Turkey: The Roast/Braise Method. All photos by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

I’m starting to get Thanksgiving meal questions in my email, so I guess it’s time to review for our great shared secular holiday, Thanksgiving, our only holiday anchored by food. Time to start planning! I’ll have other posts later in the week, dressing, and stock-making for this weekend (have to have plenty of stock for dressing and gravy). Today, it’s the big one. How to handle the big bird.

I find it amusing how every year the major food media come up with some new way to do the same old thing. Last year The New York Times told you to steam your turkey! Not that there’s anything wrong with the story or the technique (by the Jacques Pépin, after all). My view is why mess with what works? For important occasions, the rule is: go with what works. And of all my years roasting a turkey, I’ve found that the braise/roast method works best, as I wrote last year.

The reason is that this method solves the two great Turkey Conundrums: 1) how to have both juicy breast meat and tender dark meat, and 2) how to serve it all hot to a lot of people.

Answer: the roast/braise method.

Three years ago, I was chatting with my neighbor, the excellent chef Doug Katz (Fire Food & Drink), and he described how he cooks the turkey in stock up to the drumstick so that the legs braise while the breast and skin cook in dry heat. Last year I tried it and it works brilliantly. Thank you, Doug. (Step-by-step pix below.)

The basic idea is this: cook the turkey half submerged in flavorful liquid (preferably stock, but water and wine will do) and lots of aromatic vegetables; the dense, moist heat of the water increases the speed of the cooking. When the breast, browned in the circulating dry heat, is barely done (if you’re measuring, push a thermometer deep into the breast near the wing joint and pull it when the breast measures 150˚F); remove the turkey from the pan. Remove the legs (and wings if you wish). Return them to the braising liquid and finish them on the stovetop, simmering them in the liquid while the breast rests. When the legs and thighs are done, remove the breast whole from the carcass, put them back into the pan, skin side up, and broil to crisp the skin and finish cooking the breast.

Slice the breast and cut the dark meat off the legs, thighs, and wings (in the Times recipe, by the way, Pépin chops off the knobby ends of the drumsticks so that you can easily dispose of all those meddlesome tendons in the leg; a cool idea that I’m going to try). Put all of the meat into a large service dish (or the roasting pan after you’ve strained the delicious cooking liquid into another pot). Ladle the hot braising broth over the carved turkey and keep it warm in the oven or on the stovetop till you’re ready to serve. Use the broth to moisten and flavor a pan dressing (we don’t stuff our turkey anymore, nostalgic as I am for my Grandma Spamer’s stuffing).

Roast/braise is the perfect technique for a big bird, especially if you order from a local farmer (farm-raised birds can be tough in the leg—but not when you use this roast/braise technique). We bought the above from Aaron Miller, who also raises great grass-fed beef, chicken, and lamb.

Here’s my recipe and technique for perfect turkey served hot to all. Quantities will vary given the size of your bird and roasting pan, so I don’t always give amounts. You’ll have to use your most important cooking tool for this: your brain. We cook with our senses, one of which is common sense. Relax, don’t freak out, ask the right number of people to help in the kitchen, have fun, and rejoice in this truly unique and wonderful holiday that celebrates the cooking and eating and sharing of food with the people we love. And remember the words of New York Times editor Sam Sifton, in his new book Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well: “This is the most important message of Thanksgiving: Everything really will be all right.”

The Roasted/Braised Thanksgiving Turkey

  • Plenty of onions, carrots, and celery, roughly chopped (I used 3 big Spanish onions plus one for stuffing into the carcass, 5 carrots, and would have used 5 celery ribs if I’d have remembered to put it on the shopping list!)
  • 5 or 10 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 or 3 bay leaves
  • fresh herbs (I used sage and parsley, still from the garden; tarragon or rosemary would be good, too.)
  • cracked black pepper as needed
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 3 cups of white wine
  • chicken stock, turkey stock, or water (I need needed between 2 and 3 quarts.)
  • kosher salt as needed
  • 1 turkey (Doug recommends 1 pound per person; the one we used here is small, 10 pounds.)
  • 1 lemon, halved
  • melted butter, turkey fat, or chicken fat for basting
  1. Preheat your oven to 425°F to 450°F.
  2. Combine all of the vegetables, garlic, bay leaves, most of the herbs, pepper, and tomato paste in a roasting pan just big enough to hold turkey and vegetables. Stuff a quartered onion, the remaining herbs, and the lemon into the cavity of the turkey.
  3. Nestle the turkey in amongst the aromatics (notice how all of these ingredients are what we use to make stock?).
  4. Pour in the wine and enough stock and/or water to come up above wing and thigh. Add an aggressive 4-finger pinch of salt.
  5. Put the roasting pan over high heat on your stove top and until the liquid comes to a full simmer. Put the turkey in the oven, reduce the heat to 350°F/177°C. Roast until a thermometer in the fattest part of the breast, just above the wing joint, reads 150° to 160°F. I use this cable thermometer, which sounds an alarm when I hit the right temperature, so I don’t have to keep opening the oven and jabbing at the breast. Baste with butter or fat every 20 to 30 minutes. This bird took 80 minutes. A bird twice or more its size will take around 2.5 to 3 hours. Give yourself ample time (it all keeps warm, so better that it’s done early rather than late, especially if you’re serving cocktails).
  6. Remove the turkey to a platter. Now this is important: Present the turkey to everyone. Parade it, admire it. It’s important that all present regard and admire the bird.
  7. Remove the legs at the thigh joint.
  8. Return the legs to the braising pan.
  9. If you wish, remove the wings as well and add them to the pan.
  10. Continue simmering on the stove top, another half hour or so, until the thighs and drumsticks are tender.
  11. The breast should rest like this for at least a half hour or for up to an hour if you need that long to finish the dark meat.
  12. When the dark meat is done, preheat your broiler and arrange an oven rack so that you can put your roasting pan close to the broiler element.
  13. Remove each side of the breast.
  14. It should be a little pink at the center. (The meat on the carcass will flavor your stock tomorrow or overnight.)
  15. Add the whole breasts to the roasting pan skin side up. With all pieces skin side up, finish the turkey under the broiler until the skin is crisp and the breast has been rewarmed and cooked through.
  16. Slice the breast cross-wise so that every piece has some skin.
  17. Separate the leg and thigh and carve the dark meat off the bone. Strain the braising liquid into a pot, discarding the vegetables, and bring it to a simmer (it helps to have someone else do this for you while you’re cutting turkey!). If you’ll be serving the turkey from the roasting pan, rinse it out and rewarm it. If you’re using another service dish, warm that.
  18. Arrange the turkey in the serving vessel and ladle the hot broth over the turkey. You can cover this with foil and keep it warm in the turned-off oven or on the stove top, while you ready the rest of the meal. Be careful not to overcook the breast, though the broth will always keep it moist.
  19. Serve and be grateful.

Notes: If you want to add even more flavor to this, sauté the vegetables in the roasting pan first. I roasted the neck and gizzard and added it to the braising liquid. If you want, finely chop the gizzard and add it to your gravy (I’ll post my gravy method on Wednesday; I hope you made stock over the weekend if you’re responsible for the gravy!). When you’re done, you should have plenty of braising liquid. Add this to your stockpot when making stock from the leftover carcass and bones.

Braised and Roasted Turkey Slideshow

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© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.