For many of us hosting smaller gatherings, however, a whole turkey is not going to be warranted this year. I like leftovers as much as the next cook, but I think we can all agree that even a 16-pound bird for a group of four or six might be overkill. Especially if you don’t have a gang of guests to divvy up the excess to take home.
A turkey breast is just the right size for a more compact holiday celebration and, hopefully, will yield some surplus so you can still have a couple of post-holiday sandwiches or soup the next day. Obviously, the dark meat lovers will be out of luck (maybe also pick up a turkey leg or two?).
The most commonly available turkey breast size is 6 to 7 pounds, which should comfortably feed six to eight people. Once you have decided to stick to breast only (and not the whole bird), the only question is: How to cook it?
The good news is that you have several options. The seasonings are up to you (but you can’t go wrong with rubbing the turkey with a classic paste of softened butter, rosemary, thyme and/or sage, garlic, salt and pepper). Pat the breast dry with paper towels or a clean dish towel; this will prevent the butter rub from sliding off the breast. Then, without tearing the turkey skin, try to rub some of the paste under the skin, then rub it all over the skin.
No matter how you cook it, you are looking for an internal temperature of 160 degrees, and you should check with a meat thermometer. Before you cut the meat, let the turkey breast rest on a cutting board set inside a sheet pan (to catch any juices that run from the breast) for about 10 minutes to let the meat reclaim its juices. The internal temperature will rise to 165 degrees as it sits, which is the safe temperature for cooked poultry.
Here are three options for cooking a 6-to-7-pound turkey breast; adjust your cooking times up or down depending on the size of the breast. If your breast is boneless, you’ll want to think about adding 15 to 18 minutes for each additional pound. For a bone-in breast, add 22 to 24 minutes per pound to the following cooking directions.
Roasting: The first option is the most classic and straightforward way to cook a Thanksgiving turkey of any size: roasting.
Position a baking rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 450 degrees. Pat dry the turkey breast. Oil a roasting pan, or insert a rack. Place the seasoned (see suggestion above) turkey breast in the pan and roast, uncovered, for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and continue cooking for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, until it is nicely browned with an internal temperature of 160 degrees. If you want, baste the turkey with broth or pan juices that form as you go, but to help the skin crisp, don’t baste for the final 30 minutes of cooking.
Slow cooker: Using a slow cooker won’t get you crispy skin, but it will reward you with a near guarantee of juicy, tender meat.
For this method you’ll also need some liquid in the pan: I like a combination of 1/4 cup white wine and ½ cup chicken broth. You also may want to add 1/2 cup each of sliced carrots, celery, onions and a few cloves of garlic to the bottom of the slow cooker before you place the turkey in there, which will enhance the cooking liquid for a more flavorful gravy.
Add the turkey breast, then cover and cook on low for 6 hours, or until the turkey is fully cooked with an internal temperature of 160 degrees.
If you still want that crispy skin, you can broil the cooked breast, skin side up, in a baking pan for a few minutes, watching carefully so that it doesn’t burn; you may need to turn the breast on one side and then the other to get even browning.
Instant Pot: You probably know by now that the Instant Pot (or another multicooker) has many functions, but my two favorites, especially in combination, are saute and pressure cooker.
Set the pot to SAUTE and pour in 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil. Brown the turkey breast skin side down, first tilting it so the skin browns on one side of the breast, then the other, then rolling it forward and back, for about 2 minutes per side, to get most of the skin at least a bit browned. Remove the turkey breast, then pour out the excess oil. If you like, add 1/2 cup each of onions and celery, and saute, stirring, until softened, about 3 minutes. Turn off the Instant Pot, add 3/4 cup broth or water, and if you have a removable rack insert, add it to the pot. Place the turkey breast into the pot, skin side up.
Close the lid, then make sure the steam valve is sealed. Select PRESSURE (HIGH) and set to 10 minutes. (It takes about 10 minutes for the appliance to come to pressure before cooking begins.) Once the cooking time has finished, allow the pressure to release naturally for 10 minutes, then open the valve to release any remaining pressure. Never put your hands or face near the vent when releasing steam. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the middle of the breast should read 160 degrees. If it doesn’t, close the lid again, make sure the steam valve is sealed, select PRESSURE (HIGH) and set for 2 minutes, again letting the pressure release naturally for 10 minutes before manually releasing remaining pressure. Check the temperature again, and repeat pressure-cooking for 2 minutes at a time if needed.
If you want the skin to be more browned and crispy, follow the broiling instructions above in the slow-cooker method.
More good news: You can make a simple and delicious gravy, no matter which method you choose.
Strain the juices from the pan and discard the solids. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in 2 tablespoons flour and continue to whisk until the roux turns golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in the pan drippings. Add enough broth to get to 2 cups. (The amount of broth you need will depend on how much pan drippings you start with, but you want to end up with about 2 cups of liquid total.) Bring the gravy to a boil, whisking frequently until thickened, 6 to 8 minutes. Taste, and season with salt and pepper as needed.
A final piece of advice: Even if your gathering is small, leftover turkey is a Thanksgiving prerogative. If you plan for ¾-pound per person, with a full spread of sides, you can pretty much count on extra for later in the week.