In the Bon Appétit test kitchen, your first time developing 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.” The bird is the indisputable star of Thanksgiving dinner, and it has a lot of predecessors to live up to—we’ve loved many turkey recipes over the years.
Our 2018 Thanksgiving menu focused on nailing the best-possible versions of classics, 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 we’ll break down step-by-step in this handy guide.
Brine your turkey.
Andy’s recipe calls for massaging the bird with dry rub and then letting it chill in the fridge. This technique is called dry-brining; it’s commonly used on chicken, but it’s also essential for a juicy, actually delicious turkey. Here’s how it works: The salt pulls out the liquid trapped in the turkey meat, creating some salty turkey juices that soak back into the bird while it hangs out in the fridge. A whole turkey loses a lot of water when it cooks in the oven, but the salt helps the muscles retain more moisture. That means a dry-brined turkey (and its leftover meat) will stay moist for days.
Why is a dry brine better than a wet brine? Maybe in the past you’ve filled a huge cooler or tub with saltwater, constructing an elaborate dunk tank for the bird. 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 sets out to, but in a much more user-friendly way.
To dry-brine a turkey, first remove the neck and giblets from the turkey’s cavity, then pat the bird dry all over with paper towels. Andy keeps the dry rub simple with just kosher salt and brown sugar, but you can add other seasonings or spices, like black pepper, garlic powder, or smoked paprika (as in this Expertly Spiced and Glazed Roast Turkey recipe). Don’t skip the sugar, though: In addition to seasoning the bird, the brown sugar in the dry rub caramelizes in the oven, helping the skin develop a golden amber color.
Massage the dry rub all over the bird—outside and inside the cavity—at least 12 hours or up to 2 days before the big day. The salt needs time to permeate that big hulking bird. Let the turkey hang out in the fridge until you’re ready to roast.
Butter the bird.
While the oven preheats, you’ll 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. You’ll need to loosen the skin of the bird to do this. It’s not pretty, but it’s necessary—watch the process here.