Roast turkey is a holiday favourite, especially at Thanksgiving, but sometimes you just don’t need or want a whole bird. A roast turkey breast can be just as good, and is much easier to prepare and cook.
It’s hard to beat the wow-factor of placing a whole roast turkey on the table. The aroma, the golden brown skin and the sheer size of it are a part of Thanksgiving, and other holiday feasts too. But sometimes, like maybe this crazy year (begone 2020!), you just don’t have that big a crowd. A whole bird’s going to be way too much, but you still want succulent turkey? A roast turkey breast could be the answer to your problem!
Even though it’s a lot simpler to cook, there are still different ways to approach it, and lots of recipes out there to choose from. So to help make sense of it all, I’ve gone through twenty popular recipes from Pinterest. I’ve figured out what’s consistent and what’s not, to help you choose an approach, or a recipe, for your roast turkey breast.
There are a lot of similarities between roasting a turkey breast and roasting a whole turkey. Topics like seasonings, internal temperatures, brining and oven guidelines are often almost identical. So feel free to jump on over to my review of roasting a whole turkey as well.
What is a roast turkey breast?
Seems obvious, and it kind of is…mostly. A roast turkey breast is exactly that – it’s a separate turkey breast that you roast on its own. But there are different cuts of turkey breast available. We’ll come to what they are and why it matters in a moment.
But why? Breast vs. a whole turkey
If you’re wondering why anyone would stray from the tradition of a whole bird, there are quite a few good reasons to consider. Compared to a whole bird, a turkey breast:
- is smaller. If you don’t have a crowd for Thanksgiving, a whole turkey is usually way too much.
- defrosts more quickly.
- is easier to prepare.
- is easier to cook perfectly. You don’t have to worry about getting different meat types right like you do on a whole turkey.
- cooks faster.
- is easier to carve.
- takes up less space in the oven, leaving more room for sides.
Easier, faster, less waste. What’s not to love?
Choosing a turkey breast
As I mentioned above, you’ll find a few different types of turkey breast available:
- Full double breast with rib cage. This is the largest type, and looks the same as it does on a whole turkey. This cut still has a cavity, so you can stuff it with your aromatics for even more flavour.
- Bone-in half breast. This cut still has some bone, often a wing stub, but none of the ribs. As a result it is more compact, and has no cavity.
- Boneless turkey breast. This cut has had all bones removed.
So, apart from size, there are two main things to consider when deciding what type of turkey breast to buy – skin, and bone.
Twelve of the twenty recipes I reviewed use a bone-in turkey breast. Bone-in cuts will take longer to defrost and to cook, but most authors agree they’re more flavoursome. And if you want to make gravy out of your drippings, bone-in is definitely the way to go.
Skin is even more popular, with sixteen authors choosing a breast cut with the skin on. Not only does the skin help protect the breast from drying out, it also produces wonderful flavours and provides a crispy finish. Most bone-in cuts you’ll find will have skin on them, but you’ll need to check a bit more carefully with the packaged breasts in the freezer section, because many of these are skinless.
How many people can it feed?
This will obviously depend on how big your breast is, how much meat you want your guests to have, how many sides you’re making and how many sweets or desserts you’re serving afterwards, but the authors do provide some guidance to help get you started.
Overall the recommendation for bone-in turkey breast is between one pound (450g) and one and a half pounds (680g) per person.
You don’t need as much for a boneless breast because it’s all meat. Half a pound (225g) to three-quarters of a pound (340g) per person should be enough for a boneless turkey breast.
The breasts used in these recipes range from a one-and-a-half pound (680g) boneless breast to an eight pound (3.6kg) full double breast. And the authors feed between two and twelve people depending on their cut. So while a turkey breast is not as big as a whole turkey, you can actually feed a crowd with the right one.
At the end of the day it’s probably better to over-cater than under. Worst thing that happens – you have more delicious leftovers!
Thawing your turkey breast
Before you can begin any preparations on your turkey breast, if it’s frozen, you need to defrost it.
Several authors provide some great guidance on thawing your turkey breast before you roast it. Like defrosting a whole turkey you have two main methods available to you:
- Allow it to defrost in the refrigerator. This approach is the safest because the meat always stays at food-safe temperatures, but it takes a lot longer, even for a breast. A good guide is one full day (24 hours) per 5 lb/2.3kg.
- Defrost your turkey breast in cold water. This method’s much faster, but needs to be handled more carefully to ensure your meat stays safe to eat. Immerse your turkey breast in cold water for thirty minutes per pound (450g). Make sure you replace the water with fresh cold water every thirty minutes to keep the temperature low.
You can also defrost your turkey breast in the microwave if you’re really pressed for time, but as Nagi from Recipe Tin Eats attests, this is a sure-fire route to dry turkey meat.
Pre-brined turkey breasts
It’s worth noting that the frozen products from the likes of Ingham and Butterball do offer directions for roasting straight from the freezer. But the fact that you can doesn’t mean you should. You can’t really add your own flavours to a frozen breast – you can’t lift the skin, and anything you add to the surface is likely to slide right off before the skin defrosts. Plus the cooking time is significantly longer, meaning you’re more likely to dry out the outer layers of meat before it’s all cooked through.
Preparing your turkey breast for the oven
Because it doesn’t cook for anywhere near as long as a whole turkey, your turkey breast doesn’t need as much protection from the drying effects of the oven. This means that preparing your turkey breast can be a lot simpler. And this is especially true if you have a cut without the cavity.
Keeping breast meat moist
Turkey breast meat is delicious, but being a lean meat, it has a tendency to dry out. That means a key goal when roasting turkey, either a whole bird or a separate breast, is to keep the breast meat as moist as possible.
One of the biggest enemies of succulent breast meat is cooking time. The longer it’s in the oven, the more it’s going to dry out. Turkey breast roasts are already significantly ahead in this regard, because they don’t have to hang around in the oven waiting for the legs to cook through like with a whole turkey. In spite of this advantage, it’s still worth taking some additional steps to ensure your meat is moist and juicy.
In the past, one of the most popular techniques for keeping turkey meat moist during cooking was to brine it. This is the process of immersing it in a strong salt solution for 10-12 hours, encouraging the meat to take on additional water. But based on the recipes I reviewed for roasting a whole turkey, brining was actually not that popular. And it’s the same with a turkey breast as well. Only three authors brine their turkey breast before roasting.
If you are keen on brining, Katerina from Diethood and Lisa from Wine and Glue both give directions for a traditional water and salt brine, each with their own unique flavour profiles. And if you’re looking for something a little different to try, Steven from Sips Nibbles and Bites marinates his turkey breast in a buttermilk brine to not only increase the moisture content, but also help crisp the skin.
Something else to be aware of with regards to brine. Nagi from Recipe Tin Eats points out that frozen turkey breasts from the grocery store or supermarket are often brined. Butterball and Ingham boneless turkey breasts are both examples of this. And you need to check, because if your breast is brined and the recipe you choose is for an un-brined breast, it could end up too salty. It’s easily fixed by reducing the salt in the recipe – just make sure to check for it.
In my review of how to roast a whole turkey I discovered that the most popular tool for keeping breast meat moist is not salt, but butter. Three-quarters of the recipes for roast turkey used butter under the skin. From there it melts onto the meat, basting it during the entire cooking time.
But this technique is much less common with a turkey breast. Only six authors go to the trouble of spreading herbed butter under the skin of their turkey breast. Again, it’s not cooking as long as a whole turkey, so the need will not be as great.
There is another, albeit uncommon, way to apply a butter marinade to your turkey breast. With the right equipment, you can inject melted butter into the breast meat. If you’re interested in exploring this check out Victor’s recipe for butter-injected roast turkey breast on Craving Tasty.
Getting a nice crispy skin
If you’ve picked a turkey breast cut with skin, getting it lovely and brown and crispy is another important goal.
The first step to a crispy skin is making sure it’s dry (of water) when it goes into the oven. Several authors highlight the importance of patting the breast dry before beginning any preparations.
Once it’s dry, the most popular addition to the skin to help it crisp up is fat. Ten authors apply butter to the skin, and another four use olive oil. All of these recipes also flavour the butter with a variety of seasonings, typically either herbs, spices, or both.
The most popular way to add flavour to your turkey breast is by mixing herbs, spices and other ingredients with butter or olive oil. As we’ve seen, this mix is then spread under the skin, on the skin, or both.
Whether you’re mixing your seasonings with butter, or rubbing them into the skin with oil, there are some great flavour options amongst these recipes.
What herbs should you choose?
The most popular addition is herbs, which are used in sixteen of the recipes. And, unsurprisingly, the herbs of choice are much the same as those used on a whole turkey:
- Thyme is the most common, used in fourteen recipes.
- Rosemary is not far behind, appearing twelve times.
- Eight authors use sage.
- Another five authors use parsley.
- And basil and oregano make a couple of appearances each.
Eleven of the recipes use more than one herb. And again like whole turkey, the most common combination is Simon & Garfunkel’s parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, although this only appears five times in these turkey breast recipes.
The preferred form is fresh herbs for everything except thyme, for which half of the authors use dried.
After herbs, the most common flavour is garlic, appearing in three-quarters of the recipes, either fresh (crushed/minced) or powdered. Olena from iFOODreal takes a different approach here, inserting slivers of fresh garlic into cuts in her turkey breast.
And after garlic, there are no common choices. A number of flavours appear two or three times, including maple syrup, paprika, lemon juice or zest, and mustard.
Roasting your turkey breast
There are several similarities between roasting a turkey breast and roasting a whole turkey, and a few things that are different too.
Do you need to put it on a rack?
Based on the recommendations of these authors, it’s really up to you. Just under half recommend elevating your turkey breast off the bottom of the roasting pan, either with a metal rack or with coarsely chopped vegetables. Which means just over half found that a rack was not necessary.
Like roasting a whole turkey, there’s more than one way to roast your turkey breast. There were three different approaches taken by these authors:
- Maintain the same moderate oven temperature for the whole cooking time.
- Start the breast in a hotter oven for a short time, then lower the temperature and continue roasting.
- Maintain the same, hotter temperature for the whole cooking time.
Cooking your turkey breast in a moderate oven
This is overwhelmingly the most popular approach to roasting a turkey breast, with more than three-quarters of the authors taking this path. And these authors are fairly evenly split on the temperature they choose, with eight roasting their turkey breast at 325°F/160°C, and seven at 350°F/175°C.
Interestingly a few authors heat their ovens hotter than required, then turn them down to the required temperature once the turkey breast is in the oven. I assume this is to overcome the issue of heat escaping when you open the oven to put the breast in.
Starting hot and finishing cooler
The goal of this approach is to quickly brown and crisp the skin, without overcooking the meat. But this method is nowhere near as popular for turkey breast as it is with a whole turkey. For a whole turkey, almost half of the recipes I reviewed started their bird in a hot oven, before lowering the temperature for the balance of the cooking time. But for roasting a turkey breast, only three authors choose this approach. All three start their breast at 450°F/230°C for fifteen to twenty minutes before lowering the temperature to 350°F/175°C for the rest of the cooking time.
Cooking your turkey breast in a hot oven
Only one author takes the hot and fast approach. Vered from Healthy Recipes Blog roasts her turkey breast at 450°F/230°C. She feels it’s the secret to juicy breast meat, although she’s alone in this belief amongst this group of twenty authors.
This will obviously be faster than either of the previous approaches. Because it’s so hot, Vered covers the breast loosely with foil after twenty minutes to protect the skin from burning.
Turkey breast cooking time
How long does a turkey breast take? Like roasting a whole turkey, the answer is “it depends”. It depends mainly on the size of your breast cut, and what approach you’ve taken to roasting it.
The best answer is how long it takes for your breast to reach a safe internal temperature. In order to measure the internal temperature of your turkey breast you’ll need a meat thermometer.
I go into a lot more detail about these in my roast turkey review, but in short they are a device with a probe you insert into the meat to measure the temperature at the thickest part of the breast. If you don’t have one they are an inexpensive and invaluable kitchen tool for all sorts of dishes. It’s much harder to figure out if your breast meat is done without one. In this case your best option is usually to slice the breast and visually ensure it is cooked through. This approach is much riskier though, either of it being slightly undercooked, or more likely, significantly overcooked.
As for what temperature is safe, most authors here agree that the right temperature is 165°F/75°C. And this is in line with the US Department of Agriculture’s guidelines for cooking turkey too.
The secret to a juicy breast however is making sure it only just reaches this safe temperature. Any higher and it will quickly dry out. This is so important that several authors pull their turkey breast out of the oven at a slightly lower internal temperature (either at 155°F/68°C or 160°F/70°C).
This might sound unsafe, but the temperature of the meat will continue to rise a few degrees while it rests. This happens because the breast is hotter on the outside than on the inside, and while it rests some of this heat from the outside moves inwards. With a whole turkey, the temperature can rise quite significantly, because the large bird carries more thermal load, but even with a breast it could easily rise three to five degrees or more. Just to be safe, most of the authors who take their breast out early recommend resting it until it reaches 165°F/75°C.
Roughly how long though?
It obviously helps enormously to have some idea how long it’s going to take to cook, and almost every author provides guidance based on their recipe.
Generally they agree your turkey breast should take about 15 to 20 minutes per pound in a 350°F/175°C oven (33-49 minutes per kg).
Boneless breasts will cook more quickly than bone-in cuts, so may be closer to 15 minutes per pound thank 20.
What else should you think about?
A few other things to consider:
- Adjust the racks in your oven so the turkey breast is in the middle of the oven, or even slightly below. Ovens are hotter at the top, so if the breast is sitting too high in the oven the skin can brown too quickly.
- If you choose to baste your breast during cooking, keep in mind that basting requires you to open the oven door, letting heat escape. Depending on how quickly your particular oven recovers, this could meaningfully impact your cooking time. This is another great reason to use a meat thermometer to make sure your turkey breast is cooked.
- If you’re using a recipe that includes liquid in the roasting pan, don’t choose a pan that’s too big for your turkey breast. You want a bit of space around it, but not much.
- If the skin on your breast has browned enough and there’s still some roasting time left to go, loosely cover it with foil to protect it from burning.
Resting your turkey breast after roasting
I know it’s tempting to carve as soon as the breast comes out of the oven, but it’s best to rest it beforehand.
Resting simply involves keeping it covered and warm (not hot) for a period of time after it comes out of the oven. This is done to allow the juices to redistribute evenly throughout the meat. The cooking process makes the outside meat drier, and resting helps reset this imbalance. This doesn’t only apply to a roast turkey breast. Any cooked meat will benefit from resting, especially larger pieces.
And the authors of these recipes almost unanimously agree, because nineteen of them advise resting your turkey breast after cooking. The most popular resting time is fifteen to twenty minutes, although a few authors only allow five minutes and a couple more allow as much as half an hour.
The essence of roast turkey breast
If you’ve always made a whole turkey for Thanksgiving, fear not, because your experience with the whole bird is highly relevant for roasting a turkey breast as well.
Based on these twenty recipes, if you follow a few consistent steps you’ll be setting yourself up for a succulent turkey breast roast:
- For the best flavour, choose a bone-in, skin-on turkey breast cut.
- Dry the surface of the breast well before beginning.
- Apply flavoured butter or olive oil to the skin for a nice crispy finish.
- Roast your turkey breast at 325°F/160°C or 350°F/175°C.
- Roast it for fifteen to twenty minutes per pound (450g), until it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F/75°C.
- Rest your turkey breast for fifteen to twenty minutes, loosely covered with foil, before you carve.
So there you have it – the essence of a roast turkey breast. It may not be as traditional as a whole bird, but it can make for a beautiful succulent turkey dinner, ideal for smaller families or groups. Hopefully this has helped you decide which way to go. I know I’m keen to give one a try!
Once you’ve decided on turkey, the next question you need to ask yourself is cranberry sauce or cranberry relish?
Recipes included in this review
The recipes I reviewed for this post are listed below:
- Herb Buttermilk Marinated Turkey Breast – Sips, Nibbles & Bites
- One Pan Roast Turkey Breast with Brussels Sprouts and Carrots — Living Lou
- Roast Turkey Breast with Garlic Herb Butter | RecipeTin Eats
- The Barefoot Contessa’s Herb-Roasted Turkey Breast Recipe by Ina Garten – The Daily Meal
- Honey Maple Turkey Breast | The Kittchen
- The Best Roasted Turkey Breast for Thanksgiving – Happy Mothering
- Oven Roasted Turkey Breast – Mostly Homemade Mom
- Citrus Herb Roast Turkey Breast – Mom On Timeout
- Roasted Boneless Turkey Breast Recipe | Healthy Recipes Blog
- Easy Maple-Glazed Roasted Turkey Breast – The Seasoned Mom
- How to roast a turkey breast (boneless) – What’s In The Pan?
- Roasted Turkey Breast with Garlic and Herbs – Dinner at the Zoo
- Foolproof Boneless Turkey Breast Recipe • Recipe for Perfection
- Buttery Herb & Garlic Roast Turkey Breast | The Kitchen Magpie
- Roasted Turkey Breast – Dinner, then Dessert
- Roasted Turkey Breast with Herb Butter – Craving Tasty
- Boneless Turkey Breast Roast – iFOODreal
- Easy Roast Turkey Breast Recipe | Diethood.com
- Roast Turkey Breast (One Pan) | One Pot Recipes
- Turkey Breast Recipe – Wine & Glue