In Bon Appétit’s test kitchen, the first time you’re assigned the Thanksgiving turkey recipe is a big deal. A right of way. Andy Baraghani got the call in 2018. “It was an honor,” Andy told me, “like I was nominated for an Oscar.” He started to wipe away tears. The bird is the star of Thanksgiving dinner and it has plenty of predecessors to match – check out the many turkey recipes we have loved over the years.
Our Thanksgiving Menu 2018 focused on nailing the best possible versions of the classics; this was not the time to go crazy, but to get technical. And developing the best turkey was no exception. The mission: an infallible and always perfect roast turkey recipe. Every element was obsessed with: cracked skin, juicy interior, real turkey flavor. In the end, we got that perfect roast turkey, which I’ll break down one crucial point at a time. It will be fun, though – a real turkey ride on the way to Turkey Town. That’s how we 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 and truly delicious turkey (and the chicken too). This is because the salt extracts the liquid trapped in the turkey meat, creating salty turkey juice which, after some time in the refrigerator, soaks back into the bird like the giant sponge it is.
Turkey loses a lot of water when baking, but the salt helps the muscles retain more moisture, which means the turkey (and the leftover turkey) will still be moist when eating. The salt also helps loosen the stringy muscles of the turkey, allowing us to enjoy this thing. Beyond that, and if you like tossing around words like “osmosis,” I highly recommend reading the full J. Kenji Lopez-Alt food laboratory, Where just this article on brining. Regardless of what’s going on beneath the surface of the flesh, the salt and sugar amp up the flavor, and the sugar helps that Norman Rockwell golden amber color once it caramelizes in the oven.
Why is a dry brine better than a wet brine?
Perhaps, in the past, you enjoyed filling a huge cooler or bathtub with salt water? Our take: It’s a pain, it’s a mess, and that bucket of wet brine takes up way too much room in the fridge. Plus, it ends up choking the turkey and diluting its flavor. A dry brine does everything a wet brine claims to do, and it does it in much more user-friendly ways.
Butter your bird inside, out and in between.
Once the brine has taken effect, you will need to loosen the bird’s skin. It’s not pretty but it’s necessary (watch the process here). You will then rub an entire stick of Butter without salt (important because there is already plenty of salt from the dry brine) on the surface of the turkey, under the skin and, if any, inside the cavity. This guarantees juicy turkey meat and really golden skin.
Andy doesn’t add any flavorings to the pan or fill the cavity with anything. Instead, this Thanksgiving centerpiece gets extra flavor from a sweet and sour glaze. And on this note:
Glazing, not whitewashing, is also essential.
We all want a turkey with a blanket-worthy shine. Get it with this simple and impactful frosting made with vinegar, honey, Worcestershire sauce, fresh rosemary, garlic, orange zest, and more butter. You paint over the glaze every 30 minutes, which may only be two or three times because…
What you need to know about the calendar:
The recipe is timed so you go hard at first, 450° for 30 minutes, to get some color on the skin, then go down to 300° for 65-85 minutes (that’s for a 12-14-lb. turkey). Total cooking time: just under 2 hours. This is not your turkey marathon recipe that wakes up at dawn. (Read more: How long to cook a turkey.)
Why is glazing better than brushing?
Basting the turkey (brushing it or spraying it with broth or drippings) doesn’t do much to help your turkey. If your goal is to have crispy skin – and when hasn’t it ever been? – watering is doing you a disservice. This only reintroduces moisture into the skin, making it saggy. Glazing, on the other hand, introduces a sweet syrup to the surface of the bird, which will caramelize and turn into a delicious sweet-salty shellac. The result: crispy skin for everyone.
Choose the right pan.
Ring a bell or something – I have an announcement. This recipe calls for a rimmed baking sheet lined with a gate. Without the high sides of a roasting pan, the turkey is able to color all over, which is what us skin thieves love. If that makes you nervous because you’re the clumsy type and a big, heavy turkey on a grill with no walls sounds crazy, 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 drippings 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 water, which will steam your turkey and make the skin soggy.