For a Perfectly Roasted Turkey, Skip the Roasting Pan

published Nov 19, 2022
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Crispy turkey on sheet pan.
Credit: Photo: Andrew Bui; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

It’s the nostalgic ideal: Presenting a beautifully golden, glistening, crispy-skin whole turkey to the table on Thanksgiving, à la Norman Rockwell’s painting Freedom from Want. If you’re hosting the big feast this year, you might be considering investing in some new gear, like a pretty platter for the turkey and an instant-read thermometer. But the good news is that you can skip buying a roasting pan and swap in something you probably already have: a sheet pan.

It might be surprising and somewhat untraditional, but for the most evenly browned turkey, you should roast it on a sheet pan. Here’s why: Traditional roasting pans are quite deep; the one I own (and use for making huge batches of party mix, not for roasting turkeys) is nearly four inches tall. When you set the turkey on the roasting rack in the pan that comes with it, the pan comes about midway up the turkey’s thighs or higher.

The roasting pan ends up shielding the bottom part of the turkey from the heat of the oven. The lower parts (thighs and wings) will cook more slowly, meaning the breast might get quite overdone by the time the thighs are ready, and that bottom part of the bird won’t brown. Your turkey will instead end up with a tan line and flabby skin over the thighs and wings.

When you elevate the bird above the pan, the oven’s heat can reach those lower areas. A standard 18×13-inch half sheet pan (rimmed baking sheet) is ideal. You can set a rectangular cooling rack or even the V-shaped rack that came with your roasting pan inside the sheet pan. Either type of rack will lift the bird up so that it’s not touching the bottom of the pan, allowing more even heat distribution around the turkey. The results? More even browning, more even cooking, and a prettier bird. 

How do I know this? Well, I’ve cooked hundreds of turkeys over the years, including eight this year alone for Kitchn’s Skills Showdown on the best way to get crispy turkey skin. I’m also not alone in this opinion. Culinary heavy-hitters J. Kenji López-Alt and Sohla El-Waylly are also skipping the roasting pan this year.

If you end up using a cooling rack inside the sheet pan, try this tip for cleanup: Place the sheet pan on your counter near the sink and fill it mostly full with hot soapy water. Turn the cooling rack upside down in the sudsy water, and let it soak for 30 minutes to an hour to loosen any stuck-on bits.