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Roast Turkey in Cast Iron -- 2017

Roast Turkey Roast Turkey

YouTube: How to Roast Your Turkey in Cast Iron
YouTube: Roast Turkey in Cast Iron

This recipe began in early November of 2012, in preparation for Thanksgiving, and I have been updating and tweaking it over the past few years. Like every aspiring cook, I wanted a "perfect" turkey on my table: one with moist, juicy meat and crisp brown skin. I looked at a lot of different recipes for roast turkey and considered many different methods, from the original roast turkey (325 degrees F the entire time, end of story) to a dry salt brine, to "blasting" the turkey at 500 degrees for the entire cooking time. Some recipes said to flip the turkey; other said to put it into the oven legs first. The high heat method warned the reader to have a clean oven. I considered them all, and finally compiled this recipe with bits and pieces from all of them. This recipe may not win any awards, but it gives a tasty, well-cooked turkey that is anything but dry. It also gave me the chance to use my favorite cooking tool, a cast iron pan.

I've roasted turkeys in a huge cast iron dutch oven and a cast iron skillet, and they've been especially useful for cooking piles of food for many groups of people. Cast iron, of course, makes it a natural to be the vessel of choice to cook a Thanksgiving turkey. Here's one recipe for preparing a holiday bird that you may find useful, especially if you have a big cooking pot. What's more, the heavy iron helps to cook the bird evenly: the hot iron contacts directly against the dark meat, giving it extra heat to cook. This means the dark meat is done at the same time as the white meat, and we can avoid drying out the white meat.

My dinner guests have commented the flavor of this finished turkey resembles a "jerk turkey" with Jamaican jerk seasoning – except that it's not as hot as jerk seasoning. This flavor likely comes from the brine, which uses sage, rosemary and thyme to flavor the turkey.

Update, November 11, 2018: Like many people, I've been on a quest for the perfect roast turkey: a bird with crisp skin, juicy meat that isn't dried out, and a photographic appeal that anyone would be proud to present. Of course, this recipe has to include a cast iron skillet. I've been tweaking this recipe each year. Last year's recipe was excellent, and it was easily the best turkey I'd made in my kitchen. This year, I still wanted to tweak the recipe a little more. The turkey last year took six hours to slow-cook. This year, the recipe was adjusted only slightly…and the turkey was outstanding. This was a turkey I'd be proud to present anywhere. What's more, this turkey was completely done in only TWO HOURS! I honestly couldn't believe it! I double-checked and triple checked with a second thermometer, and confirmed it had reached the correct temperature.

Some thought came up with a reason why this turkey cooked so fast. My oven was failing last fall, and it finally gave out just around New Year's Day of 2018. I was probably cooking all of last yeat's holiday dishes with a failing oven thermostat, and the temperature was probably lower than it should have. My oven was finally replaced in March of this year, and I've had to become accustomed to cooking with a brand new oven. It's likely this is why the turkey cooked so much faster. But either way, this demonstrated that cooking by temperature is essential with meat and poultry – especially when it comes to a bird as important as the Thanksgiving turkey. If I had tried to estimate the cooking time with minutes per pound, it would have been wildly inaccurate and likely in the oven for at least another hour. But because the temperature was measured with an oven thermometer, it produced a turkey that, once again, may be the best turkey cooked in my kitchen so far.

Tools needed

This recipe uses a huge cast iron skillet for roasting the turkey. I've also used a large cast iron dutch oven as a roasting pan (without a lid) with successful results. A dutch oven will work just fine for roasting the turkey; but it may be difficult to lift a huge turkey out of a deep cast iron pot. Also, the dutch oven would block the view of the roasted bird. A cast iron skillet would allow the entire turkey to be viewed, even as soon as it is taken out of the oven.

A cast iron skillet large enough for a turkey can be found or purchased from a number of suppliers. The Lodge 15-inch skillet often sells at discount stores such as TJ Maxx-Marshall's-HomeGoods for about $40, and can be ordered from Amazon for around this price or a little more. An Asian-made imitation of the Lodge skillet, the Ozark Trail 15-inch skillet, sells for under $20 at Wal-Mart. And the Camp Chef 14-inch skillet can be ordered from many suppliers for around $25 or less.

Brining the Bird

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I've read about dry-brining the turkey with salt instead of using a wet brine. I like the results of a wet brine, as it keeps the meat moist and juicy; also a wet brine takes only one day as opposed to two to three days for a dry brine. For this recipe, I'd like to recommend using a buttermilk brine! After all, buttermilk is the best way to soak chicken in preparation for making fried chicken. If it's good enough for fried chicken, it's certainly good enough for roast turkey.

Be sure the turkey is thawed out two days before serving. This will give you plenty of time to brine the bird. Prepare your brine:

The good part about this brine is that it doesn't have to be boiled in advance!

It can be expensive to purchase a whole gallon (four quarts) of buttermilk. A much less expensive solution is as follows: in a container over one gallon in size, such as a large bowl or plastic container, add one gallon of whole milk. Stir in 1 cup apple cider vinegar. Wait 15 to 20 minutes for the milk to curdle and take on the consistency of buttermilk. Stir in salt, sage, thyme, rosemary, pepper. The brine is ready to be used.

Remove giblets and neck from the cavity. Place the giblets into a plastic container or Ziploc bag, and store them in the refrigerator until the turkey is cooked. The giblets will be used for making gravy.

Rinse the outside and inside the turkey. Add the brine solution to a container bigger than the bird, such as an ice chest, cooler, or even a plastic storage bin. Submerge the turkey in the brine, and cover with a lid. The container must be kept at a temperature lower than 40 degrees F for the brining. (One option is to use a brining bag: add the turkey and brine to the bag, tie the bag closed, and place the bag in a container packed in ice.)

Allow the turkey to marinate for a minimum of 12 hours for a small turkey (8-10 lbs) and at least a full day for a bigger bird. Longer brining time is okay; I used this recipe to brine a 7-pound chicken for over 24 hours before cooking, and it still turned out juicy and delicious. Be sure to rinse the turkey and pat it dry before adding additional seasoning for roasting.

The Roasting

The brine included spices to add flavor to the turkey. For the roasting, all we need are:

Place the cast iron pan into the oven before heating. Do not grease the pan in advance; simply place it into the cold oven, dry. Preheat the oven, and the pan, to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. It's okay if the oven reaches 250 degrees before you're finished preparing the turkey rub; you can just leave the pan in the oven until you're ready to place the turkey into it.

Remove the turkey from the brine. Thoroughly rinse the turkey, and discard the brine mixture. Dry off the turkey with cloth or paper towels, including the inner cavity. It doesn't have to be bone-dry, but at least so it won't soak your hands when you lift and move the bird. Place the turkey onto a poultry cutting board or in a large basin. Add salt and pepper to the inner cavity of the turkey, and coat the inside with salt and pepper. Fold the wings back and underneath the turkey. Don't tie the legs together. In order for the skin to be dry, the legs need to be loose and away from the bird.

Prepare a rub of 2 tablespoons kosher salt, 1 tablespoon ground black pepper, 2 teaspoons paprika (or smoked paprika), and 2 teaspoons baking powder. (The baking powder helps dry the skin as the bird cooks, to make it more crisp and able to pull away from the meat.) Mix them together, then vigorously rub them over the skin of the turkey. Be sure to use all of the rub! It's easier to start by coating the bottom side of the turkey, then flip the bird over and coat the top side with the rub.

Do not stuff the turkey! Stuffing it with stuffing will prevent the inside of the turkey from cooking thoroughly, as a mass of heavy stuffing at the center will make it much more difficult to conduct heat to the inside of the bird. This turkey cooked much faster than expected, and given the fast roasting time there is a possibility bacteria in the stuffing could survive at the center without being killed by the oven heat. You can always prepare your stuffing separately, and stuff the turkey after it's completely finished roasting.

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When the oven reaches 250 degrees Fahrenheit and the turkey is coated with rub, use heavy gloves and carefully remove the hot cast iron pan from the oven. Place it onto your stovetop, or onto a large trivet. Place the turkey into the hot pan. It will sizzle when it touches the hot metal! Insert an oven thermometer or probe thermometer into the breast – not the midsection, but the breast. (The heavy cast iron will help with cooking the underside and dark meat of the turkey, so we only need to monitor the temperature of the breast.) Using the heavy gloves, place the pan and turkey into the oven. Leave the oven temperature at 250 degrees Fahrenheit.

Set the probe thermometer to alarm when the breast temperature reaches 155 degrees Fahrenheit. The low temperature is intentional: when the turkey rests, carryover cooking will raise the temperature about five degrees. Meanwhile, we'll be giving the turkey a blast of 500 degree heat at the end, which will also raise the temperature of the bird.

This turkey does not require basting, until the very end – once it goes into the oven, you don't have to do a thing until it's time to remove it from the oven.

If you don't mind, I'd like to share the real secret to a great roast turkey: USE A THERMOMETER. When you cook any kind of meat at all, and you go by minutes per pound, you're using an estimate written by someone who knows nothing about how well your oven will cook it. Here's why a turkey becomes so tender, it falls apart – it's overcooked. Here's why the white meat dries out and becomes flaky and tasteless – it's overcooked. A cooking thermometer isn't expensive, and you owe it to yourself to get one and try it for yourself. You'll be able to use it on roast chicken, on steak, on pork roasts, and you can even use it as a candy thermometer. Besides, this is your Thanksgiving turkey, when you want to make a turkey your family will never forget! So you owe it to yourself to make a small investment, less than $20, and get a cooking thermometer

Depending on your oven, it can take between three to four hours to fully cook the turkey, from the initial roasting to the final blast of heat at the end. It may take somewhat longer than that, depending on the size of the bird. During this time, use the giblets to prepare gravy (see below).

When the breast temperature reaches 155 degrees Fahrenheit, remove the entire pan and the turkey from the oven. Cover the turkey with a foil tent, to allow it to continue cooking internally. Raise the oven temperature to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Let the turkey rest on your table or countertop under the foil, while the oven temperature rises.

When the oven temperature reaches 500 degrees, remove the foil from the turkey. Place the entire pan and turkey into the 500 degree oven, and roast for 15 minutes to crisp the skin.

Remove the pan and the turkey from the oven. At this point, use a basting brush to brush the pan juices over the skin and give the entire turkey a glossy look.

Move the turkey to a serving platter. Cover the turkey with foil once again. You can now prepare gravy. Assign a kitchen volunteer to stuff the turkey while the gravy is being prepared.

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Don't Forget the Gravy


Later, when the turkey is ready:

Prepare the gravy while the finished turkey is standing before being served.

Here's one of the best reasons to use a cast iron pan rather than one of those useless aluminum foil turkey roasters: you can use the same pan to prepare the gravy, without wasting those precious juices and scrapings!

When the cooking thermometer for the turkey registers between 90 and 100 degrees, prepare the giblets for gravy. Heat up a cast iron pan over medium heat for five to ten minutes. Cut one carrot and one stalk of celery into large pieces. Peel one onion and also cut it into large pieces.

Add oil to the pan, then sear the turkey giblets on both sides to brown them. When the giblets are browned, add chopped carrot, celery and onion and stir fry everything for about two to three minutes.

Add four cups of chicken broth to the pan and stir it all around. If you want more broth, add additional water to top it off. Cover the pan. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the temperature to a simmer. Keep the saucepan covered, and simmer for at least one hour. After one hour, you can turn the heat down to low to keep the broth hot.

The steps for preparing a good gravy are simple:

After the turkey has been removed from the pot, move the turkey to a serving platter and stuff it. While the turkey is resting, place the cast iron pan onto your stovetop, and turn the stovetop heat up to between low and medium. (This may require two stovetop burners if the pan is especially large.)

Add 1/4 cup (four tablespoons of flour) to the pan drippings. Use a whisk to mix it all together into a roux. Add more flour, a little at a time, and keep stirring. The roux will become very thick, and it will become a mass of lumps and pieces of thick flour-broth mixture. This is correct: the roux must be this thick, so it can then be thinned out into a gravy without lumps!


From the saucepan full of broth, add 1/2 cup of the broth to the cast iron pan. Stir it all around at medium-low heat and mix it all together. The roux will begin to change from lumps into thick goo. Add more broth, and keep stirring.


Add more broth and keep stirring, again and again and again. Keep on adding broth and stirring, until it becomes a good, thick gravy. Add salt and pepper to taste, and mix in. (You can add other spices to the gravy, but that would change the taste of the gravy to something other than turkey!) You can use a turkey baster to move the gravy into a gravy boat, or carefully pour it out of the pan into the serving vessel.


Serve the hot gravy along with your turkey.

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Additional Turkey Recipes