to hold the submerged bird in your refrigerator or a carefully monitored cooler to ensure it stays safely chilled. This is a big pain. You might need to reposition or remove refrigerator shelves at a time when refrigerator space is already limited because of all the holiday groceries and incoming guests. A stockpot or food-safe bucket large enough to hold a big turkey and enough brine to submerge it can wind up weighing more than 40 pounds, which isn't easy to maneuver. (Again, plan ahead!)
- Invest in an instant-read thermometer: Rely on a thermometer to determine doneness. Wiggling legs and scanning juices for traces of red are too often in the eye of the beholder, but temps don't lie. Those pop-up spike-style indicators that come in some turkeys are about as accurate as throwing a dart at a clock. Throw them away and turn instead to a real cooking thermometer, preferably an instant-read thermometer that you can reposition to check the temperature in more than one spot on the turkey. White and dark meat have different doneness temperatures: 165 degrees in the center of the breast and 180 degrees in the thickest part of the thigh.
- Use a sturdy pan: Not one of those flimsy disposable things. Roasted turkeys are hot and heavy, and you need a pan that can hold up to the job.
What's your #1 tip when it comes to Thanksgiving day turkey? Tell us in the comments below.