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Uncle Luigi’s Turkey: the best recipe

I was at the market the other day and noticed two different women asking the butcher how to make a turkey. Which is funny since most of us make them every year yet somehow forget what to do. I used to be that way, but not anymore.

Here’s a tried and true recipe that results in succulent, seasoned dark meat, moist aromatic white meat, and crispy skin. I’m not a spectacular cook, but this is a spectacular turkey and I’d put it up against anything Martha Stewart could pull out of her oven.

I got the recipe from one of the best cooks I know –- my Uncle Luigi [left], who knows a thing or two about poultry, having killed, plucked, and roasted his first chicken behind my grandparents’ Italian grocery store in Danbury, Conn., when he was eight.

I enjoy this turkey twice a year: at Uncle Luigi’s for Thanksgiving, and when I make it at home for Christmas.

The recipe requires a bit of work the day before you cook it – as well as an hour or so just before putting it in the oven – for stuffing, trussing, and buttering up the bird. Making the stuffing of your choice will take more time.

But the beauty of this method, aside from the taste, is that it requires no work at all once it’s in the oven. (Which gives you tons more time to kill yourself cooking other things – or to enjoy the day!)

A number of factors make this recipe work so beautifully. Salting the bird seasons the meat and helps keep it moist (and is much easier than brining). Water in the roasting pan, the loosely placed foil cover over the turkey, and the low oven temperature combine to create a self-basting environment. And, lastly, removing the cover near the end of the cooking time crisps the skin.

Uncle Luigi’s Turkey Recipe

Very important shopping note: Do not sail into a market and buy a frozen turkey the day before Thanksgiving. They take three to four days to thaw in the refrigerator. Almost all markets have fresh birds, so buy one of those or, if using a frozen bird, which is perfectly fine, be sure to give it plenty of time to defrost.

What you need

A 20-pound turkey, although any size turkey will work; just adjust the other ingredients.
1 cup salt
3/4 stick unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2 cup vegetable oil
A large roasting pan
A large V- or U-shaped rack to hold turkey inside pan
Cooking string

Extra wide aluminum foil

A simple meat thermometer if you’re inexperienced at determining when the turkey is done.


1. Remove any giblets and wash the bird in the sink with running water, inside and out.
2. Rub 3/4 cup of granulated (regular grind) salt all over the bird, and spread another ¼ cup as evenly as you can inside it.
3. Set the salted bird in the refrigerator for three hours.
4. Rinse the bird in the sink, for five to 10 minutes. Just keep rinsing it, inside and out. Rinse, rinse, rinse. [at right]
5. Dry it with a clean cloth.
6. Prop it in the roasting pan “sitting up,” somehow, so liquid can drain out the center cavity (I set it on the V-shaped rack I later use to roast it) and refrigerate until cooking time, letting it dry. (Luigi hangs his in his cold shed, but I don’t.)

Thanksgiving day:

7. Stuff the turkey with your choice of stuffing and truss – this is a simple way to tie the bird so it cooks more evenly.
8. Preheat oven to 335 degrees.
9. Rub the vegetable oil all over the bird.
10. Rub the butter all over it, too.
11. Place the bird on its back on the V-shaped rack.
12. Pour 1 cup of water in the roasting pan. DO NOT FORGET THIS.
13. Fashion an extra-large sheet of aluminum foil (or two sheets crimped together to make a wide expanse) into a dome and place it lightly over the turkey, without tucking it in.
14. Place bird in oven, and cook 15-18 minutes per pound. (A 20-pound turkey should cook somewhere between five and six hours. This recipe is for a stuffed turkey; if you don’t use stuffing, research cooking times, which will be shorter.)
15. Two-thirds of the way into the average total cooking time, open the oven as quickly as possible and pull off the foil.
16. When the shorter estimated cooking time is up, test for doneness. A thermometer should read at least 165 degrees when inserted deep in the thigh. (The temperature will continue to rise as the turkey rests.)
17. Remove turkey from oven and let it rest for 30 minutes before carving.
18. Smile and give thanks when everyone raves about how delicious the turkey is!