Having a smaller Thanksgiving or Christmas? You don’t need to cook a whole turkey when a smaller, more manageable turkey breast will do. This easy citrus and garlic marinated roast turkey breast is tender, moist, juicy and perfect for 4 people and I’ll show you how to make a turkey gravy from pan drippings.
Table of Contents
- 1 For citrus marinated roast turkey breast
- 2 Removing the turkey backbone
- 3 Marinating the turkey breast
- 4 How to make quick turkey stock
- 5 Easy way to roast a turkey breast
- 6 Do I really need an instant read thermometer?
- 7 Rest the turkey breast
- 8 Making turkey gravy from pan drippings
- 9 How much turkey do I need per person?
- 10 Marinated Roast Turkey Breast
- 11 Pin “Marinated Roast Turkey Breast” for later!
For citrus marinated roast turkey breast
- Turkey Breast
- Fennel Seed
- Kosher Salt
- Black Pepper
- Fresh Rosemary
- Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
- Fresh Sage
- Olive Oil
My usual prep for turkeys involves a brine, but for an oven roasted turkey breast, marinating works to tenderize the meat, add flavor and a little moisture. This citrus, herb and garlic marinade is bright and zingy. The key to a really juicy breast, however, is the cooking method, which we’ll get to in a minute. Let’s start with prepping the turkey breast.
I like to remove the backbone of the turkey for roasting the breast. Removing the back keeps the bird more stable in the roasting pan, rather than rolling and tipping from one side to another. This is an optional step, so if you don’t feel comfortable doing it, don’t fret – and move on to the marinating instructions.
Removing the turkey backbone
- Flip the turkey onto the breast with the butt portion facing you (that’s the part with the big opening).
- Using a pair of good kitchen sheers, follow the line between the turkey breast meat and the back bone and cut through the ribs on one side, but don’t try to cut through the top of the turkey, it’s too tough.
- Repeat on the opposite side, up to the point where it’s difficult to cut.
- Holding the breast portion with one hand and the backbone portion with the other, pry them apart until you hear a crack, then use the sheers to cut through the remaining cartilage and connective tissue.
- Reserve the backbone for gravy if desired (recipe included here).
Marinating the turkey breast
Transfer the whole turkey breast to a zip top freezer bag and pour the marinade over it. Squeeze most of the air from the bag and seal it, then roll the bag around in your hands to distribute the marinade evenly over the turkey breast. Refrigerate the breast for at least 4 hours and up to 12.
Pro-Tip: Though you might be tempted to marinate the turkey for longer, the citrus acids in the marinade will do more harm than good, breaking down the fibers and making the flesh more mealy than juicy.
I’m a waste not, want not gal, so I use the turkey back and a few veggies to make a simple turkey stock that will go into the easy pan gravy for the marinated roast turkey breast. Here’s how to do it.
How to make quick turkey stock
- Add the turkey back and any skin or other bones to a large saucepan.
- Roughly chop a small onion, carrot and celery stalk and add them to the pot.
- Add a bay leaf and some whole peppercorns then cover the turkey back with about 4 cups of cold water.
- Bring the pot to a boil over medium high heat, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cover the pot with the lid slightly askew so steam can escape.
- Simmer the stock for 15-20 minutes. (This makes the whole house smell like Thanksgiving).
- Remove the turkey back and set aside and place a mesh strainer over a bowl to catch the stock. Pour the stock and vegetables through the strainer. (Discard the solids). This is the turkey stock to use for the gravy.
Pro Tip: Pick any meat off of the back carcass and reserve to add to the easy turkey gravy if you like it that way.
Cooking a turkey breast is actually pretty easy, and this simple roasting method keeps the breast meat tender and juicy.
Easy way to roast a turkey breast
- Remove the turkey from the refrigerator about 45 minutes before roasting so it can come closer to room temperature.
- Slice the onions into rings and scatter them in the bottom of a roasting pan.
- Remove the turkey from the marinade and use paper towels to wipe off any excess marinade and pat the turkey dry on both sides. It’s important to dry the turkey well, otherwise, you’re steaming rather than roasting the bird.
- Place the turkey breast on top of the bed of onions.
- Pour chicken broth into the bottom of the roasting pan and cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil.
- Roast the turkey in a low 325° oven for 45 minutes to 1 1/4 hours (depending on the size of your breast).
- Remove the foil from the turkey, brush the skin with olive oil (to help with browning) and turn the oven up to 425°.
- Continue to cook the turkey until an instant read thermometer reads about 165° (the safe zone for turkey, while keeping the meat moist).
Note: Depending on how large your turkey breast is it could require another 20-40 minutes of cooking time. My breast was a small 5-pounder and it took an extra 20 minutes at the higher temperature.
Do I really need an instant read thermometer?
In my humble opinion, yes. You do. A good instant read is an invaluable asset because it takes the guesswork out of cooking. You’ll KNOW when your turkey is done.
What’s the best instant read?
My favorite and the one I recommend is the Thermoworks Thermapen One digital instant read thermometer. Why?
- It’s well calibrated
- It’s a comfortable design with large easy-to-read numbers
- It has a built in light feature so if you’re grilling outside after dark, it senses it and lights the screen for you.
- It gives you accurate readings within a few seconds.
- To turn it on you un-fold the probe from the body of the Thermapen.
- To turn it off, you fold the probe into the body of the Thermapen.
- The fold-up design is genius — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stabbed myself while trying to fish out a probe thermometer from our kitchen drawer.
- This isn’t a cheap item, but it’s worth every dime — and I would have paid more if I’d had to.
If you want a Thermapen One for yourself, please click on my affiliate link. You won’t pay any more for the item, and I’ll make a small commission, so I can buy more turkey breasts.
Rest the turkey breast
After the roasted marinated turkey reaches the right temperature (165°), transfer the breast to a cutting board and lightly tent with tin foil for 15 minutes, so the juices can redistribute throughout the flesh.
If you cut right into the breast without letting it rest, all those juices will flow right out of the bird. Not what we’re going for.
While the turkey rests, make the simple turkey gravy using the pan juices and turkey broth (or you can use canned low-sodium chicken broth if you didn’t make the stock). It’s really easy to do and only takes about 10 minutes.
Making turkey gravy from pan drippings
- Pour the remaining turkey stock and drippings from the roasting pan into a glass measuring cup.
- You can keep the onions in the pan or if you like a smoother gravy, discard them.
- Add the butter to the roasting pan and place over medium high heat on your stovetop.
- When the butter melts, sprinkle in the flour and stir until a paste forms (called a roux) and no dry bits of flour remain. Cook for about one minute until bubbly.
- Slowly add the reserved pan drippings, stirring constantly. Don’t add all the liquid at once or you’ll get a lumpy gravy.
- Add the turkey or canned chicken broth (whichever you’re using) and fresh sage leaves, stirring constantly and bring to a boil. Cook for about 1 minute or until the gravy thickens.
- Season with salt, pepper and any turkey meat that you’ve picked from the back bone (if you made the turkey stock).
- For a darker looking gravy, you can add half to one teaspoon of Gravy Master.
The flavor of the marinated roast turkey has a light citrus and herb flavor, so I’ve kept the seasonings of the pan gravy from turkey drippings to a minimum so it doesn’t clash with the meat. This simple turkey gravy is smooth and velvety, perfect for garnishing your sliced turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing. The recipe makes about 3 cups of gravy, too, so there’s plenty for your diners.
How much turkey do I need per person?
Figure on 1/2 pound of turkey per person, but take into account the inedible parts of the bird as well… i.e. the bones, back (and any giblets, or extras they may have stuffed into your package).
Scott and I ate one turkey breast over the course of two dinners. The remaining turkey breast went into an epic turkey pot pie — and again, that was enough for two meals.
If you’re having a smaller holiday gathering, consider a turkey breast instead of a whole bird. You’ll still have enough for post-Thanksgiving turkey sandwiches.
What to serve with marinated roast turkey breast:
- Browned Butter Mashed Potatoes
- Roasted Garlic Mashed Cauliflower
- Roasted Parsnips and Carrots (shown)
- Butternut Leek & Sausage Stuffing
- Fennel, Apple & Sausage Stuffing
- Homemade Crescent Rolls
- Zinfandel Cranberry Sauce
Marinated Roast Turkey Breast
- Roasting pan
- turkey baster
FOR TURKEY & MARINADE
- 5-7 pound turkey breast (I used a 5 pounder and it was enough for 6 people with leftovers)
- 1 tablespoon fennel seed crushed in a mortar and pestle or ground in a spice grinder
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt I use Diamond Kosher. If you have Morton's scale back to 1 teaspoon
- ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 2 teaspoons fresh rosemary chopped
- 2 teaspoons fresh sage chopped
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice from the zested lemon
- 1 teaspoon orange zest
- ¼ cup orange juice from the zested orange
- ⅓ cup olive oil
TO ROAST THE TURKEY:
- 2 medium onions sliced
- ¾ cup chicken broth
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
FOR TURKEY STOCK:
- the trimmed turkey back and any skin or extra cartilage
- 1 small onion roughly chopped
- 1 medium carrot roughly chopped
- 1 medium stalk celery roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
FOR THE GRAVY:
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 3 tablespoons flour
- ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- ¾ cup pan drippings
- 2 cups turkey stock
- Combine the fennel, black pepper, kosher salt, crushed red pepper flakes, garlic, rosemary, sage, lemon zest & juice, orange zest and juice and olive oil. Whisk to combine. Set aside.
- Use a pair of kitchen sheers to trim away the back portion of the rib cage and back bone, leaving just the turkey breast intact. To do this, flip the turkey so the back is facing up. Let the natural line of where the breast meets the rib cage be your guide. Start on one side and cut along the bottom of the breast (so you're not removing any of the breast meat) and cut through the ribs from the butt end to the neck portion, until you get to the point where the bones are too tough for the sheers.
- Use the same method on the opposite side of the turkey breast. Grasp the the portion that you're cutting away with one hand and the breast meat side with the other hand. Leverage the back bone back until you hear a satisfying "crack". Then use the poultry sheers to cut between the joints and remove the back portion. Now you have a turkey breast without the back bone. Don't toss the back bone, you can use it for your gravy stock.
- Place the turkey breast in a one gallon zip top plastic bag and pour the marinade over it. Tip the bag to and fro to coat in the marinade. Refrigerate the turkey for at least 4 and up to 12 hours. Don't marinate longer as the acidity from the marinade can break down the flesh and make it mealy.
TO COOK THE TURKEY:
- Remove the turkey from the refrigerator about 45 minutes before roasting, so it can come closer to room temperature. If you put a cold turkey in the oven, it will just take longer to cook.
- Preheat the oven to 325°. Scatter the onion slices in a single layer in the bottom of a roasting pan.
- Remove the turkey from the marinade. Wipe away the excess zest, garlic etc. and pat it dry with paper towels. Rest the turkey breast on top of the onions. Add the chicken broth to the bottom of the pan and cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil. Place the turkey in the oven for 45 minutes to an hour (Depending how big your turkey breast is).
- Remove the foil and turn the heat up to 425°. Brush the turkey breast with olive oil and continue to cook until the thickest part of the turkey breast registers about 165°. Use an instant read thermometer to be sure of the turkey temperature. Remove from the oven and transfer to a cutting board. Tent lightly with foil and let it rest for 15 minutes for the juices to redistribute and settle before carving.
- Drain the pan juices and drippings into a glass measuring cup for the gravy. (If you want the onions in your gravy, leave them in the pan. If you don't want the onions, discard them.
FOR THE TURKEY STOCK:
- While the turkey is roasting, in a large saucepan add the turkey back, onion, celery, carrot, black peppercorns, kosher salt and bay leaf. Cover with 4-5 cups of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Place the lid on the pan so it's slightly askew and steam can escape. Reduce the heat to a low simmer and cook for an additional 20 minutes.
- Remove the turkey back from the pot and set aside to cool. Strain the turkey stock by placing a strainer over a bowl and pouring the contents through the sieve. Discard the solids and use the turkey stock later to make the gravy.
- You can use bits of meat from the turkey back in the gravy if you want. To do this, wait until the turkey back has cooled, remove any skin and bones. Pick off any meat and transfer to a small bowl until you're ready to make the gravy.
FOR THE GRAVY:
- Add butter to the roasting pan and melt over medium high heat. Sprinkle the flour salt and pepper over the butter and stir to form a paste (called a roux). Cook the roux for about one minute until bubbly and fragrant (It's important to cook the butter/flour mixture to cook off any raw flour taste).
- Add the reserved pan drippings in quarter cup additions to the roux, whisking or stirring constantly after each addition until well blended. Add the stock in the same manner until there's just one cup of stock left. You can add the last bit of stock all at once and whisk constantly while bringing the gravy to a boil over medium high heat. Boil for one minute until it thickens.
- Taste the gravy for seasonings and adjust as necessary. Note: if you'd like a darker gravy, you can add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of Gravy Master.
SERVE THE MARINATED TURKEY:
- When the turkey has rested, slice the breasts off the bone and cut them crosswise into 1/4" thick slices. Arrange on a platter. Serve with gravy.
This is a great idea for a small Thanksgiving. It’ll just be my husband and me, so this is perfect for the two of us!
Chris Collins says
This is ideal for a small Thanksgiving! Thanks so much for sharing, it looks truly delicious 🙂
Noelle Simpson says
Yum! This has the perfect flavors, loved them! Thank you
Aww! Very delicious <3 new pinned recipe added to my list!
This citrus marinade is wonderful! Your step by step pictures are so helpful!