The 3 Best Ways to Season a Turkey (& One Thing You Should *Never* Do)

Don't even think about it!

September 12, 2019
Photo by James Ransom

There's nothing worse than bland turkey on Thanksgiving. The antidote to blandness? Salt, of course.

It seems obvious, but whether you go the route of fancy compound butters and herbs and citrus and spices—which are all lovely ways to make your turkey, well, yours—the only molecules small enough to actually penetrate the meat of the bird is salt. As The Food Lab's J. Kenji López-Alt says, "Most ... flavorful molecules are organic compounds that are relatively large in size—on a molecular scale, that is—while salt molecules are quite small. So, while salt can easily pass across the semipermeable membranes that make up the cells in animal tissue, larger molecules cannot."

There are a few ways to achieve a well-seasoned (i.e., well-salted) bird—and one thing you should never do:

How to Season a Turkey

1. Just Season It!

I've written in detail exactly how I like to cook a turkey, which involves little more than unsalted butter, kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper. Kind of like a roast chicken. Actually, exactly like a roast chicken. Go very heavy on the salt all over the bird (it can take it). Making sure to really season the inner cavity as well (especially where the breast is) ensures that the meat will be well-salted from all sides.

Or do what Test Kitchen Director Josh Cohen does: Don't season your turkey until after it cooks. (Yep, you heard him.)

"Rub the outside of the turkey with canola oil before it goes in the oven for an extra golden skin," he advises. "Don't worry about seasoning the turkey with salt before it goes into the oven; the seasoning will happen later. Add a pinch or two of salt and a small squirt of olive oil to the sliced turkey meat while it's still warm. Pour some of the drippings over, too. Toss the meat with the salt, olive oil, and drippings. Taste and add more salt as necessary. You will have achieved turkey nirvana with little-to-no effort."

2. Dry-Brine It

"I dry-brine my turkey a day or a few days before if I can swing it and baste with a mixture of butter and olive oil," Food Stylist Anna Billingskog tells me. "Sometimes I throw some thyme in the basting butter/oil mix, or smoked paprika. The paprika helps with color, but also flavors the skin in a nice way."

A dry brine is a great way to make sure your turkey meat is fully seasoned throughout. Plus, it takes up significantly less space in the fridge than the bucket you would need for a wet brine.

The Judy Bird—Russ Parsons' LA Times recipe—is our community's favorite dry-brined turkey blueprint by far (just read the 600+ reviews):

3. Wet-Brine It

Speaking of wet brines, there is a way to do it. Where some people might argue that a wet-brined turkey tastes waterlogged with deli-meat texture, many prefer it. I happen to love a good wet brine and used to follow Nigella Lawson's "Spiced and Superjuicy Roast Turkey" recipe to a T. But this was back when I lived at my parents' house in Georgia, where I could leave a giant bucket of turkey and saltwater out in the freezing-cold garage overnight.

For those who want a wet-brined bird but don't have the space, I recommend one of those large oven bags. Just place your turkey in the bag, fill with your favorite wet brine, seal, then stick in your fridge overnight.

Do NOT brine your turkey in a trash bag, which might contain plastics, dyes, and chemicals that are harmful to humans if ingested. According to the FDA, most garbage bags are not made of food-grade plastic, so it's better to be safe than sorry.

How do you like to season a turkey? Let us know in the comments below.

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Eric Kim is a Senior Editor at Food52, where his weekly solo dining column, Table for One, runs every Friday morning. Formerly the Digital Manager at Food Network, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.