Roast turkey, the centerpiece of most Thanksgiving dinners, can make (or break) the meal. With that much pressure placed on a single dish, it’s easy to feel intimidated. There are complex brines and dry-rubs to make, temperature and timing to keep, and the tetris-like game of fitting all the casseroles and baking dishes into the oven with the hope of it all coming out piping hot and ready at the same time.
Inheriting my husband’s family slow-roasted turkey recipe solved those riddles for me.
Slow-roasting is an old-school and fuss-free approach to cooking turkey. You begin by roasting the turkey in a moderate oven, before turning down the heat and cooking it low and slow for hours. The gentle heat and long cooking time results in a bird with deep amber-colored skin and meat so tender it literally falls off the bone.
The recipe was my husband’s great-grandmother’s, passed down to his grandmother, his mother, and then me. With time, I’ve made my own tweaks: increasing the temperature slightly; stuffing the bird’s cavity with aromatic herbs, lemons, and onion instead of the traditional bread-and-sausage dressing; and slathering the breast with herb-infused butter.
The recipe is simple, but timing is important. In my husband’s family tradition, the cooks would stay up late into the night playing cards with plans to begin roasting the bird sometime between midnight and 1 a.m. They’d skip the step of basting the bird, and simply let it cook all night long so that it was ready when they woke in the morning. Favoring an early feast (and one that could be enjoyed all day), this overnight method made sense, and it also freed up the oven during the morning for last-minute meal prep.
Preferring to serve our Thanksgiving feast in the early afternoon, I dress the bird in advance the night before and wake as early as 6 a.m. to tuck it in the oven. This allows us to baste the bird as it cooks, to give it bigger flavors. The bird takes just shy of nine hours to cook and rest, so plan your day accordingly (and don’t forget to thaw a frozen bird beforehand). For a 5 o’clock dinner, for instance, plan to begin roasting the turkey around 9 a.m.
Since the turkey will be occupying the oven, I recommend preparing most side dishes, such as mashed potatoes or yams, the night before. Warm them in the oven while your bird rests, so you can serve them hot and on time. Salads, cranberry sauce, and other accompaniments that don’t require an oven are easy to make while the bird roasts.
A Note on Slow-Roasting and Food Safety
There’s a long tradition of roasting poultry in a slow oven, or at about 250 to 300 degrees F. It’s an old-school method; some of the earliest recipes for cooking turkey call for slow-roasting. “Jennie June’s American Cookery Book,” published in 1870, recommends stuffing the turkey with a mix of breadcrumbs, salt pork, onion, and herbs, and slow roasting it in a pan with sausages.
“Housekeeping in Old Virginia” (1878) also recommends slow-roasting, and serving the bird with drawn butter, while “Mrs. Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book” (1850) cautions that turkey must be roasted slowly and cooked thoroughly, giving the recommendation that it also be served with a giblet gravy. The practice of slow-roasting poultry is undoubtedly older than these recipes let on, coming from a time when cooking was taught in the kitchen by an experienced hand rather than from a book.
When these recipes were written, domestic turkeys were raised on pasture, which allowed the birds plenty of room to move and exercise, making their meat flavorful but a little tougher than most of the turkeys available at grocery stores today. The slow-roasting method works particularly well for free-range and pasture-raised birds, allowing the meat to turn tender.
By the 1960s, there was a distinct shift away from slow-roasting in favor of cooking poultry at hotter temperatures of about 325 to 450 degrees F. This shift coincides with recommendations by health authorities, such as the CDC, which recommends roasting turkey at no lower than 325 degrees F. For my husband’s family, however, the tradition of slow-roasting persisted, and it’s one I’ve happily shared with my children, too—with a few adjustments.
Those who slow roast their birds typically do so at much lower temperatures than recommended—sometimes as low as 170 degrees F, but usually closer to 225 to 250. I favor roasting at 250, which shortens the cook time, but maintains the tender meat and rich flavor one would expect from long, slow cooking.
The goal of cooking is to destroy pathogenic bacteria, making the food safe to consume. Most of the bacteria rests on the surface areas of the bird, such as its skin or cavity, and is destroyed at about 165 degrees F. We always bake the dressing separately, and instead stuff our bird with onions and lemons, which both add flavor and keep the bird moist. An initial hour of roasting at a hotter temperature also helps kill the surface bacteria, leaving plenty of time to safely slow-roast the bird to perfection.
You should always cook poultry to a safe internal temperature of 165 degrees F. Slow-roasting, however, often cooks the meat to a hotter temperature of about 180 degrees F, at which point the meat tends to seize before relaxing as it cooks, developing lovely tenderness. This higher temperature is often recommended in older cookbooks, predating the 1960s.
For my part, I feel comfortable slow-roasting our birds. It’s a time-honored tradition, with succulent results worth the wait.
Slathered with herb butter and stuffed with onions and lemons, this slow-roasted turkey is rich with flavor, succulent, and wonderfully easy to make. Slow-roasting is a long process with a rewarding result; just make sure to plan in advance, as slow-roasting at this temperature takes 25–30 minutes per pound. I recommend using a small- to medium-sized bird.
Serves 6 to 8
- 1/2 cup softened butter
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh thyme
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh sage
- 2 teaspoons fine sea salt
- 1 14-pound turkey, fresh or thoroughly thawed, giblets removed
- 2 large yellow onions, quartered
- 2 large lemons, quartered
- 1 1/2 cups dry white wine, or water
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Beat the butter together with thyme, sage, and sea salt until well-combined.
Rinse the turkey and pat it dry. With a butter knife, loosen the skin of the turkey from the flesh of the breast. Spread the herb butter between the skin and the meat of the turkey breast, and place the seasoned turkey breast-side up on a rack in your roasting pan.
Stuff the turkey’s cavity with the onions and lemons. Pour the wine into the pan. Tuck the pan into the oven and bake for about 1 hour. Then, turn the temperature down to 250 degrees F and then continue roasting the bird, basting with the pan juices every 2 to 3 hours, until cooked through and evenly brown all over (about 7 hours). The bird should be a beautiful amber brown, and an instant-read thermometer should register an internal temperature of 165 degrees F when stuck into the thickest part of the bird.
Allow the turkey to rest about 30 minutes before carving.
This recipe was originally published on NourishedKitchen.com and is reprinted by permission of the author.