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You Should Cook Turkey Breast This Year, Not the Whole Bird. Let Us Explain.
Photo: Liz Andrew/Styling: Erin McDowell

Turkey—in all its basted, brined glory—is the Thanksgiving pièce de résistance…except that, well, actually, we don’t think you should cook a whole bird this year.

Mic drop.

Hear us out! Instead of wrestling a massive 25-pound bird into your oven, we propose that you roast a turkey breast instead. Yes, just the breast. Here’s why.

Why should I cook a turkey breast?

Nothing against thighs and legs, but the breast meat (aka white meat) is actually where it’s at—as long as it’s cooked properly (and it’s usually not). That’s the problem with a big bird: It’s really, really difficult to cook both the white and dark meat to the proper doneness at the same time. And while according to the USDA, that’s technically 165°F, leaner white meat starts to dry out around 150°F, while dark meat needs to go to at least 165°F with all its tough connective tissue.

The solution? If you’re not desperately attached to the idea of serving an entire turkey at your feast, skip the dark meat altogether and cook a breast instead. You’ll only have one target temperature to deal with, no carving to worry about and more space for side dishes, not to mention a more manageable, fast-cooking piece of meat.

What kind of turkey breast should I buy?

We’re so glad you’re on board, but now you have to face the overwhelming grocery store aisles. First, ask yourself: What’s my budget? How many people am I feeding? How many leftovers do I want?

You can spend as little or as much as you want on a turkey breast, but for the best quality and flavor, we’d recommend avoiding anything boneless or found in the freezer section. Look for the words “fresh,” “free-range” and “organic”—you’ll end up with a turkey breast from a bird that lived its life cage-free, on organic feed and wasn’t treated with antibiotics. Oh, and it will taste better, too. (That doesn’t mean you have to buy the most expensive turkey breast on the block. Unless you’re really into turkey. You do you.)

As far as size goes, our general rule of thumb is 1.25 to 1.5 pounds of meat per person. This allots for leftovers and hungry guests, but you won’t be drowning in turkey. And FYI, smaller breasts are easier to cook and usually taste more flavorful, so you can always cook more than one if you need to. 

How do I cook a turkey breast?

You’ve procured your protein—great. Now you have to cook it. Don your most festive apron and follow us: Here’s exactly how to cook turkey breast (and win Thanksgiving in the process).

Step 1: Thaw the turkey breast

This can be done in a few ways. You can either put the still-packaged breast in the fridge on a platter (where it will defrost at a rate of four to five pounds per day), or you can defrost it in a cold water bath (in a cooler, bucket or your sink), changing the water every 30 minutes, where it will thaw at a rate of one pound per 30 minutes.

Step 2: Season the meat

For maximum flavor, you can dry-brine your turkey breast the day before roasting it. Combine ½ cup kosher salt, 2 tablespoons brown sugar and any spices or herbs you like. Rub the brine mixture all over the breast and chill in your refrigerator overnight. Before you cook the turkey breast, rinse off the dry brine and pat the meat dry with paper towels. 

Step 3: Roast the turkey breast

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Place the turkey breast in a roasting pan or on a baking sheet fitted with a wire cooling rack. Brush the turkey with olive oil (this helps with browning) and season all over with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Roast the turkey until a thermometer registers 155°F at the thickest part of the breast. Remove the turkey from the oven and let it rest for at least ten minutes. (The internal temperature will rise to 165°F while it rests.) Cut, serve and give thanks that there’s no dry turkey in sight.

RELATED: The 23 Best Thanksgiving Turkey Recipes in the Universe

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