This Perfect Garlic and Herb Roast Turkey recipe is engineered for perfection. Three simple tricks guarantee juicy meat, tons of flavor, and ridiculously crispy skin for a Thanksgiving turkey that’s easy as pie.
I’ve made my share of turkeys in the past. Brined, butterflied, tied, trussed, you name it. Two versions — Cider and Sage Glazed and Cranberry Herb Buttered — were even good enough for the blog. I mean, they better be, because they were pretty labor intensive. Worth the effort, but yeah, they definitely required a fair amount of effot.
And sure it can be fun to go the extra mile, especially if it’s your first time hosting Thanksgiving or you’re expecting out-of-town guests. But for most of us, most years, we want a delicious, easy turkey that won’t break the bank.
So this is the year we work smart, not hard. Combining the best techniques from both of those recipes and leaning on classic seasonings like garlic, lemon zest, and herbs, you get the best of both worlds: a Thanksgiving turkey that’s a little effort, and a lot of flavor.
JUICY TURKEY OR CRISPY-SKINNED TURKEY?
That was a trick question — you don’t have to choose. Why? SCIENCE, guys, SCIENCE.
Trick #1 is the dry brine technique, which yields moist meat and crispy turkey at the same time. As I explain in my Cider and Sage recipe:
Dry brine is basically the act of generously salting the meat and letting it sit. That’s it. The salt draws out the juices in the turkey, then dissolves in the juices to form a (very concentrated) briney liquid, which loosens muscle fibers so the salty juices can get reabsorbed again and again, all the way down through the meat of the turkey. As this is happening, the skin of the turkey is exposed to the air in your fridge, which allows it to dry out. In the end, you get crisp, golden skin and well-seasoned, plump and juicy turkey meat throughout. That’s something to get excited about.
The second trick is a little secret I picked up from Cook’s Illustrated. Using baking powder gets your bird extra crispy by helping render out the natural fats to “fry” the skin as it bakes. I know what you’re thinking, but the baking powder gets the job done without changing the flavor at all. I’ve used this technique over and over again for my Crispy Baked Chicken Wings, and it delivers every time.
Finally, is an oldie but a goodie: aluminum foil. Have you ever baked a pie and covered the edges with foil to keep them from burning? This isn’t all that different. Roasting the turkey under high heat, before covering it and lowering the temperature keeps the meat tender while preventing it from overcooking.
SHOULD I BASTE MY TURKEY?
When I took this turkey out of the oven to photograph it, my first thought was “I wish it was a little shiny” because a shiny turkey tends to be a bit more photogenic. However, that shine can’t be produced without adding liquid, and if you want the tastiest turkey, you’re better off without it. After taking the time to dry-brine, adding liquid in any form — yes, even a brush of butter – would undo some of your work. That means NO BASTING, you guys!
Here’s the deal: turkey skin is pretty much water-tight. Brine that’s allowed to sit with salt will allow moisture to be absorbed through that barrier, but anything else added afterward in the form of liquid is just wetting / rolling off the skin. It does NOT make for juicier meat.
In fact, I avoid adding any extra liquid at all, including to the bottom of the pan until after the turkey has been fully cooked, as that liquid will turn to steam and wet the skin, especially after it’s been covered with the foil.
Avoid added liquid after dry-brining and you’ll wind up with skin so crisp, you can hear it shatter around the edges when you cut in.
PREPARING THE TURKEY
When it comes to simple main dishes, the little details matter a lot. Make sure you take the right steps before you start the cooking– or even brining– process and you’ll be certain to have great results.
- Know how much you need. Generally, you should have 1 pound of turkey per person you plan to feed. However, larger turkeys generally don’t cook as evenly as smaller ones, meaning you risk drying out the breast meat before the thighs are cooked to a safe temperature. If possible, it’s better to roast up 2 smaller (10-13 pound turkeys) over cooking a huge, 20-someodd pound turkey.
- Picking your turkey. Because we are dry-brining the turkey, it’s important not to get a turkey that has been brined before packaging, or else you’ll wind up with a super salty turkey. Instead, look for natural turkeys, which will have no artificial ingredients, preservatives, or coloring added.
- Don’t forget to defrost. If you’re wondering how long in advance you have to begin defrosting your turkey, remember that you need about 24 hours for every 4 pounds. That means that it will take three whole days to defrost a 12 pound turkey in the refrigerator, and that’s before factoring in the overnight dry brine. Don’t wait til the last minute!
- Okay, I messed up and waited til the last minute. I’ve made this mistake many times, but not to worry. You can thaw your turkey in cold water and speed the process up. As a general rule of thumb, it should take 30 minutes per pound to thaw your turkey. To do a water-thaw, keep your turkey in the wrapping (or place in a leak proof bag) and submerge it in a large container or sink of cold water. Keep it submerged and change the water every 30 minutes.
- I did the water thaw method but my turkey is still slightly frozen. Can I still dry-brine it? Yes. As long as the skin is defrosted and you have thawed most of the cavity (run cold water through it, if necessary), you can pat your turkey dry and dry-brine. It will finish thawing in the fridge overnight.
GET MORE FLAVOR BY ADDING FRESH INGREDIENTS TO YOUR DRY BRINE
In the past, I’ve stuck to mostly just salt, pepper, and sugar for dry brines, as I knew I’d be basting and brushing later in the cooking process, or smothering with an herby butter before roasting. However, this time I knew that I wanted to keep the skin dry, so I including flavorful ingredients like garlic, lemon zest, and a variety of fresh herbs in my brine.
There are two great things about this:
- All of the work is done in the food processor ahead of time. You simply have to toss in your herbs and garlic, and your food processor will turn them into a paste. Then add in the brine ingredients (salt, sugar, and baking powder for extra crispiness), and you’ll wind up with a somewhat crumbly mixture for sprinkling over and inside of the the turkey. It’s incredibly easy, and all done long before your turkey ever sees the oven, which means you won’t have to fuss when you’re putting together the rest of your Thanksgiving spread the day-of.
- The flavors are able to actually penetrate the turkey meat. Remember how we talked about the fact that turkey skin is mostly water-tight, and that basting doesn’t actually penetrate the skin? That also means that when we are adding things like herbs and garlic on top of the turkey right before roasting, it’s not flavoring the meat at all. However, when the flavors are instead added with the dry brine, they’re also carried down into the meat along with the concentrated briny liquid. It’s one of the few ways to get flavor that actually lives BELOW the skin!
MORE THANKSGIVING RECIPES TO LOVE
- Apple Cider Sangria
- Pumpkin Spice Latte Tiramisu
- The Best Cornbread Stuffing with Sausage and Bacon
- Honey Buttermilk Cornbread
- Make-Ahead Rosemary Sweet Potato Rolls
- 1 turkey (~12 pounds)
- 6 tablespoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons baking powder
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 1 lemon, zested and quartered
- 1 bunch fresh thyme, divided
- 1 bunch fresh rosemary, divided
- 1 bunch fresh sage, divided
- 1 head garlic (~15 cloves), cloves smashed and peeled, divided
- 2 onions, peeled and quartered
- 2 stalks celery
- 2 carrots, peeled
- 1 bay leaf
- Put half of the herbs and half of the garlic in a food processor. Pulse several times until the herbs are finely chopped and the mixture becomes a coarse paste, stopping to scrape the sides as necessary. Add the salt, baking powder, black pepper, granulated sugar, and lemon zest. Pulse until well-combined.
- Remove any giblets or gravy packet that might be provided in the packaging. Pat the turkey dry, inside and out of the cavity.
- Place the turkey on a rimmed baking sheet or a disposable roasting pan. Sprinkle the brine mixture evenly all over the turkey surface. Sprinkle a small amount inside the turkey cavity. Let sit in fridge, uncovered, overnight
- Position a rack in the bottom third of the oven and heat to 450°F.
- Stuff the turkey with the carrot, celery, onion, lemon, bay leaf, and any leftover garlic and herbs. Lightly tie the legs, tuck the wings behind the back, and set the turkey breast side up on a rack in a roasting pan. Put any vegetables that could not fit in the turkey at the bottom of the roasting pan.
- Transfer pan to the oven and roast 30 minutes. Cover breast with aluminum foil. Reduce oven temperature to 350°F and continue roasting until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of a thigh reaches a temperature of 165°F, about 2 to 2 1/2 hours more. Do not baste!
- Let sit for 30 minutes before serving.