With a zesty rub and an oven-free preparation, this Lemon Garlic Slow Cooker Turkey Breast is the perfect solution to hosting Thanksgiving in a small space.
When I approached the idea of hosting Thanksgiving this year, I rolled it around in my mind, like a Rubik’s cube waiting to be solved. My house was right-sized when we moved here. Two kids, one mom, a perfect amount of space for living, though not necessarily entertaining. The kitchen had enough room for a table, a kitchen island and shelving, without feeling too cramped. And the little living room was perfect for the kids and I relax in, read and watch movies or the occasional television show.
Nearly two and a half years later, it’s not so right sized anymore. In fact, it’s small.
But Thanksgiving is a holiday of family togetherness. It’s a time to come together and enjoy each other’s company. And, especially, it’s a time to be thankful. This year, our family has so much to be thankful for, the greatest of which is that we’re all still here. There was a significant health crisis in the family this year — one that had so much potential to be devastating. But it’s thankfully passed. We’re all still here.
So, I agreed to host Thanksgiving in my small kitchen in the more northern part of Maine. I agreed to find a way to make this small space work for us.
But then, of course, my thoughts turned to the biggest consideration: Turkey, turkey, turkey.
Having hosted Thanksgiving for nearly a decade back in Connecticut, I know how to plan and execute a big meal. But back there, I had a double oven, a countertop rotisserie and so much more space. My Thanksgiving dinners reflected the bounty of space we had. So here, I have to work with less. But guess what? It’s totally doable. As always, it’s all in the planning.
Small Kitchen, Big Meal
In the past, our Thanksgiving turkey was usually cooked in a countertop rotisserie, freeing up space in the ovens for other foods. That’s not an option here — there isn’t room for a rotisserie, and even if there was I don’t want one. Roasting a split turkey breast or making turkey cutlets instead could work too, because both don’t take up as much space (there’s a potential to cook other things simultaneously in the oven with a split turkey breast; turkey cutlets are cooked on the stovetop).
But honestly, we don’t need a full turkey — drumsticks and all. We just need a good, juicy one.
Ultimately, I decided to make a bone-in turkey breast cooked in a slow cooker. Slow cooker turkey breast is among the juiciest birds I’ve ever had or made.
As a small space dweller, being able to cook my turkey on my countertop is a blessing. Sure, it takes a little longer to cook than it would in the oven. But the hands-free process also frees up the oven and stove for other thanksgiving cooking — rolls, stuffing, veggies and more.
The slow cooker I used for this recipe is a 6 quart one. Make sure that the turkey you purchase will fit comfortably in the slow cooker you have, elevated on onions.
Why a Turkey Breast for Thanksgiving?
Two words for you: White meat. The breast has all of it. So it’s a no brainer to me to just cook the breast. For various reasons — ranging from health issues to dietary preferences — my family doesn’t eat dark meat. A bone-in turkey breast afford me the opportunity to make a turkey we’ll enjoy in its entrity.
Plus, it’s right sized for us — and the slow cooker — I don’t need a massive turkey to show off. Just a good one for all of us to enjoy.
For this recipe, the turkey is also cooked without skin, which is both a practical and a health decision. And it contributes to having a very flavorful bird.
How to Remove the Turkey Skin
What? A turkey without the skin?!? This is an untraditional method of cooking turkey, with an untraditional preparation. Though those pastoral scenes of families around the table with a perfectly browned turkey are nice, the reality is that not everyone wants — or needs — the skin on the turkey. We aren’t a family that eats skin-on chicken, so why should we treat this poultry brethren differently?
Removing the skin allows me to really get the flavorful lemon garlic rub into the flesh of the turkey, giving it a great flavor. Tradition is wonderful, but ultimately, I want a great tasting bird. And since the skin won’t crisp in the slow cooker (and I have no desire to set off my fire alarm with a finishing step under the broiler), I remove the skin because I just don’t want it.
That said, here’s how to do it.
First, you should know that the soft, pliable skin can be slippery and stubborn to remove. This messy job will take some serious patience — You simply cannot rush through this. Set the turkey in a rimmed cooking pan. Slowly work the skin away from the flesh, using a sharp paring knife to help free it when needed. Do it little by little. Once completed, discard the skin.
Now, it’s time to season the turkey breast. Set the seasoned breast atop onions in the slow cooker and add a little water to create a moist cooking environment.
Creating the Lemon Garlic Turkey Rub
This turkey is seasoned with a homemade lemon garlic rub. I love the flavor of lemon with turkey — as long as the lemon is used smartly. Lemon juice can make the bird sour and less pleasant. But lemon zest, which is used in the rub here, imparts the flavor of lemon without the acidity. All together, this easy rub imparts a lot of big flavor.
Making it is simple: the zest of one lemon (use a fine grater to grate the yellow outside of the lemon into a bowl) is mixed with garlic powder, sweet paprika, dried thyme and salt. A little stirring — I use a fork — does the trick. Then you rub it all over the bird.
Once cooked, let the turkey rest for 20 minutes before slicing. This allows the meat to reabsorb juices for the juiciest turkey experience. Mmm.
- 2 sweet onions , peeled and quartered
- 1 bone-in turkey breast (about 5-7 lbs), skin removed
- zest of 1 lemon
- 2 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp sweet paprika
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup water
- cooking oil spray
Arrange the onions in the bottom of the slow cooker, and position the turkey, breast side up, on top.
In a small bowl, mix together the lemon zest, garlic powder, paprika, thyme and salt. Rub all over the turkey. Pour the water into the bottom of the slow cooker. I use a 6 quart slow cooker for this.
Spray the turkey with cooking oil spray.
Cover, and set the slow cooker to low. Cook for 5-7 hours, until cooked through. If using a turkey with a pop out button, watch for the button to pop. Otherwise, use a kitchen thermometer to measure the internal temperature of the turkey. When it reaches 165 degrees, as measured at the thickest part of the breast, it's fully cooked. Remove from the slow cooker and allow the turkey to rest for 20 minutes before slicing. (Hint: for best results, tent the turkey with aluminum foil while it's resting.)
Want to cook a turkey breast in a more traditional way? Try my recipe for Roasted Lemon Rosemary Split Turkey Breast.
Sarah Walker Caron is a cookbook author, freelance writer and founder of Sarah’s Cucina Bella. Her latest cookbook is The Super Easy 5-Ingredient Cookbook, published by Rockridge Press, which focuses on quick, easy, from-scratch cooking for busy people. A single mother to two kids in middle school, Sarah loves nightly family dinners, juicy tomatoes plucked fresh from the vine and lazy days on the beach. She also adores reading and traveling.