Cooking Thanksgiving dinner is complicated and despite your best efforts, sometimes things go wrong. Overcooked turkey is one of the biggest potential disasters, but you can fix dry turkey breast! Here’s how—and how to prevent it in the first place.
How to Fix Dry Turkey Breast
If your turkey breast is dry and overcooked, carve it into slices and soak them in broth, stock, or gravy to rehydrate. Simple, yet effective:
A dip of a few seconds should suffice for most moderately dry birds, but you can hold the slices in a shallow pan of warm broth as well to keep them juicy and at a good temperature while you’re finishing up other things (like the pan gravy).
Caveat: If you’ve got a totally desiccated, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” style bird on your hands, this won’t help, and you better hope your side dishes are exceptionally delicious, or find a restaurant that’s open.
Related Reading: How to Make Your Green Bean Casserole More Gourmet
How to Avoid Overcooked Turkey
The best plan of action, of course, is to not overcook your turkey in the first place. Luckily, there are several ways to ensure a moist turkey every time.
The backlash against brining turkey is real, and not unfounded—brining turkey too long can have the opposite effect you want and actually dry out the meat instead of making it juicy. But if you follow pro chef Michael Chiarello’s method, you’ll end up with a delicious bird with moist breast meat:
Butter It Up
Rubbing flavored butter under the turkey skin is a time-honored move that helps the meat stay moist and flavorful, but it may not be enough on its own.
Time It Right
Whether or not you brine or butter (and if you don’t butter, at least oil it), one obvious factor in perfecting turkey is timing, which depends on how big your bird is. Food safety guidelines state turkey should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165-170°F when a thermometer is inserted into the thickest part of the breast and/or thigh; for an accurate reading, be sure the probe isn’t touching bone.
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If you’re cooking a turkey at 350°F (our preferred temperature to roast turkey), here’s how long it should take based on the size of your bird:
- How long to cook a 12 pound turkey – 14 pound turkey: About 3 hours at 350°F (start checking a bit sooner to ensure it doesn’t dry out)
- How long to cook a 15 pound turkey – 18 pound turkey: About 3.5 to 4 hours at 350°F (start checking a bit sooner to ensure it doesn’t dry out)
- How long to cook an 18 pound turkey – 20 pound turkey: About 4 to 4.5 hours at 350°F (start checking a bit sooner to ensure it doesn’t dry out)
- How long to cook a 21 pound turkey – 24 pound turkey: About 4.5 to 5 hours at 350°F (start checking a bit sooner to ensure it doesn’t dry out)
Related Reading: How to Quickly Fix Undercooked Turkey
Start It Breast Side Down
One trick for moist turkey breast meat (which cooks faster than the dark meat, i.e. legs) is to start roasting the turkey breast-side down. After about 45 minutes, you’ll flip it over and continue cooking and basting, but we acknowledge that—especially if you have a monster turkey—that’s a bit of a pain.
Drape It With Cheesecloth Soaked in Butter
Basting turkey with its own drippings and/or extra melted butter is a classic move, but every time you open the oven, you affect the temperature inside. So some people prefer a self-basting sheet of cheesecloth soaked in butter draped over the turkey for most of the cooking time. This keeps the breast moist, but needs to be removed near the end so you get the all-important crisp skin.
If you’re up for a little butchering (or are buying a fresh turkey and can have your actual butcher butterfly it for you), a spatchcocked turkey will cook perfectly—plus, make you feel all cheffy. Here’s how it’s done:
Read more about how (and why) to spatchcock turkey.
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Kitchen shears will come in handy here, as will a sharp, heavy chef's knife or cleaver.
Make It in the Instant Pot
If you have a small turkey and a large Instant Pot (or other pressure cooker), it is possible to cook the whole thing that way. But Instant Pot turkey breast is more common, easier, and perfectly juicy every time:
See some other Instant Pot Thanksgiving recipes to take even more pressure off on the big day.
Make It in the Slow Cooker
If you prefer low and slow, a Crock-Pot turkey is also an option, and guaranteed to be moist. You might think you’d have to sacrifice the golden, crispy skin, but not so—just broil it briefly in the oven when it’s done for the best of both worlds. (And a slow cooker turkey breast is equally great, ideal for smaller crowds.)
See more Crock-Pot Thanksgiving recipes for every other part of the meal, from potatoes to pies.
Don’t Skimp on the Gravy
No matter what methods you employ to make sure you turn out a moist turkey, be sure you have lots of gravy too. It helps hide imperfections, yes, but it also makes an already perfect turkey even better. Ditto everything else it touches on the plate.
Related Reading: How to Fix Lumpy Gravy
Fore more tips, tricks, hacks, and recipes, see our Ultimate Guide to Thanksgiving.