In the Bon Appétit test kitchen, your first time being assigned the Thanksgiving turkey recipe is a big deal. A right of passage. Andy Baraghani got the call in 2018. “It was an honor,” Andy told me, “like I’d been nominated for an Oscar.” He started waving away tears. The bird is the star of Thanksgiving dinner and it has a lot of predecessors to live up to—check out the many turkey recipes we’ve loved over the years.
Our 2018 Thanksgiving menu focused on nailing the best-possible versions of classics; this wasn’t a moment to get kooky, but to get technical. And developing the best turkey was no exception. The assignment: a foolproof, always-turns-out-right roast turkey recipe. Every element was obsessed over: crackly skin, juicy interior, actual turkey flavor. In the end, we got this perfect roast turkey, which I’ll break down one crucial point at a time. It’ll be fun, though—a real turkey ride on the way to turkey town. This is how you get there.
Dry-brined turkey is key.
Baraghani’s recipe calls for a kosher salt and brown sugar dry rub, massaged all over the bird at least 12 hours or up to two days before the big day. This is essential for a juicy, actually delicious turkey (and chicken too). That’s because the salt pulls out the liquid trapped in the turkey meat, creating some salty turkey juices that, after some time hanging out in the fridge, soak back into the bird like the giant sponge that it is.
The turkey loses a lot of water when it cooks in the oven, but the salt helps the muscles retain more moisture, meaning the turkey (and the leftover turkey) will still be moist by eating time. The salt also helps loosen up the stringy turkey muscles, making it possible for us to enjoy this thing. Beyond that, and if you like to throw around words like “osmosis,” I highly recommend reading the entirety of J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s The Food Lab, or just this article on brining. Regardless of what is going on beneath the surface of the flesh, the salt and sugar amplify flavor, and the sugar helps with that Norman Rockwell golden amber color once it caramelizes in the oven.
Why is a dry brine better than a wet brine?
Maybe, in the past, you’ve enjoyed filling a huge cooler or tub with salt water? Our opinion: It’s a pain, it’s a mess, and that bucket of wet brine takes up way too much real estate in the refrigerator. Plus, it ends up waterlogging the turkey and diluting its flavor. A dry brine achieves everything a wet brine purports to achieve and it does so by much more user-friendly means.
Butter your bird inside, out, and between.
After the brine has done its thing, you’ll need to loosen the skin of the bird. It’s not pretty but it’s necessary (watch the process here). You’ll then rub a whole stick of unsalted butter (important because there’s already lots of salt from the dry brine) on the turkey’s surface, under the skin, and, if there’s any left, inside the cavity. This ensures juicy turkey meat and truly golden brown skin.
Andy doesn’t add any aromatics to the pan, or stuff the cavity with anything. Instead, this Thanksgiving centerpiece gets additional flavor from a sour-sweet glaze. And on that note:
Glazing, not basting, is also key.
We all want a turkey with a cover-worthy sheen. Get it with this simple, punchy-herby glaze made of vinegar, honey, Worcestershire sauce, fresh rosemary, garlic, orange zest, and more butter. You paint on the glaze every 30 minutes, which might only be two or three times because…
What you need to know about timing:
The recipe is timed so that you go hard at the beginning, 450° for 30 minutes, to get some color on the skin, and then go down to 300° for 65–85 minutes (this is for a 12–14-lb. turkey). Total cook time: just under 2 hours. This isn’t your wake-up-at-the-crack-of-dawn turkey marathon recipe. (Read more: How Long to Cook a Turkey.)
Why is glazing better than basting?
Basting the turkey (brushing it or spritzing it with stock or pan juices) does little to help your turkey. If crispy skin is your goal—and when has it ever not been?—to baste is to do yourself a disservice. Doing so only introduces moisture back to the skin, rendering it flabby. Glazing, on the other hand, introduces a sweetened syrup to the surface of the bird, which will caramelize and turn into a delicious, sweet-savory shellac. Result: Crispy skin for everybody.
Choose the right pan.
Ring a bell or something—I have an announcement. This recipe calls for a rimmed baking sheet lined with a wire rack. Without the high walls of a roasting pan, the turkey is able to get color all over, which we skin-stealers like. If this makes you nervous because you’re the clumsy type and a big heavy turkey on a rack without walls sounds bonkers to you, then yes: You can totally use a regular roasting pan instead. But you’ll never know what you’re missing.
And don’t let those pan juices burn.
Pour a cup of water into the bottom of the baking sheet to prevent the drippings from reducing too much and causing a smoke show in your kitchen. Just avoid using too much water, which would steam your turkey and sog out the skin.