The first time I saw an oven bag in action was well more than a decade ago when I arrived at my husband’s childhood home to find my sister-in-law prepping our Thanksgiving turkey breast, packing in lemon, apples and onions along with the meat. It sort of blew my mind.
We continued to use the bags on and off throughout the years, but it wasn’t until I volunteered to develop the whole turkey recipe for our package on breaking the mold of traditional holiday recipes that I put pen to paper to create specific instructions.
Using a bag has quite a few advantages, but the biggest are how much it can reduce the cook time and how it keeps the meat moist and juicy. In my testing, the bag shaved off almost half the expected per-pound cook time, though manufacturer Reynolds said its testing showed closer to a 30% reduction.
We know how much oven space is at a premium on Thanksgiving, though, so anything in that range is a plus in my book. And if dry, stringy turkey has been the bane of your existence, the moist heat of roasting in the bag – more like steaming, really – is a game changer.
If you’re not familiar with oven bags or find the whole concept just weird, you’re not alone. While Reynolds debuted the bags in 1971, plenty of people I talked to had no idea they existed. “They were developed to speed up the cooking time and as a way for home cooks to get a perfect turkey every time,” says Charry E. Brown, test kitchen expert at Reynolds Consumer Products. The bags are made of heat-resistant nylon that is FDA-compliant for cooking. They are also BPA- and phthalate-free, Brown says.
Part of the joy of cooking in the bag is how simple it is: fill it, drop it in a roasting pan and cook. I didn’t want to complicate things (no brining, please!), but I wondered whether I could put a small twist on the method that would make it a little more special. So I followed my sister-in-law’s lead, stuffing the turkey cavity and bag with lemon, chunks of apple, wedges of onion, a whole head’s worth of garlic and a bouquet of my backyard sage and rosemary. Much as you accomplish in packet cooking – or en papillote, as the French say – these aromatics gently infused the meat, but especially the juices, with their flavor.
Ready to give the turkey in a bag a whirl? Here are some keys to success.
I highly recommend using a leave-in probe thermometer, if you have one or are willing to purchase it, particularly if it’s a model you can set an alarm on to alert you when it hits the target temperature (the USDA recommends 165 degrees for food safety, and in my tests with the bag, this was perfect). Because the turkey finishes much faster than you may be used to, it’s helpful to monitor the internal temperature as you cook. At the very least, start checking the temperature
- with a digital thermometer 20 to 30 minutes before the end of the recommended cook time. My recipe specifies that a 10- to 14-pound turkey will be done in 1½ to 2 hours, though, of course, ovens vary, which is why you need to pay attention. Even if you happen to overshoot the mark, as I did on my first test or two, the meat will probably still be moister than birds overcooked in bag-free roasting.
- Be sure to shake at least 1 tablespoon of flour into the bag. “This step protects against superheating liquids and helps any water boil off and vaporize in the bag,” Brown says. Any type of flour is fine, and you can also choose from such gluten-free alternatives as cornmeal, almond flour, rice flour, potato flour or cornstarch. Making gravy with the juices? Feel free to use more flour to help with thickening later.
- Don’t forget to create slits in the bag, or else you risk it bursting! Reynolds recommends six half-inch slits.
- The maximum oven temperature for the Reynolds bags is 400 degrees. Don’t go higher than that or use the broiler, and don’t let the bag touch the heating elements, lowering the oven rack as needed.
- The bag will still allow the skin to brown, especially if you oil the turkey, as my recipe suggests. But it will not be as crispy as other cooking methods. If desired, you can cut open the bag in the last 30 minutes to get better browning, Brown says. Just make sure the drippings don’t spill out and burn.
- Pay attention to what kind of turkey you buy. If the label says it’s been pre-brined, use less salt than called for. In my recipe, that’s dropping it from 2 tablespoons to 1 tablespoon fine salt.
- Don’t toss those juices! They’re delectable enough to serve on their own alongside the turkey, after straining. Or use them as the base for your gravy or the broth for an amazing leftovers soup.
Turkey cooked in a bag may not have that spent-too-much-time-in-the-sun, allover bronzed look of the birds you see in, say, a Norman Rockwell painting. But it still comes out looking prettier than I even expected. The flourish of bringing the whole bird to the table is overrated in my opinion, anyway – let the people eat! Carve up the bird in the kitchen, arrange it prettily on a platter (or chuck it onto a sheet pan, if you’re me) and wait for the oohs and ahs to come in about this being your juiciest turkey yet.
Turkey in a Bag With Lemon and Herbs
An oven bag helps ensure juicy meat in this fuss-free turkey that requires no brining or other advance prep. Steaming the turkey in the bag won’t result in crisp skin, but you’ll be rewarded with delectable juices that can be drizzled over the carved meat or used as the base for gravy.
In our tests, the bag approximately halved the cook time compared to roasting. We highly recommend using a leave-in probe thermometer so you can monitor the temperature of the meat; otherwise, start checking with an instant-read thermometer after about 90 minutes.
We tested this recipe on a bird as large as 24 pounds, which took about 2 1/2 hours to roast. If your turkey is pre-brined from the store, halve the amount of salt called for here.
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 lemon, halved, divided
2 medium apples (about 12 ounces total), cored and quartered, divided
1 medium onion (8 ounces), peeled and cut into 8 pieces, divided
1 head garlic, cloves separated and peeled
12 sprigs woody herbs, such as rosemary, sage and/or thyme, divided
2 tablespoons fine salt (use 1 tablespoon in pre-brined turkeys; see headnote), divided
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
1 (10- to 14-pound) whole turkey, giblets removed
2 tablespoons olive oil
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Have ready a large roasting pan.
Add the flour to the oven bag, gently shaking to distribute. Squeeze the juice of one lemon half into the bag, then toss it into the bag. Add half of each of the apples, onion, garlic and herbs. Set the bag inside the roasting pan. (A sheet pan is okay if that’s all you have.)
Place the turkey on a sheet pan and thoroughly pat it dry inside and out. Squeeze the juice from the remaining lemon half into the cavity. Season the inside of the cavity with about a third of the salt and pepper. Nestle the juiced lemon half and the remaining apples, onion, garlic and herbs inside the cavity.
Starting with the breast side down, rub some of the oil into the skin, then sprinkle with some of the salt and pepper (don’t worry about precise amounts, just leave more of it for the top). Flip the turkey so it’s breast side up, and repeat oiling and seasoning with salt and pepper.
Carefully transfer the turkey to the oven bag inside the roasting pan, breast side up, setting the bird as best you can on top of the apples, onion, garlic and herbs. Close the bag with the included tie and cut six half-inch slits into the bag. Transfer the roasting pan to the oven. If you have one, insert a leave-in thermometer into the thickest part of the breast, avoiding the bone.
Roast the turkey for 1½ to 2 hours. The turkey is done when the internal temperature of the thickest part of the breast meat registers 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, and the thigh meat registers 165 to 175 degrees (taken away from the bone).
Carefully cut open the bag and pull it away from the turkey – there will be a lot of steam. If you can remove the bag, great, otherwise it can stay under the turkey until you’re ready to serve. Let the turkey rest 20 to 30 minutes before discarding the bag and vegetables, and then carving. If desired, strain the juices to serve on the side or use to make gravy.
Yield: 10 to 14 servings