Ilyce’s Thanksgiving Turkey Recipe was originally published Nov. 24, 2006. It was updated November 17, 2021.
The Best Thanksgiving Turkey You’ll Eat This Year
For years, WSB Radio, in Atlanta, would hire me to fill in for Clark Howard during Thanksgiving week. He took off the entire week, and so I’d need to plan for the pre-Thanksgiving show on Wednesday and then the Black Friday show, on the biggest shopping day of the year. Plus, I’d have to get ready for my show, on Sunday mornings and occasionally the Monday after Thanksgiving, also known as Cyber Monday (when people go online to go shopping, something that we all do daily now but which wasn’t that common way back then).
Anyway, Thanksgiving has been one of my favorite holidays – mostly because I love the food: Turkey, mashed potatoes, yams with cinnamon, orange juice and plenty of marshmallows, all brown and crunchy on top, stuffing, green beans, fresh cranberry sauce, and, of course, Mexican chocolate cupcakes for dessert along with several kinds of pie.
I got into the habit of spending some time on air giving out my recipe for turkey. For some reason, perhaps because you’re tossing something that weighs upwards of 20 pounds into your oven, people are intimidated by cooking turkey. Or, maybe they’re worried about the fact that it’s Thanksgiving and you’re putting on a meal that everyone’s been looking forward to for a whole year.
My Thanksgiving Turkey Recipe- Ingredients
Here’s my secret to making a great turkey: Make a margarine + olive oil + herb mash and spread all over the bird (and under the skin).
Here’s what I put in it (per bird. I usually make 2 turkeys, and sometimes add an extra breast or legs, depending on how many people are coming for dinner and if anyone is around for leftovers the next day):
2-3 sticks of margarine
olive oil (to loosen it)
piles of fresh herbs: sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, chives (if you like a more onion-y flavor)
6-8 cloves of garlic, peeled (or, you can use garlic powder, if you like)
squeeze in a couple of lemons (or add some of the lemon zest, if I’ve got that left over)
Turkey Recipe – Instructions
Put all of the ingredients into a food processor and turn it on. What you want to do is add enough olive oil to make it into a soft, spreadable mixture. It should be light green (thanks to the herbs) and it should smell wonderful. You can make this a day ahead or so and wrap it tightly and put it into the refrigerator.
Next, make sure your bird is cleaned, inside and out. Pat it dry and put it on a rack over a tinfoil pan (or something else, if you don’t mind washing dishes).
Loosen the turkey skin and spread the mixture underneath the skin, all over and in the cavity. Reserve any extra mixture to saute veggies for the stuffing (I use several kinds of mushrooms, onion and celery. I’ve also used leeks and shallots, if I have them).
Put a couple of lemon halves inside the cavity of the bird.
Turkeys – Inside and Outside, on the Grill
I typically have two birds and I cook them in two places: Inside one of my ovens and outside on the grill, usually with some mesquite woodchips. The photo at the top is one of my Grill Turkeys and you can see the color difference between the turkeys on the photo that has the two birds together. (This was taken in 2019, the last time I had a full house for Thanksgiving.)
Whether you’re putting it inside or out, Turn the bird upside down, breast side down, and roast at 350F for about 1.5 to 2 hours (depending on the size, you want to roast it until it’s about 2/3 done). Then, using tongs inserted into the cavity, flip over the bird so the breast side is up.
Continue roasting until done. It typically takes around 3 1/2 hours for my 20-pound bird to cook.
If you’re cooking outside on your grill, and using wood chips, be sure to soak a bunch in advance, and continue to add chips as needed so that your bird takes on a smoky flavor. The bird itself isn’t smoked, you’re roasting it on the grill (which frees up valuable oven space).
Use a thermometer to make sure your turkey is done, then let it rest for at least an hour, covered, while you finish everything else. It will make it a lot easier to slice.
Basting Your Turkey Helps
I do baste my turkeys, typically with a mix of turkey stock, pan juices, and orange juice. I think that helps keep them moist.
One final note: as a general rule, I don’t stuff my bird. I use turkey stock when making the stuffing on the stove, and then bake it separately. It tastes great!
Read More of Ilyce’s Recipes
Crystal’s Mom’s Smashed Potato Pancakes (made with leftover Thanksgiving mashed potatoes)
Ilyce’s Team’s Best Thanksgiving Cocktails (sure to calm the fiercest of debates!)