Roasting My First Turkey: How To Clean, Brine, Roast A Turkey And Make Gravy

I roasted my first turkey last night and was really happy with the results! It’s hard to keep your turkey moist and juicy inside. I’ve had so many dry turkeys over the years, people tend to overcook them. I learned so many new things while making this turkey. There may be a few things I’d do differently next time. I’ll share my learnings with you of course!

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I sort of left it to the last minute to buy my ingredients (the day before), which was not a smart thing to do. I really wanted to buy my turkey at the St. Lawrence Market, but timing didn’t work out and I had no choice but the go to the grocery store down the street. I wanted an organic, free-range turkey, but the only ones they had were frozen. I bought a frozen one.

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Big mistake. Apparently the best way, and only safe way, to defrost a frozen turkey is to do it in the refrigerator. But a 15 pound turkey would take 3-4 days to fully defrost. I had one day. Being a microbiologist, I know all about the dangers of leaving meat out at room temperature. Leaving meat unrefrigerated (above 4 degrees Celsius), you risk having harmful bacteria grow that could potentially make you sick. To speed up the thawing process, my only option was to thaw my turkey in a sink full of cold water. And the water must be COLD. Technically, you should be keeping the water at 4 degrees, changing it often. Nothing more fun than pulling a turkey all-nighter waiting for the bird to defrost! I put it in the sink and constantly changed the water. So within a couple of hours of buying my bird, I had already learned something about turkey roasting. Lesson #1: If buying a frozen turkey, buy days in advance (3-4) to properly defrost, or buy a fresh one (or defrosted).

First step to preparing your turkey is to clean it (once it’s defrosted).

Cleaning/prepping your turkey

This is pretty straightforward. It being my first time cleaning a turkey, I had no idea what to expect, or what I was supposed to do. To be honest, I was SCARED. The two drumsticks were held together by securing them under a flap of the turkey skin. I wriggled them loose without breaking the skin loop.

I read that I was supposed to remove the neck and giblets. My initial reaction was “How am I supposed to do that!?” “Who wants to stick their hands in a turkey butt!?” “I can’t even see inside the hole, what if there’s something IN THERE?” I pulled myself together and found a youtube video on how to roast a turkey. When the woman said to remove the neck and bag of giblets, I thought “Bag? There’s a bag in there?”. Low and behold, I reached in (with a gloved hand because I was still nervous) and pulled out a small paper bag of giblets! How convenient! The neck is also detached and put into the bird. I set the neck and giblets aside. I know some people use the giblets for gravy or stuffing. And If you’re going to make turkey soup later, the neck will come in handy.

Next, just wash the turkey with water and pat it dry with paper towel, inside and out. Careful! They’re slippery!

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I decided on making a brine for my turkey. I looked up a million different recipes. They’re all pretty similar, but chose one I liked best and stuck with it. I used a brine recipe by Greg Blonder. You can find the recipe and read all about brining here. Brining hydrates the cells in the meat you are cooking and makes the meat moister by allowing the cells to hold on to the moisture while it’s being cooked. Brining solutions are usually a mixture of water with equal parts salt and sugar (there are different variations).

Turkey Brine

What You’ll Need:

  • 2 cup (or more) measuring cup
  • Pot big enough to submerge your turkey. (Get creative if you don’t have one.)
  • Water
  • Kosher salt (or regular table salt)
  • Sugar
  • Ground black pepper
  • 2 sprigs rosemary
  • 5 or 6 cloves of garlic, cut in halves

I brined my turkey in a large pot. My 15-pound bird fit perfectly inside of it. I doubled this recipe and it made just enough brine (with a little leftover) to fill my pot and submerge my turkey.

1. Fill your measuring cup with 1 cup of hot water.

2. Pour salt into the water until the water rises to the 1 1/2 cup mark.

3. Pour this salt water into your big pot and add 1/2 cup of sugar.

4. Add 16 cups of water, garlic, rosemary, and 1 or 2 tablespoons of ground pepper.

You turkey should be washed and dried. Place in the pot of brine. I let my turkey soak overnight and turned it upside down in the morning, so that the bit of the bird that wasn’t quite submerged would get a chance to soak as well. A common rule is to brine for one hour per pound of meat. My turkey soaked overnight for about 14 hours.

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After soaking, remove the turkey from the brine and rinse off all the brining solution with cold water. Make sure you rinse the inside and outside of the turkey well. The brining liquid is very salty, you don’t want to leave a lot of that on your meat. After rinsing, pat dry with paper towel. I stuffed some paper towel into the turkey to get out as much moisture as possible.

You’re almost ready to roast.

Some more key things I learned:

Do not stuff your turkey. Health Canada recommends cooking stuffing outside your turkey. When the stuffing is inside the bird, it’s hard to cook it evenly. Raw poultry products get mixed in with the stuffing and not cooked properly. Cook your stuffing separately in a pan or casserole dish.

Roasting Your Turkey

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Preheat your oven to 325. My fifteen pound turkey ended up taking about 4 1/2 hours to cook. This was longer than I expected. Maybe all the potatoes and veggies slowed the cooking. (I might experiment with cooking at 350 next time.)

What You’ll Need:

  • 1 brined, rinsed, and dried turkey
  • Roasting pan
  • Kitchen twine (optional)
  • Baster
  • Oven-safe thermometer
  • Baby potatoes enough to lie in a single layer on the bottom of your pan
  • 10 garlic cloves, halved or roughly chopped into large pieces
  • 2 onions, quartered
  • 2-3 carrots, peeled cut in 2-inch pieces
  • 4 celery stalks, washed and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • Vegan butter (I was avoiding dairy in my recipes for Passover purposes, but you can use regular butter or oil as well)
  • 5 sprigs rosemary
  • Ground black pepper
  • 5 bay leaves
  • Onion powder
  • Garlic powder
  • Paprika
  • Chicken broth (optional for basting)

I roasted my turkey on a bed of baby red, yellow, and blue potatoes and surrounded it with vegetables. The potatoes keep the bird from being directly on the pan and allow space for hot air to circle more evenly around it. They also allow room for drippings to collect without soaking the bird. And you can eat them! The veggies make for a tasty bird and even tastier gravy!

1. Fill the bottom of your pan with the potatoes.

2. Place your turkey breast-side down on top of potatoes. Tie the drumsticks together with kitchen twine. I didn’t have twine so I pushed and secured both legs back under the flap of skin. This is how it was secured when I bought it. If you don’t know what I’m talking about check out the pictures.

3. Brush the turkey with butter or oil to help it brown nicely and keep the skin from drying out.

4. Place the cut up carrots, celery, onions, and garlic around the turkey in the pan, I stuffed a couple onion quarters, some celery, and carrots into the cavity too. This will help flavour the turkey from the inside out. The veggies will help flavour the drippings. Scatter your rosemary and bay leaves around the turkey too.

5. Season your turkey with ground pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, and paprika. I just sprinkled it all over the turkey and veggies. I didn’t add any salt. The brine adds enough saltiness.

6. Stick an oven-safe thermometer into the thickest part of the turkey thigh.

7. Cover with foil and put her in the oven! Cooked covered for an hour and then remove the foil and continue cooking uncovered.

8. You should baste the turkey every half hour. I used some of my extra vegan butter and some homemade chicken broth to baste. You can also use oil. Once drippings start collecting in the bottom of the pan you can use your baster to suck up the liquid and squeeze it back over the turkey. Basting will keep your meat moist and add flavour.

9. I did not turn my turkey over. Keep checking the thermometer. When it reads 165-170 degrees in the thickest part of the thigh, your turkey is done. It should be a nice golden colour. Paprika is also a good browning agent. You can always sprinkle a little more on.

10. Take the turkey out of the oven and cover with foil. Let it rest for at least 20 minutes before carving.

Gravy

Ingredients:

  • Turkey drippings
  • Cornstarch, potato starch, or other thickening agent
  • Water (optional)
  • Salt or pepper (if needed)

Making the gravy is so simple! Transfer your turkey to a platter. I collected the potatoes and threw out the other vegetables. Use your baster to suck all the liquid from the bottom of your roasting pan and transfer. I had tons of drippings. If there are browned bits on the bottom of your pan, you can use a bit of water and scrape all the flavourful browned bits and add that to the pot as well. I did not use the giblets in my gravy.

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You can always use a gravy separator or a cheesecloth to remove extra oil/fat. Heat up your drippings and slowing add starch or your thickening agent of choice until you’ve reached a consistency that you are satisfied with.

If you find there isn’t enough liquid in your pan, you can add water to increase the volume. Don’t dilute it too much. My gravy was perfect as is, but you can season with salt or pepper as needed. Having the veggies roasting in the pan with your turkey makes a big difference in the flavour of your gravy.

You’re all set! Enjoy! xx

I also made a homemade cranberry sauce to go with my turkey. You can get the recipe here.

6 thoughts on “Roasting My First Turkey: How To Clean, Brine, Roast A Turkey And Make Gravy

  1. Very good tutorial.
    A few things I would add.
    When cooking a turkey set over to 500 degrees initially. Roast turkey for 20-30 min for a really crispy skin. Then turn oven down to 350 and cover with foil tent (to prevent breast from drying). Insert thermometer into breast. Leave bird alone. Never ever open door and baste, this is an old fashion method. Opening and closing door adds to cook time (that’s why your bird took forever). My 15 lb bird took about 3 hrs total. I pull my turkey out at 160 degrees and cover and let rest for 30 min before carving.
    Just some little tricks and tips I’ve learned after brining over 15 birds! :)

    • Thanks Caroline! Wow, 15+ turkeys! you’re a pro!
      Perfect turkey roasting does take lots of practice! I’ve done it a few times now, and it gets easier each time.
      So you don’t baste at all?
      Thanks for all the tips! I’ll keep them in mind for my next birdy! :)

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