This herb butter turkey is the perfect Thanksgiving recipe for beginner chefs. Moist and juicy with amazing flavor in a fool-proof set of instructions.
The first year I hosted Thanksgiving, I was terrified to cook the turkey. It always seemed like the most intimidating part of the holiday meal to me. I was so grateful to discover Sam Sifton’s book Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well. It has been one of my go-to Thanksgiving dinner recipe guides for the last 8 years. (It’s only $1.99 on Kindle right now, I highly recommend grabbing it!)
Sam has several different turkey recipes included in the book, but his herb butter turkey recipe is the only one we’ve ever tried. When you find perfection, it’s difficult to find the courage to experiment.
We have used this exact roasted herb butter turkey recipe every year and it makes the most delicious turkey gravy ever. I love the combination of the citrus and fresh herbs. They give the turkey and gravy a special sort of juiciness that is hard to get otherwise. They don’t make the turkey taste “fruity” at all. My mom can’t stand “fruity meat,” and even she loves this turkey.
How to make the perfect herb butter turkey for Thanksgiving:
Step 1: Prepare the herb butter
The real secret to the deliciousness is using fresh herbs. You will find fresh rosemary, sage, and thyme easily in the produce section. They may even be sold as a “turkey herb kit” bundle.
Can you use dried herbs? Yes, you could but I swear it won’t be quite as good. If you want to use dried, splurge on the fresh sage and then used dried thyme and rosemary if you have to.
How to mince fresh herbs:
Sage: Carefully trim the stems from the sage leaf and just chop the leafy part.
Rosemary: Hold each sprig of rosemary by the tip in one hand, with your other hand, run your fingers down the stalk from top to bottom to pull and drag each little rosemary needle off the branch. Chop and use just the needles part.
Thyme: Similar to the rosemary, hold each sprig and slide your fingers down the branches to remove the little leaves. Thyme leaves are so small already, they won’t require much chopping.
Combine the herbs with the softened butter and some lemon zest. You can use a fork to mix it all together.
STEP 2: Stuff the turkey and slather the herb butter over the top
Tim is my turkey man. The thought of going elbow deep to clean the bird is part of what horrified me that first year. My shining knight to the rescue.
I may be writing up the instructions, but have no doubt — this is Tim’s special contribution to Thanksgiving dinner. He starts by rinsing and drying the turkey. Then he sprinkles salt and pepper all over the inside and outside of the bird and massages it in.
I prep the herb butter and a quartered onion, and quartered oranges and lemons for him. He stuffs the cut onion and fruit inside the bird cavity and then pats the herb butter over the top of the turkey.
If the turkey is still really chilly from the fridge, the butter will stick vs. spread. He just pats dollops all over the top. As the turkey roasts, the butter will melt and then get basted back over the top every 30 minutes so don’t worry about it being perfect.
When I tell you this recipe is perfect for beginners, you can believe it because Tim cooks almost nothing else. If he can rock a Thanksgiving turkey, so can you. He takes so much pride in basting his turkey and getting the color just-so.
How many servings does a 12-pound turkey make?
This recipe is perfect for a 12 – 18 pound turkey. 12 pounds serves 8 people. After that, calculate an additional pound per person.
How do you test the temperature of the turkey?
Tim is an engineer. There is no way I could convince him to cook the turkey without using a probe thermometer. He needs to know scientifically whether the turkey is actually done or not. For full instructions on how to probe your turkey, check out this handy article.
How do you make the homemade turkey gravy?
The gravy that comes from this herb butter turkey is the best you’ll ever have and it is super easy to do. You can get the homemade gravy recipe here.
- 1 12 to 18-pound turkey, thawed, giblets and neck removed
- 3 tbsp kosher salt
- 1 1/2 tbsp black pepper
- 1 lemon, zested and then quartered
- 1 onion, peeled and quartered
- 1 orange, quartered
- 6 tbsp butter, softened
- 1 tbsp fresh sage leaves, minced
- 1 tbsp fresh rosemary, minced
- 1 tbsp fresh thyme, minced
- Remove your turkey from the refrigerator so it loses some of its chill while you prep the herb butter and let the oven pre-heat.
- Heat the over to 425 degrees. Rinse the turkey and dry it carefully with paper towels. Place it on a rack inside your roasting pan. Sprinkle the kosher salt and pepper all over the outside and inside of the turkey and rub it in. Stuff the cavity of the bird with the quartered onion and fruit.
- In a small bowl, combine the softened butter with the minced fresh herbs and reserved zest of the lemon. Use a fork to blend them together. Pat and rub the butter all over the top of the turkey.
- Place a probe thermometer into the turkey. For more information on how to properly check the turkey temperature, check this post.
- Place the prepped turkey into the oven and roast for 30 minutes. Reduce the oven to 325 degrees and baste the turkey. There may not be a ton of juices yet, but hang in there. Be sure to baste the turkey every 30 minutes, the juices will definitely increase.
- The turkey should cook about 15 minutes per pound at 325 degrees. If it starts to get too dark before it has reached the proper temperature, you can cover it with some aluminum foil to keep it from browning too much.
- The turkey is done once the thigh meat reaches 165 degrees and the juices run clear.
- Remove the turkey from the oven and tent it with foil for at least 30 minutes while you prepare the turkey gravy and side dishes.
The cook time listed was based on a 12-pound turkey. Adjust as needed. If you use a convection oven, that time will be significantly lower.
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