How to Slow-roast the Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

After years of overdone and tough birds, I was entrusted with this recipe – passed from my husband’s grandmother to his mother, from my mother-in-law to my husband and, eventually, he shared it with me.  You see, my husband, taught me to cook.   And while it must be some level of a sin, a betrayal to share such beloved and time-worn recipe with you – and publicly at that – I know you’ll fall in love, just as I did. And that, dearest real food lovers, is worth it.

It is an old-fashioned recipe and one that’s likely to send food safety experts who malign traditional slow-roasting with nearly as much fervor as they malign raw milk.  They warn against overnight roasting and slow temperatures of less than 325 degrees Fahrenheit.  Of course, I’ve never been one to mind the food safety experts; after all, it’s under the guise of food safety that artisan cheesemakers have been shut down and their product confiscated despite clean tests while Cargill has been allowed to sicken the the nation with tainted turkey.  So, yes, I’ll stick with my husband’s grandmother’s recipe.  She’s happily in her 70s and the occasional slow-roasted turkey doesn’t seem to have done her any damage.

Slow roasting: A Necessity for Pastured  & Heritage Turkeys

If you’re accustomed to the tender meatiness of conventionally raised or industrial breed turkeys, preparing a pasture-raised and heritage breed turkey presents somewhat of a learning curve.  You see, they just don’t cook the same way.  Industrial breeds such as the broad-breasted white turkey have been strategically bred, generation after generation, to meet the industrial agricultural model; that is, they have huge breasts, shorter legs and are fatter than heritage breeds.  When raised according to conventional methods that lack in access to bugs, grubs, green grass and sunshine, they grow fatter yet and sicker, too.

By contrast, traditional heritage turkey breeds tend toward leanness – even the dark meats.  Further, when turkeys are raised on pasture – as they should be – the additional activity can increase that leanness.  When these birds are cooked according to conventional methods which include high heat and shorter cooking times, their protein-rich meat can sieze resulting in toughness.  So as we approach heritage breeds and traditional farming practices, we must also approach cooking with tradition in mind.

Slow roasting, whereby poultry, is cooked gently at a low temperature for a long period of time (overnight for turkeys and several hours for smaller birds like chicken) resulting in an extraordinarily succulent bird whose skin reaches a deep golden-brown color and whose meat literally falls of the bone.  And if you’re game for trying this traditional method, I’ve included a simple video that illustrates this technique as well as an easy 4-step recipe that will wow your family and your guests this Thanksgiving.

Notes on Slow Roasting

Slow-roasting takes time, and your bird will typically reach official “done” temperatures long before slow-roasting is complete.  Don’t pull it from the oven prematurely or you may have a tough and dry bird on your hands; rather, prolong the cooking time and baste frequently for a super succulent and moist bird.  Don’t worry if your turkey remains in the oven longer than you expect; this method is very forgiving.

More Holiday Goodness

If  you want more holiday goodness, check out Real Food for the Holidays – my online cooking class devoted to simple, wholesome foods for the holidays: slow-roasted turkey, Christmas cookies.  There’s 175 holiday recipes, 30 instructional videos and 30 pre-planned menus.  It’s on sale for 40% off now through Wednesday!  Check it out.


Slow-roasted Turkey with Herb Butter

By Jenny Published: November 22, 2011

  • Yield: 1 Turkey (12 Servings)
  • Prep: 10 mins
  • Cook: 13 mins
  • Ready In: 23 mins

Slathered with butter, dressed with thyme and stuffed with onions and lemons, this slow-roasted turkey is rich with flavor, succulent and wonderfully easy to make. Remember to begin preparing this turkey approximately fourteen hours in advance. In our home, we typically serve Thanksgiving dinner during mid-afternoon at about 2:00, so I typically begin slow roasting the turkey at about midnight the night before.


  • 1/2 cup butter or ghee (softened)
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh thyme
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh sage
  • 1 pasture-raised turkey (about 16 to 18 lbs, giblets removed and reserved for another purpose)
  • 2 large yellow onions (quartered)
  • 2 large lemons (quartered)
  • 1 1/2 cups white wine


  1. Preheat oven to 225 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. 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. Place quartered onion in the baking dish alongside the turkey breast. Season with unrefined sea salt and freshly ground black pepper as it suits you.
  3. Stuff the turkey’s cavity with lemons, onions and any additional herbs of your choice. Pour wine into the pan.
  4. Truss the turkey and slow roast for approximately twelve hours, tented with parchment paper or foil. Baste every 2 to 3 hours. Increase the heat to 375 degrees and continue roasting for one and one-half hours or until the skin is a rich brown and the meat has reached an internal temperature of at least 185 F. Allow the turkey to rest for 30 minutes prior to carving.