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.

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

  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.

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What people are saying

    • Jon says

      I have been slow roasting turkey for many years. It sept arts on high, then brings it down. The recipe I follow is the one recommended for the AGA oven. It is just the style of slow roasting that differs. Use a recipe you like and convert the recipe to the turkey size…

  1. says

    Wondering if this would work with a 20lb bird. We posted the recipe on our webpage and had this question and it made me think because I want to try it using our turkey roaster and our bird will be about 20lb too. Any tips or changes for bird that size? We eat about 2pm ourselves so wondering how much earlier I might need to start the bird. thanks!

  2. Helen says

    I also have a question on bigger birds…ours will be at least 25 lbs. is there a ration (ie 30 minutes a pound) for slow roasting?

  3. meredith says

    So… do you wake at 1am to put the bird in the oven? The recipe sounds lovely, but I’m not sure about the logistics of cooking time.

  4. Missakelly says

    I also amm wondering about cooking time. We butchered ours this afternoon and it is 32lbs! wOukld that bea full day of cooking?

    • Jenny says

      I wouldn’t worry too much about cooking time on these: bigger birds do better with longer time frames, but when you slow-roast you’re cooking it well beyond official “done” time and temp and it’s that long cooking that makes it super tender (think of pot roast).

      • Missakelly says

        Ok great. My biggest worry has been the turkey taking all of the oven time from my other dishes! I think I will put the turkey in around 6:00 pm on wed and depending on what it looks like in the morning, I might up the temp sooner to get cooked all the way.

  5. Teresa says

    I under stand the cooking times for the big birds as I have always cooked large birds. but this year there are fewer people so how long would I need to slow cook a 10-12 lb Turkey?

    • Jenny says

      I don’t usually brine it, because I often am working with frozen turkeys and don’t thaw them in time to brine and slow-roast. This year I am brining my turkey – it can only add extra moisture and flavor.

      • Stacy says

        Do you brine with Kosher salt or sea salt? The reason I ask is because if you use sea salt, would you use less than you would for Kosher salt?

  6. Robin says

    This is my first thanksgiving to host, so, this would be my first turkey roast too.
    I don’t use any alcohol, even when cooking, is there a substitute that I can use instead of the white wine?
    Any suggestions would be appreciated.

  7. Amy says

    When you raise the temp to 375 do you take the tent off? My first year hosting thanksgiving with an 18lb heritage, I want to get it right!! Thank you for a wonderful recipe. :)

    • Kristin says

      I have the same question! It sure seems like you should. (Also, I notice your times in the header are a little off – 13 min.?)

      • Laurah says

        About to embark on this recipe with a 28 lb bird. Just realized that you have slightly altered this recipe from a previous post (Nov. 2011) when the temp was 275, the turkey was 12-14 lbs, and you said to take it out when it reached 165. I am assuming this newer version is the one to follow, but I am really nervous about when to start my turkey cooking for a 4pm finish. I was thinking 1pm, which allows 15 hours, at 275. Sound ok to you? (We don’t plan to eat until 5, and I’m serving lots of people, so I hope not to disappoint!)

  8. Remy says

    Two questions!

    Do you wake up every 2-3hrs after midnight to baste!? I’m wondering if the bird is going to dry out while I get some winks?

    Mine is 27 lbs, completely range/pastured and I’m putting him in at 11 p.m. for a hopeful 2-3 p.m. removal. Is this realistic with the weight?

  9. cheryl/brian says

    I woke up an hour late. Can I raise the roasting temperature of my turkey from 325 to 375 degrees. I put it in at 6:20 and need to finish at 11:30 so it can rest and I can make the gravy.

    • cheryl/brian says

      I woke up an hour late. Can I raise the roasting temperature of my turkey from 325 to 375 degrees. I put it in at 6:20 and need to finish at 11:30 so it can rest and I can make the gravy. …Its stuffed and 20 pounds.

      Read More at nourishedkitchen.com/slow-roast-turkey/ © Nourished Kitchen

  10. Kristin says

    So thankful for this recipe! I put our 13-pound heritage-breed bird into the oven at midnight, with the aluminum foil completely sealed (wasn’t sure if this was “tenting” or not). Husband basted it at 4, then 8. I opened it up at 9 to baste it again … which is when I realized it had all fallen off the bones already. And a lovely brown, without ever having turned up the heat. Removed from the oven. I left it covered, atop the stove. I was concerned it was far too dried out to eat, but everyone assured me it was incredible. I have to agree it was lovely. Next time I will be more fastidious about basting more often, but otherwise we will certainly be following this recipe again next time.

  11. Jennifer says

    Thank you for this recipe! I tried it for our Thanksgiving turkey yesterday, and it was absolutely delicious! It was so tender that it actually fell apart when my husband tried to take it out of the roasting pan. This is my turkey recipe from now on!

  12. Sage says

    Yes! This came out great for my Thanksgiving dinner! Absolutely tender and juicy! I’m SO relieved I didn’t blow $70 on a tough pasture-raised turkey!

    • Laurah says

      I followed the older recipe for a 28lb bird, put it in at 1am at 275, didn’t baste for the first 6 hours, so I could sleep, and then basted every 2-3, turned up the heat at 3pm, and it was ready at 4:30, as planned. I took the foil off for the browning during that last 1.5 hrs. The gravy was the tastiest we’ve ever had, and the turkey was very tender and juicy, but in the future I would do this lower temp recipe and keep it in even longer, to get the full effect.

  13. Nina says

    Hi, I cooked the recipe for Easter Sunday – can u please advise me on cooking times for a smaller turkey. I cooked an 11 lb bird as the instructions 12 hours & left the foil on for the last one and half hour cooking time. The leg meat was perfect & moist but the breast meat was dry. What did I do wrong? Should I have reduced the first part of the cooking time. I so want this recipe to work as I much prefer slow cooking methods. Finally, would this work for a turkey crown? Many thanks your feedback to my questions will be very much appreciated.

  14. says

    My name is Rachel, and I am cooking my first big thanksgiving dinner. I only have a couple days left to prepare and and still learning. I have a 22 lb turkey from Costco. It is currently defrosting in the fridge. I wanted to try brining it although I have never done so. We are eating at 1:30 so I need to slow cook it over night. I ran across this post and hoped you might be able to help me. What exactly do I need to do in order to get this turkey done by 11 am to allow cooking time for other sides I will be serving that day. Please help!

    • Lynda says

      Rachel, in case you don’t hear back from her in time, this may not be the best time to brine. Your time is awfully short if you haven’t already started it in brine. I brine my 14lb turkey for 14-16 hrs, then you need to let it “dry” in the fridge (on a rack on a tray, no cover) at least 6 hrs, overnight is preferable, so skin will brown nicely, otherwise soggy. I have mine plotted on a different time frame than yours and can’t really switch gears to help you on that part, but I will say, I do the turkey so it’s out only an hour earlier than serving (tent to keep warm) and use that hour for all my oven items. I plan accordingly so an hour is enough. I find it helpful to cook certain things half way or to almost done a day or two before, and then they need very little time in oven. I make my rolls ahead and freeze and just thaw and warm that day (they are moister this way too). In that hour, I can also make the gravy, now that I have the drippings from the finished turkey. Don’t know if this will help, but this is the kind of info I wish I’d known that first thanksgiving! :) Hope it goes well!!

  15. Karen says

    I keep reading warnings about slow cooking a turkey. If the internal temp is 170 degrees, isn’t that enough to kill bacteria? I am so nervous I am going to give my guests food poisoning!

  16. Lois says

    Jenny,

    I am so excited to be making this turkey myself for the first time ever for my husband’s family. I had it at my daughter-in-law’s house a few years ago, and it was the best ever, ever, ever. The meat literally fell off of the bones as it was so tender and juicy. I can’t stand over cooked, dried out turkey breast meat, so when asked to bring the turkey this year, this is the recipe I searched for and found, smile, smile.

    So I’m cooking a 21.89 pound turkey, so I am increasing the cook time to adjust for the extra three almost four pounds. I like what you said about larger birds and don’t worry too much about the cook time and think of it as a pot roast. When you said that it put my mind at ease, as I remember how my mother’s pot roast would be so tender and fall off the bones, so I am not going to worry about the extra time beyond the twelve hours that I am going to cook mine. Happy Thanksgiving to you all. I’ll let you know how it turned out. We are celebrating our Thanksgiving this weekend when all the family can be here, so yeah, this post is posted Thanksgiving Eve of 2013 and I haven’t even started cooking it yet, lol. I’m going to get plenty of sleep before I start on the venture too. It will be so worth it, that tender, juicy meat, yeah.

  17. Catherine says

    Thank you for this posting because this year we purchased for the first time a heritage turkey and i would have prepared it just like the conventional turkeys from past years. After 12 hours of slow cooking the flesh was starting to loosen I raised the temp. at 13hours and left it browning for another 1 and a half hour. The meat was delicious and moist. My husband said it was the best turkey he ever had as did our guests.
    Thank you for sharing.

  18. Rox merryman says

    Wonder how long a 14 lb turkey will take ?

    Will cooking breast down help or is it not necessary ? I take it you add no moisture to pan ?

    Can you inject breast with in juice at end of cooking ?

  19. Sharon says

    Warning! and disappointing…. I just have to be honest. I have a very sensitive stomach and I didn’t realize this recipe has a possibility of being dangerous. I never expected that this recipe could be dangerous at all as I just went directly to the recipe without reading the ‘prequel’. I really wish you had made the point more boldly in the actual recipe, not in the ‘prequel’ .If I had read about any possible dangers, with my intestinal problems, I wouldn’t have taken a chance on a turkey that cost $60. That turkey was meant to last me through a couple months in the freezer as I have a low income and the turkey was a gift.
    Though I used an organic turkey, and definitely followed all hygenic measures before cooking the turkey, my intestinal issues got worse…i only ate the turkey, nothing else.
    While it may be a coincidence that my intestinal issues got worse,I feel it would be better if you made a bolder statement within the body of the recipe so I could have made a more informed decision, done research, and at least had more knowledge before I used the recipe This recipe came to via my eamil. My guess is that most people, like me, don’t read all the writing surrounding the recipe, and just follow the recipe as I did.
    ps…. I have enjoyed your website this year up until this point, and I still thank you for your help and support, though I hope you make some changes to the way you print this recipe.

  20. LilMsPisces says

    Most people would read the entire article before I think …i know I do….I intestinal issues and have slow cooked meat for decades with no issues….if you had issues, I dare suggest it was a coincidence just to put your mind at ease. :)

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