Learn the easy way to cook a turkey breast that is moist and tender with this complete guide. Great when you don’t need an entire turkey like a smaller household or as a supplement of white meat for a larger holiday feast. Or even make turkey a year-round dinner.
Cooking turkey seems to scare many home cooks. Since it's frequently the center of a holiday feast, it seems to impress many as a huge deal to get it right—but it is so easy to get a moist and tender turkey with crispy skin.
Let’s not make an easy thing hard. Cooking a turkey breast is something anybody can do. But people have lots of questions and worries. This guide will help you thought those doubts. It is reliable, and everybody will enjoy it. Just follow these easy step by step photo instructions.
I have cooked many turkey breasts over the years and wanted to give you the easiest instructions possible, so you don't spend the whole day in the kitchen cooking and miss all the family fun.
The Four Easy Steps
1. Thaw and trim a frozen turkey breast.
2. Brush with butter or oil.
3. Cook at 350° until an internal temperature of 165° and tent if getting too brown. You need a meat thermometer to get this right.
4. Rest tented for 15 minutes before carving. Make gravy while resting.
I love turkey, and this is a solid lower 5. It is not filet, and it is not that supped up "Martha Stewart" turkey breast. So not a high 5. You do get something for all that work.
We can not walk into most American grocery stores and buy a fresh turkey breast and especially half of a breast. We will discuss what we usually have available.
I'm talking about that rock hard frozen turkey breast you picked up at your local supermarket. They are injected with a brine solution and flavor enhancers.
Let's look at that label. It is telling you this breast is "pre-brined" or "injected." It will be moist and favorable if you don't screw it up.
You can not brine it, or you will have a salt lick. So let's not fight it. I don't care what other recipes say, just don't.
Some packages will include things like the neck or a gravy packet. They are there to make it weigh more, and you pay more. Toss them. You could have used them to make a broth gravy, but that gets you into the "spending all day in the kitchen" zone.
Can I do this with a fresh not injected turkey breast?
Yep, I feel a turkey breast is better if it is injected or brined. So if you have a fresh turkey breast (which is usually not injected), you can use my method, and you will get a 4.5 on my rating scale.
If you are absolutely sure your turkey is not injected or brined, you can add a simple brine of 1 gallon of water, 1 cup of salt, and ½ cup of sugar for 12 to 24 hours would be good. For more details, see my How to Brine a Turkey for a complete guide.
How much turkey to buy?
I consider the number of servings not quite the same as to how much to buy. The internet will say buy anywhere from ½ pound to 1 ¼ pound. In some ways, both are correct to me.
If I'm just addressing per serving, the ½ pound is about right. That is a nice, good-sized slice of turkey. But we all overeat turkey and want leftovers.
I buy a minimum of ¾ pounds per person, but if you want leftovers, then 1 pound to even 1 ½ pound per person is what I'm buying.
The preferred method is to thaw in a refrigerator. Place the unopened breast on a tray in the refrigerator for 1½ to 2 days, or until thawed. If you have a breast over 8 pounds, it may take a bit longer.
That is the official recommendation, but it always seems to be a day longer for me. So plan ahead and do not open the sealed package.
To thaw faster, place the unopened breast in cold tap water for 3 to 5 hours. Change water every 30 minutes to keep the turkey in the safety zone, which is less than 40°.
NEVER thaw the turkey or any other meat at room temperature. It is not safe.
🌡️ Oven Temperature
The best oven temperature to cook a turkey breast is 350°. But 325° can work, but it will take a bit longer and potentially can dry a little more. 375° is too high, and you cook the skin very rapidly.
The skin needs to be exposed to a 350° oven for about 1 ¾ to 2 hours to brown well. That is about the cooking time for a 5 to 7# breast.
If your breast is bigger, the meat will not be done when the skin is nicely brown. All you need to do is a tent with foil when the skin is nice—an easy fix.
A frequent recommendation is to start out high at 425° and turn down the temperature to 325° immediately or in 20-30 minutes. This is to get the browned skin. I don't see it as needed since you will just end up tenting longer. I feel 350° is a much better choice.
16-20 minutes per pound is a great estimate in a 350° oven. This assumes a fully thawed turkey breast and accurate oven temperature.
But the real answer is as long as it takes to get to 165° in the thickest part of the breast. So do not cook by time, but you can use it for rough planning.
You will find that smaller turkey breasts, in the 5-pound range, will usually run closer to 20 minutes per pound. While larger turkey breast will be towards the lower end of the range—16-17 minutes per pound
So now you can estimate time, but remember you are cooking to a final temperature and not by time alone.
🌡️Final Internal Temperature
The safe final internal temperature, according to the FDA, is 165°. That will give you a safe, moist, and tender turkey.
I stop right at 165°. Some will recommend stopping at 160° and assume the breast will reach 165° during the rest. It probably will, but I prefer to know I'm serving safe food. For more turkey safety points, see my Thanksgiving Food Safety post.
All this should tell you that you must be able to check the internal temperature of the breast accurately. You and use many different options, but you must have something.
I used my ThermaQ Blue from Thermoworks. I use it a lot for grilling with the two probes for surface and meat temperature. But it works great indoors cooking, also. See The Cooking for Two Shop if you are interested.
Of course, you want gravy, but the most common way to make gravy uses a roux. For the 4 cups of gravy, I'm suggesting, that would require ½ cup of fat. You just don't have that here since there are almost no drippings with a turkey breast.
So I'm using a slurry method to make the gravy. We whisk about ½ of the liquid with about 2 tablespoons of flour for every cup of gravy we are making. That is added to boiling fluid and mixed slowly. More details at How To Make Gravy at Home
I can rarely find turkey broth in the store, so I usually use Penzeys turkey base, but chicken broth will work well.
Butter vs. Oil on the skin of the turkey?
This is a "does it really matter" questions. The answer, maybe a little. Most recipes use butter. I feel mostly by default, and that is just "the way it is done."
Arguing against butter is like arguing against bacon. But I want crisper skin. According to 52 Food, you will get that with oil more than butter.
Moisture is the enemy of crispy, so a good pat dry with paper towels and using oil and not butter, which is 20% water. Clarified butter is another option.
Do I have to use a meat thermometer? Yes, or you will undercook (dangerous) or overcook (dried out).
How often should I baste? Basting is not really needed. I like to rotate the breast once during the roasting to account for any oven hot spots, and I brush it with oil at the same time—a 50-year habit that is not really needed.
Can I stuff it? No, it is not safe. The stuffing would need to get to 165° to be safe, and the meat would overcook.
Do I have to use a rack? No, but it is nicer. But there is not the volume of drippings you have with a whole turkey. If you do not have a rack, then a good spray of PAM on the pan.
📖Side Dish Recipes
See Thanksgiving Menu Planning Time for my complete holiday recommendations updated yearly.
Fully thaw the turkey breast before proceeding. Preheat oven to 350° with a rack set at the lower third in the oven. No convection needed here.
Remove any bags of things. Cut out the backbone if present. If a popup timer is present, pay it no attention but do not remove it.
Break back the rib sections, so you have a flat bottom to set on a rack. You can skip this if you are using a V-rack.
Cut back any extra skin like the neck area—pat dry with paper towels.
Place a rack in an appropriate size pan. You can skip the rack if you don't have one. For a large 7 plus pound breast, use a full roasting pan. For the smaller breast, a cake pan will do. Spray the rack and pan with PAM. Place the breast on the rack and spread the rib sections to stabilize the breast.
Give it a bush with vegetable oil or melted butter. You can give it a sprinkle of salt at this point.
Place in oven. Leave it alone for 1 hour, then rotate 180 degrees and brush with oil or butter. Check the color at about 1 ½ hours to 2 hours. If the skin is becoming too brown, tent lightly with foil while finishing roasting to prevent further browning.
Roast until an internal temperature of 165° in the thickest part. This will be between 16-20 minutes per pound, usually. Variability is caused by the thickness of the breast, the starting internal temperature of the breast, and your oven.
Remove from the oven and tent. The internal temperature will rise about 5 degrees when tented. Tent for about 10 minutes before carving.
While turkey is resting, whisk 2 cups of turkey or chicken broth with ½ cup of flour. Add 2 cups more of broth to the roasting pan and any drippings present, place over medium-high heat and bring to boil. Decrease the heat to medium and then slowly add the broth-flour mixture while continuously whisking. Add most of it and add more later if needed. Add salt to taste. Once thickened, cook an additional few minutes.
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Editor's Note: First Published March 25, 2018. Updated with expanded options, refreshed photos, and a table of contents to help navigation.