The Ultimate Guide to Cooking a Perfect Turkey for Low-Carb Dieters

Perfectly Cooked Turkey for the Holidays
Everything you need to know to cook the
perfect holiday turkey

[Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. If you decide to purchase something after using one of those links, I might receive a small financial compensation at no cost to you.]

No matter which low-carb diet you're following, the turkey is the center of attention on your Thanksgiving or Christmas Table.

High in protein, turkey meat is a nice source of zinc, iron, potassium, and B vitamins. It also has no carbohydrates, so unless you have a metabolic defect in processing proteins, you don't have to limit your portion size.

At least, not for the holidays.

The good news? Going back for seconds on turkey, or even thirds, won't throw you out of ketosis or harm your blood glucose numbers.

For that reason, learning to make the perfect holiday turkey can make the difference between serving up a great holiday meal and one that's just so-so.

However, most people have their own ideas about what makes a perfectly roasted bird. Some people swear by a Butterball turkey. Others prefer to go with a more economical Jennie-O.

Ideas about baking the bird upside down or right-side up, soaking the turkey in brine or injecting it with an herb-butter solution, sticking to organically grown versus a conventional turkey -- all fuel debates at turkey time.

But which is best?

It's simply a matter of taste and what you think you know about how turkeys are grown. Much of what you hear is myth, but there are definitely things you need to do if you want your turkey to turn out a certain way.

For example, extra crispy skin, loved and endeared by most low-carb dieters, requires you to air-dry the turkey in the refrigerator before popping it into the oven. So, with that in mind, here's the ultimate guide to cooking a perfect turkey for low-carb dieters.

Pinterest Image: Roasted Turkey

What Type of Turkey Should You Buy: Fresh or Frozen?

When you freeze meat, any type of meat, it dramatically changes the cell structure, affecting taste and even the tenderness of the meat.

We learned that the hard way when we purchased a family pack of boneless pork chops from Costco a few months ago. The chops that I cooked up fresh fell into the okay category, as far as tenderness and flavor, but the chops I froze were extra tough.

I ended up cooking them in the crock pot.

I had no choice but to turn those chops into shredded pork. It was the only way to make them edible.

They were just that bad.

Turkey doesn't really have that problem, but then, hubby and I are not extra-sensitive tasters. While hubby won't eat what doesn't taste good to him, the difference between fresh and frozen turkey is so minor it doesn't matter to us.

To compensate for the difference in cell structure, turkey manufacturers often inject the bird with a saline solution.

In the U.S., this solution contains corn, as well as salt, so if you're sensitive to corn or if you are on a 100 percent grain-free diet, you'll want to avoid turkeys that have already been injected.

Those avoiding gluten can simply read the label. Labeling for meat products falls under the supervision of the USDA, which requires the manufacturer to list wheat and barley on the label if it is in there.

If the bird is injected, you don't need to brine it because the brine will make it too salty.

Some people have brand preferences. We honestly haven't noticed a difference between brands, except that Norbest either uses extra corn in their injection solution, or they dip the birds in a corny solution during processing.

I get severe corn-sensitivity symptoms when I eat that brand that I don't get with Jennie-O and others.

All Turkeys are Raised in a Sterile Environment

Flock of White Turkeys, Crowded Together
Hubby used to build turkey sheds for a living.
Turkeys are highly susceptible to illness and disease.

Another debate you often hear at Thanksgiving time is whether to purchase a conventional turkey, natural turkey, organic turkey, heritage turkey, or something else.

The argument for organic over natural often contains misconceptions.

Whether conventional, natural, or organic, all turkeys are raised in a sterile environment. They have to be. Turkeys are highly susceptible to illness and disease.

When hubby used to build turkey sheds for our local Norbest turkey plant in San Pete county, Utah, they made him shower with an antibacterial soap on the premises before he could walk out into the yard.

It only takes one or two sick birds to wipe out an entire flock of turkeys, so he had to take special precautions even though he didn't actually come in contact with the birds.

Both natural and organic turkeys are given antibiotics if needed to protect the flock.

What they don't do for organic birds is automatically give the turkeys antibiotics from birth. Nor do they give them hormones to make them grow larger than normal and at a faster pace.

Norbest and other natural and organic turkeys will be smaller for that reason.

The major difference between an organic turkey and a natural one is the feed. Organic turkeys do not have GMO corn in their feed, while natural turkeys may or may not. It just depends on what feed the turkey grower is experimenting with that year.

Conventional turkeys, on the other hand, the super-sized frozen turkeys normally sold at most grocery stores, are given antibiotics from birth and fed a hormone-laced feed to make them grow faster and larger to increase profits.

Some say these large birds are not as tasty as smaller varieties, which may or may not be true. However, when you buy a particular brand of turkey, that doesn't mean you're getting the exact same breed of turkey you purchased before.

Turkey breeders are always experimenting with different breeds, looking for new breeds that might give a better yield and profit.

In fact, that practice almost wiped out the entire turkey business in the U.S. a few years ago. Several major turkey suppliers went with a new breed, all at the same time, and it turned out to be a breed that was even more susceptible to illness and disease than the previous one.

Many flocks got completely wiped out that year.

In addition, all turkeys are tranquilized before being processed, as they are quite vicious. Getting tired and sleepy after a large Thanksgiving meal might not be due to the carbs. Tranquilizer residues remain in the meat.

How Large of a Turkey Do You Need?

Typical recommendations for serving turkey are to plan on about a pound to pound-and-a-half per person.

If you want to have lots of leftovers, then a couple of pounds per person wouldn't be out of line.

The amount of side dishes you're serving is usually considered when determining how much turkey to buy, but since you'll be eating fewer carbs, go for the higher amount. It's better to have too much turkey leftover than not enough.

Also consider how long it's going to take to thaw out the bird. A 12-pound turkey will take a couple of days in the refrigerator, while a 20-pound beast will take four or five days.

How to Prepare the Turkey

People try all sorts of tricks to get a beautifully browned bird with crispy skin.

Getting the dark meat to be done to perfection without overcooking and drying out the breast has become an art form. If you don't intend on having the whole bird sitting on the table, there are simple tricks that work every time.

For example, when we lived in San Pete, we had a gas oven. Since I'm allergic to natural gas, I used to cut a 12-pound turkey in half and roasted it in a tabletop oven designed for roasting whole chickens. (More about that below.)

When the breast was just barely cooked, I'd separate it from the dark meat and then continue roasting the dark-meat turkey until the leg and thigh were perfect too.

Smoked Turkey Breast on a Platter
This is how hubby tikes to carve our turkey.
But this home-smoked turkey breast is actually sliced wrong.

A couple of years ago, hubby was going to smoke a small whole turkey, but the price on boneless turkey breast was so good, he changed his mind and picked up the breast instead. It came out great, except we didn't know how to properly slice the breast then.

Last year, we picked up a 21-pound conventional turkey from Winco. Since we have an electric glass-topped oven, we are going to roast the whole bird, but I plan on doing it this year exactly as I used to roast those half turkeys.

A few days before Thanksgiving, let it sit in the refrigerator and thaw out. Then, carefully open up the package, so you can remove the gravy packet and toss that in the trash. This is extremely important step if you're gluten free.

Get "any" gravy on the meat, and the entire turkey will be contaminated with gluten. You cannot just wash it off.

It's that serious.

If the center of the turkey isn't completely thawed out yet, that's okay. Just don't bother with the neck and giblets until closer to Thanksgiving.

Raw Turkey Ready to be Seasoned
The reason for opening up the turkey early is to season it. This seasoning process is something referred to as dry-brined turkey. It's what most people do to a whole roasted chicken before popping it in the oven.

Since we had a very large bird, I did it several days ahead. The process isn't difficult.

You simply rinse the turkey inside and out, and then dry it thoroughly, using wads of paper towels to make sure the inside is dry. After that, sprinkle the turkey inside and out with salt, pepper, and whatever herbs and spices you like.

Most people recommend using a kosher type salt on turkeys that haven't been injected or brined. We use Real Salt, easily available here in Utah, which is mined from Utah's salt flats.

In addition, typically, I like to use:
  • Lawry's Seasoned Salt
  • Lawry's Seasoned Pepper
  • Granulated garlic powder
  • Granulated onion powder
  • Dried rosemary, crushed a bit to release the oils
Last year, I also used:
  • ground bay leaves
  • poultry seasoning
  • Mrs. Dash Garlic and Herb Seasoning mix
Once the turkey is well seasoned inside and out, you slip the turkey into a plastic bag and allow it to marinate in the refrigerator until Thanksgiving morning. Keep an eye on the bag though. If water collects inside the bag, you'll need to drain that off as soon as it accumulates.

Getting the Turkey Into the Oven Thanksgiving Morning

We are 2:00 p.m. people. We like to enjoy our Thanksgiving meal early in the afternoon, and then snack on leftovers for dinner.

Timing the bird is crucial, though, since it will take a minimum of 2 hours to dry out the bird, preferably longer, and at least a 30-minute resting period after the turkey is done before you start carving.

Alternatively, you could roast the bird ahead of time, carve the meat, and then reheat it for dinner. That would give you better control over the presentation.

You can also figure out when you want to serve the bird, and then start counting backward as to how much time you'll need to get in all the steps.

Thanksgiving morning, take the turkey out of the bag.

Blot it gently with paper towels (to dry the skin as much as possible, without disturbing the herbs and spices) and then set the bird on a rack and tuck it back into the refrigerator to dry out a little more. This is only important if you want the skin to be extra crispy.

If you don't like turkey skin or plan on using a turkey bag, you honestly don't need to do this, but if you plan on roasting the turkey with or without a tent of foil, and you want a well-browned crispy bird, this is the way to get one.

Leave the turkey in the refrigerator, uncovered, for 2 to 4 hours. The salt in the seasoning will continue to dry out the skin.

I've never tied up my turkeys, but some people swear by that method. We have tried to tie up a whole chicken before smoking it, but that turned into a disaster. The chicken did not cook properly. The dark meat was still completely raw when the breast was done, so I'm not concerned with tying up the bird.

If you do want to tie up your turkey, and have had good luck with doing that, then go ahead and tie it up. I've just never done it that way.

We never turned the turkey upside down with the breast sitting on the bottom of the pan either. 

Turkey Roasting in Oven Breast Down, No Foil
We have never roasted a turkey breast down like this
and without any foil. Normally, we foil the bird
and then remove the foil for the last hour of roasting.

Hubby likes to cover the turkey tightly with foil instead of a tent. He calls what he does a tent, but it's not really a tent because he crimps the foil down on all sides of the pan. It's more like what you would do with a large beef or pork roast.

What is important is the pan.

You need a pan that's large enough to hold the bird and sturdy enough to carry the turkey to the oven without dropping it. The pan also needs to be sturdy enough that you can remove it from the oven once the bird is done.

Some people prefer throw-away pans made of aluminum, and some people prefer to buy a specialty roasting pan specifically designed for turkeys. We've used both.

This is the turkey pan I used when working in the boys home:

It did a great job. I particularly liked the large metal handles because it made carrying the pan to the oven much easier. For easier clean up, consider lining the roasting pan with foil.

After placing the turkey in the roasting pan, use heavy-duty Reynolds Wrap brand extra-long foil to completely cover the turkey. (I buy ours from Costco.)

If your bird is large:

You might have to still seam two pieces together to make it fit, even with the extra-long foil.

I've heard of some people completely roasting the turkey without foil, and others using a simple tent with both ends of the turkey exposed for about 2 to 3 hours into the roasting process, but I've never tried that.

We like to roast the turkey tightly covered for a good 2 hours, then remove the foil to let the turkey brown and crisp up after that.

To make a foil covering for a large turkey:

Place one piece of foil on top of the other. Set the foil down on a table or counter. Fold down the top of the two pieces of foil together by about 1/4- to 1/2-inch, and then fold it down again as if you were hemming a skirt. Carefully open up the foil, and the folds will have created a seam.

It doesn't matter which side of the foil is facing up or down.

According to the Reynolds Wrap website, the shiny and dull sides of the wrap are a result of the way the foil comes off the machine. It has nothing to do with the properties of the foil.

If you're using non-stick foil:

The different sides do matter because the non-stick properties are only applied to one side, but non-stick foil is clearly marked on the foil itself.

How to Bake the Turkey

I like to bake my turkey nice and slow.

I've heard of others roasting turkeys at temperatures as high as 400 degrees for 2 hours and having it come out juicy and tender, but I've never played around with that. My background in cooking began with Adelle Davis, a nutritionist with a degree in biology.

She believed in cooking everything at low, slow temperatures, even when broiling, so that's how I learned to do it myself. Since I've always had excellent results when using her recipes and techniques, I've never roasted my turkey at temperatures higher than 325 degrees. 

My dad used to always roast the turkey nice and slow in the oven at 250 degrees overnight. This was back before crock pots were even an idea in someone's mind. By morning, the turkey would be cooked perfectly.

The countertop oven I used to use when we lived in San Pete county was the Hamilton Beach Convection Oven with a Rotisserie.

It was fairly large inside. Big enough to roast a whole small chicken or bake it on its revolving rotisserie. I loved the fact that it had a fan. It made skin come out nice and crispy. It also was perfect for slow cooking. When it said 350 degrees, however, it was closer to 300.

The only downside is that you can only roast half a small turkey at a time.

I've also use a turkey roaster:

These are super nice if you don't want to tie up your oven. The turkey comes out nice and brown. Just pop it into the roaster, set the timer, and the turkey comes out perfect.

I found it easer to use with a turkey bag with this type of roaster, though, because it made the roaster easier to clean. No crispy skin with this option, but if easy is what you'll looking for, this is the method you want.

Even a traditional granite roaster, those dark blue speckled roasting pans that grandma and great-grandma used to use, will produce a great turkey.

At 325 degrees, you can plan on your turkey taking 15 to 20 minutes per pound, depending on whether you're roasting a fresh or once-frozen bird, and whether you're using foil or a turkey bag. The once-frozen turkey will take longer to cook, but if placed in a bag, it will cook more quickly.

The type of oven you use also matters, as well as any hot spots the oven might have.

Typically, ovens tend to cook hotter in the back than toward the door, so if your oven is big enough, the turkey will roast more evenly if you place it in the oven vertically, with the legs pointing toward the back of the oven.

If you have to slide it in sideways, then you'll need to turn the bird half-way through the cooking time.

However, if you're using the foil-covered method explained above, you'll need to do that twice. Once after the bird has cooked for an hour, then again after the bird has cooked without the foil for an hour.

What you're trying to do is simply get the bird to cook evenly, hence the turning ensures that both sides of the turkey cook and brown evenly. If you don't have hot spots in your oven, then you won't have to turn the bird at all.

Don't baste the bird unless you're using olive oil or melted butter. Turkey drippings are mostly water and turkey juices. Very little of it is fat. If you use turkey drippings for basting, those drippings will soften the skin and prevent it from crisping up.

Perfect inner temperature for a perfectly done turkey is:
  • 155 to 160 degrees for the breast
  • 165 to 170 for the thigh
The range in temperature allows for the fact that the turkey will keep cooking once you take it out of the oven and wrap it up for resting.

Using a meat thermometer is the only way to know if the turkey has reached proper temperature. The little pop-up that comes with some turkey brands are set to pop up when the breast has reached 180 degrees. That high of a temperature will ensure that the leg and thigh are safe, but the breast will be overcooked.

Make sure you check the turkey in the thickest part of the thigh as well as the valley between the thigh and where it attaches to the breast bone. That's the two most likely places for the turkey to be underdone.

Wrapping the turkey back up after it reaches proper temperature, and before carving, allows time for the moisture left in the bird to redistribute itself. This results in a juicier turkey, but hubby is often too hungry by the time the turkey is done to wait.

The house has been smelling good for a couple of hours by then, and since there's only the two of us, plus maybe an unexpected friend or two, he's usually too anxious to eat.

Turkey Breast Carving Tip

Holiday Spread with Turkey Breast Sliced Correctly
Slice the Turkey Breast Crosswise,
Against the Grain

To keep the breast from falling apart, it's best to remove the breast from the turkey all in one piece and then carefully slice it crosswise, against the grain. Most people try to carve the breast while it is still on the bird, which can quickly turn into a mess.

Don't Confine Turkey to Just the Holidays

Low-carb diets can get boring quickly if you limit the types of meat and poultry you serve.

While initially bacon cheeseburgers, fatty steaks, and juicy pork chops can make luxurious meals, as time goes on, you're going to need to learn how to cook different types of fish and poultry, as well as new vegetable dishes.

Turkey makes an excellent, economical choice year round, even at non-holiday prices. It makes great:
  • soups and stews
  • turkey salad
  • low-carb casseroles
  • easy lettuce wraps
  • tasty stir-fries
  • stunning shish kabobs
And so much more. There is no end to turkey's versatility, so learning how to make a perfectly roasted turkey will enable you to bring more variety and pleasure to your low-carb meals.

Additional Holiday Articles and Recipes for Your Holiday Pleasure:

Make 2016 Your Best Low-Carb Thanksgiving Ever
Low-Carb Thanksgiving Side Dishes and Ideas
Before You Reach for that Thanksgiving Roll . . .
Dips, Cheeseballs, and Salsa Recipes
Thanksgiving Pumpkin Casserole
Fresh Cucumber and Tomato Salad


  1. Great article and tips. Have a question about cooking 4 Turkey Thighs( 3.72 pounds).
    Would you suggest using the same tips or is there anything else to consider?

    1. Personally, I would do them the same way. Not sure if the timing will be off though. I have braised turkey parts in the crock pot with water and lots of garlic powder and salt before. The flavor is good that way, but they definitely wouldn't be traditional. I like crispy skin, at least when my belly is behaving, lol.

    2. Since we're talking about just turkey parts, I'd probably only put the spices on the thighs like 24 hours ahead or so. You wouldn't need to do it as early as a whole turkey.

    3. Since we're talking about just turkey parts, I'd probably only put the spices on the thighs like 24 hours ahead or so. You wouldn't need to do it as early as a whole turkey.


Post a Comment