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Thanksgiving Eats

Ted Scheffler's famous Thanksgiving turkey recipe (with video).

By Ted Scheffler
Posted // November 18,2009 -

Ten years ago, I shared a Thanksgiving turkey recipe with City Weekly readers—and from all reports, it was a great success. Every Thanksgiving since, I’ve gotten numerous requests for the recipe. So, here is an “encore presentation.” It’ll be available in the archives for Thanksgivings to come.

Nothing can spoil Thanksgiving dinner faster than killing off a few of your guests with an undercooked bird. Here are a few tips to ensure that your Thanksgiving is a delicious success—with no casualties. First of all, don’t buy one of those self-basting turkeys with vegetable oil injected into them. They’re … fowl.

Figure out how many people you’ll be feeding, and plan on about half a pound of turkey per person. That’ll leave plenty of leftovers for sandwiches, soups, and stews—maybe even turkey tetrazzini. Oh, and consider buying two smaller turkeys rather than one large one. They’ll cook faster and you’ll have twice as many wings, thighs and drumsticks.

I prefer unbasted, natural, free-range turkeys. You can special order them at most supermarkets or pick them up at stores such as Liberty Heights Fresh and Whole Foods Market. Buy the turkey a few days before Thanksgiving and give it two or three days to defrost in the fridge, if frozen. Don’t come home from the store with a rock-hard frozen turkey on Thanksgiving morning and expect to eat it that day. Also, if you purchase a turkey with one of those little plastic pop-up timers, you’ll discover that they are, well, turkeys. They’re pretty unreliable, so use a meat thermometer to test a turkey for doneness.

I have found that brining my bird the night before cooking helps to ensure that the turkey will be moist and tender. Brining makes a noticeable difference in the texture and flavor of the turkey meat, too. Here’s how to do it: Dissolve 2 cups of kosher salt or 1 cup of regular table salt in 2 gallons of cold water in a clean bucket, large stock pot, or lobster pot. Place the turkey in the pot and refrigerate, or keep in a very cool place (40 degrees or lower) for 8-12 hours. I usually brine the turkey on Thanksgiving Eve and put it out in the cold garage. In the morning, I remove the turkey from the brine and rinse it thoroughly inside and out until all traces of the salt are removed.

The problem with cooking most large turkeys is that by the time the dark meat is done, the breast is typically overcooked and dry. Here’s how to help remedy that: After the turkey is defrosted, but still in the fridge, fill a large Ziploc bag full of ice cubes. Lay the ice pack over the turkey breast in the refrigerator like saddlebags. The ice will keep the breast cooler than the rest of the bird. Keep the ice pack on the breast until you’re ready to put the turkey in the oven. You won’t believe what a difference this simple tip will make!

Health experts don’t recommend cooking a turkey with stuffing or dressing in the turkey cavity. But if you must, only stuff a turkey right before roasting since stuffing sitting in an uncooked turkey can develop nasty and dangerous bacteria. It’s better to cook your stuffing separately from the turkey. The turkey will cook faster and the stuffing won’t be saturated with fat.

Here is my method for cooking a 15-18 pound turkey. You can modify the recipe using herbs, rubs, sauces, or whatever on the turkey. But this is the simplest, most straightforward way I know of cooking the perfect holiday bird.

Adjust the oven rack to its lowest position. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove the neck and giblets from the turkey’s body cavity. (If you brined your bird, you’ll already have done this.) Remove the icepack saddle bags described above. Rinse the turkey with cold water inside and out and pat dry with paper towels. Brush or rub the turkey with 3-4 tablespoons of melted unsalted butter. Generously sprinkle the turkey inside and out with salt and freshly ground black pepper. (You can also add herbs like thyme, rosemary, etc. at this stage if you wish.) Place an onion, quartered, inside the turkey cavity.

Place the turkey upside down, with the breast facing downward, on a nonstick roasting rack (Calphalon makes a good one). Put the roasting rack in a large roasting pan; I like my new KitchenAid roaster with domed lid. Place the turkey in the oven and cook for one hour at 400 degrees. After an hour, lower the oven temperature to 250 degrees and roast the turkey for about 1 hour and 45 minutes more. Remove the turkey from the oven and turn it breast side up. (I do this with big wads of paper towels.) Baste the breast with pan juices. Increase the oven to 400 degrees, put the turkey back into the oven, breast up, and continue cooking the turkey until the breast registers 160 degrees and a thigh registers 175 to 180 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. This should take anywhere from 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours. (Note: Exact roasting times will vary depending on the size of the turkey.)

Be sure to let the turkey rest—and you do the same—for about 20 minutes before you start hacking it up. The bird will be unbelievably moist and easy to carve.

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Post a comment
Posted // November 22,2010 at 13:20

I didn't watch the video so this may have been covered but it is critical with this recipe to use a fresh bird. Frozen birds like (butterball) are pre-injected with a salty brine solution. Use a fresh bird (Costco sells them for "cheep") and they have organic free range veggie fed turkeys this year too. I've been brining my turkeys for over 10 years and I've tried other methods too but it doesn't get much better than this. Oh, and use a electronic meat thermometer... just say no to the "tender timer" you'll end up with sawdust turkey.


Posted // November 24,2009 at 07:35

As I am getting the hell out of here for T-Day in order to avoid familial obligations, my wife and I cooked up our T-Day dinner this past Sunday and used Ted's techinique for the bird. This is the second time I've used it on a turkey and can attest that it really does wonders for the meat. I mean, my bird was gorgeous! Thanks for providing the recipe again, Ted. I was just getting ready to search for it when you posted it.

Mamba, the meat will soak in a small amount of salt while in the brine, but only enough to season it some. I tend to think that the majority of the salt that does soak in goes into the skin as most of the flesh isn't actually exposed to the brine. Given that you rinse it properly, you don't get a salty taste in the end and I am not a fan of overly salted food - I have a fairly low threshold for salt, especially ionized table salt. Of course, leaving the protein in the brine for too long will destroy it and turn it into a poorly textured salt lick.

You can add stuff to the brine that makes it more interesting. To brines, I've added juniper berries, various herbs, citrus rinds, liquors, etc. The bird or pork or whatever will pick up those flavors.

Give it a shot, buddy. I bet you like it.


Posted // November 25,2009 at 20:48 - BlackMamba: Here's where I think I went wrong, anthropology-wise. I used to begin teaching semesters of Social & Cultural Anthropology 101 by playing Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner, followed by the Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen. Then, as a way of beginning a discussion about cultural norms and mores and such, I'd ask why nobody in the class stood up during those anthems, took their baseball caps off, etc., etc. "What, aren't you guys patriotic?" Needless to say, this completely confused and frightened the wet-behind-the-ears freshmen who'd been trained for 12 years leading up to that moment to TAKE NOTES, because "it might be on the quiz." Hence, I now write about food & drink....


Posted // November 24,2009 at 12:57 - Sounds delicious! In fact, I ran out and bought a huge, thick Black Angus Filet Minon last night. Can't wait to brine it! Just kidding. And, Ted, my favorite TV Chef, Alton Brown, is a food science guy and he started his life-career as a very talented cinematographer who went to cooking school on a kind of a lark. Your formal education aside, I appreciate the useful tips. Anthropology...I'm impressed!


Posted // November 24,2009 at 09:20 - I concur with Hayduke's suggestions/remarks and I'm happy your bird turned out well! One thing I should have noted in my recipe is that when I brine the turkey I don't season it with any additional salt before cooking. I just lather it up with some unsalted butter and then into the oven it goes.


Posted // November 23,2009 at 21:59


I would like to brine a 20 pounder. Should I increase cooking time at all?


Posted // November 24,2009 at 09:18 - Honey, I think the general rule is approximately 15-20 minutes per pound. So, I'm guessing that you'll need to add anywhere from half an hour to an hour to the overall cooking time for your turkey. It depends though on the temperature of your oven (they vary a lot), whether or not you stuff the turkey, and so on. Your best bet is to keep it cooking until it registers to correct temperature on an instant-read thermometer.


Posted // November 20,2009 at 13:44

Great tips!

I have questions: What does "brining" do, exactly?

While it's true that soaking anything in corrosive salt water, er, uh, sorry, "brine," will tenderize it, kinda the way seawater tenderizes the hull of an oil tanker, turns anchors into safety pins, dissolves wood, flesh and paint, why do you make sure to rinse all traces of salt out of the bird? Didn't you just soak it in saltwater, sorry, "brine" overnight to tenderize and change the texture of the meat?

Does your next-day rinse get rid of the huge doses of salt (brine) that you infused into the meat?

What does "brining" do to the peramanent sodium level of the bird that's about to be consumed? Methinks it's in the galactic sector of a BigMac and fries with ketchup...a month's worth. Swollen hands, swollen ankles, swollen belly, compromised kidneys.

If it's some bizzare and fascinating bio-chemical reaction that tenderizes and then becomes inert just before cooking, fantastic!

Please share, won't you? I'm not picking on you. Many recipes and tips call for brining without explaining other than "taste and tenderizing."As you can tell, I'm kind horrified and fascinated at the same time. Kinda like watching two men kissing at the Mall.

It reminds me of my old man cooking deer venison by poaching it in a cast iron pan drowned in red wine and copious amounts of salt (hard brine). I think he was mostly drowned in red wine, too. When I asked him why (I was 5, ok?) he said it made the meat easier to eat and got rid of the "wild" taste. All I could think of was if you had to disguise the taste of an other wise unpalatable food source, why eat it?


Posted // November 22,2009 at 10:34 - Sorry, I'm not a food scientist. Or, any type of scientist for that matter, although I do have an M.A. in anthropology. But, that's another story. All I can say is brining improves the finished product. This is hardly controversial. Just Google "brining turkey" or something like that and you'll probably find answers to all your concerns and questions.