We Tried 8 Methods for Getting Extra-Crispy Turkey Skin and a Clear Winner Emerged
Perhaps no other food causes a cook — whether novice or experienced — as much anxiety as a Thanksgiving turkey. And that’s understandable. It’s the centerpiece of the biggest cooking day of the year, so there’s a lot on the line. But I’m here to reassure you that it’s relatively easy to avoid dry turkey. After all of my tests for this story, I can attest to that.
You just need to use a reliable thermometer (a digital probe thermometer is ideal) and cook the turkey until it reaches 165°F in the middle, meaty part of the thigh. Hot tip: Take the temperature on both sides of the bird; your oven might not have cooked both sides evenly.
Now that we’ve got the basics of cooking juicy turkey out of the way, let’s talk about the skin. If you’re a crispy skin fan like me, there’s nothing quite like the joy of sneaking a bite of warm, salty, crispy skin from the bird. And like most things, there are a LOT of opinions about how to create the best crispy turkey skin. To see which technique really works, I scoured the internet for the most popular methods and put them to the test.
So, What’s the Best Way to Get Crispy Turkey Skin?
By far, the crispiest skin came from dry-brining the turkey with a mixture of kosher salt, black pepper, and baking powder, and then letting it rest uncovered in the fridge after being rubbed with the brine mixture. This method works some serious science-magic on the skin. Read on for all the details on this method, plus some other techniques you might want to try.
A Few Notes on Methodology
The turkeys: I purchased what I felt was representative of what many people will choose for their Thanksgiving feasts. I grabbed generic frozen whole turkeys; each was labeled “young turkey” and was neither organic nor pre-brined. On average, each weighed around 12 pounds. I thawed each turkey fully in the fridge (with one exception, noted below) before removing it from its packaging, patting it dry with paper towels, and proceeding with the test.
Prep time: I felt that it would be helpful to explain how much time went into getting each turkey ready for the oven, but I don’t list a cook time for each method because that was dependent on temperature. I simply cooked each turkey until a digital probe thermometer inserted in the thigh reached 165°F.
The pan: I didn’t roast the turkey in a traditional roasting pan. I’ve found that when I roast a turkey on a rack set into the pan, I get a definitive “tan line” toward the bottom of the bird, where the sides of the pan prevent the oven’s heat from browning the skin. Instead, I set a cooling rack into a foil-lined sheet pan and used that setup for each test. The turkey is more fully exposed to the oven’s heat that way.
The tests: It’s important to note that we focused this test on oven methods. I did not pursue deep-frying or grilling. For all but one method (and one bonus method), I roasted the turkeys at 350°F. And to even the playing field as much as possible, I seasoned each turkey with kosher salt and black pepper — no herbs or other spices. Where indicated, there was butter or oil involved.
Ratings: I judged each method on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 representing perfection. The sole criteria was the texture of the skin. Even though I included some notes about the texture of the meat, that did not factor into my ratings.
Crispy Turkey Skin Method: Baste with Clarified Butter
- Prep time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
- Rating: 6/10
About this method: There is a brief mention of basting with clarified butter in this MyRecipes article, and OXO dives a little deeper into the topic. I followed the instructions from the OXO article to make clarified butter, using the microwave/freezer method. Once I had clarified butter in hand, I popped my salt and pepper–seasoned turkey in the oven and basted it every 30 minutes.
Results: The turkey was a lovely golden color, with shiny, glistening skin. The skin was phenomenally delicious but not exactly crispy. It was more chewy than crispy — which I enjoyed very much — with a few legit crispy spots on the drumsticks. The skin on the underside of the thighs and wings was soft. The bird had a wonderful flavor, but if you’re looking for crispy skin, this method isn’t ideal.
Crispy Turkey Skin Method: Rub with Butter Under and Over the Skin
- Prep time: 8 minutes
- Rating: 7/10
About this method: Following some advice touted in the same MyRecipes article metioned above, I rubbed softened butter under and over the turkey skin. I used one stick of salted Kerrygold butter, into which I stirred 1 teaspoon each salt and black pepper. I made sure to get in good under the skin, covering the meat of the thighs, drumsticks, and breasts.
Results: This was no doubt the most beautiful bird of the bunch — deeply golden and burnished, glistening and gorgeous. Although I could find some crispy bits of skin on the tops of the drumsticks and wings and near the crease where the drumstick meets the breast, overall the skin was more chewy and fatty than crisp or crunchy. The skin on the underside of the thighs and wings did not get browned or crisp. The meat was quite moist, rich, and delicious, so if you’re looking for a tasty bird that’ll look gorgeous on the table, this is a great method for you.
Crispy Turkey Skin Method: Dry with a Hair Dryer
- Prep time: 12 minutes
- Rating: 7.5/10
About this method: I’ve heard of people blow-drying the skin of chickens or briefly boiled ducks before roasting them, so this method, detailed by Taste of Home, didn’t seem out of the ordinary to me. After patting the turkey dry with paper towels, I followed the instructions by drying the turkey skin and cavity on the highest heat and airflow settings of my hair dryer for 10 minutes. At that point, the skin was visibly tighter and felt very dry to the touch. The salt and pepper wanted to slide right off, but I was able to rub some in and get it to stick.
Results: There were larger pockets of crispy skin on this turkey than on the butter-coated birds — larger patches on the breast, drumsticks, and thighs. The flavor of the skin was more concentrated, similar to crispy chicken skin “chips,” if you’ve ever had those. The skin on the underside of the thighs and wings was more browned than with some of the other methods, but it still didn’t get crisp. The method was a little fussy, and I admit to feeling a bit silly giving my bird a blowout, but the skin did get fairly crisp, and the meat tasted rich and concentrated.
Crispy Turkey Skin Method: Start on High Heat, Finish on Low
- Prep time: 3 minutes
- Rating: 8/10
About this method: I found a few different articles that recommended starting the turkey in a high-heat oven and then turning the temperature down. We recommend preheating the oven to 450°F and turning the heat down to 350°F as soon as the turkey goes in. The Themoworks blog advises cooking at 450°F for the first hour and then reducing the temperature to 325°F for the remainder of the cook time. FoodieCrush says to roast at 425°F for 45 minutes and then at 325°F until the turkey is done. I decided to go somewhere in the middle of these recommendations and roasted my turkey at 450°F for 25 minutes, then reduced the heat to 325°F for the remaining time.
Results: The bird was a gloriously even brown color all over with skin that looked quite crisp. While there were indeed lots of crispy bits, a fair amount of the skin remained softer and more chewy than crispy. As with other methods, the skin on the underside of the thighs and wings didn’t brown or crisp. But with very little prep, the meat became juicy and tender, and the bird cooked more quickly than most of the other methods. It wasn’t the crispiest turkey, but it was a solid offering.
Crispy Turkey Skin Method: Dry-Brined for Three Days
- Prep time: 3 1/2 days
- Rating: 8.5/10
About this method: The method detailed on Food52 is slightly adapted from a recipe by former L.A. Times Food Editor Russ Parsons, which takes Judy Rodgers’ famous method for roasted chickens at Zuni Café and applies it to turkey. You rub a combination of kosher salt and black pepper all over the skin of a whole turkey (and — get this — you can start with a frozen turkey, which I did), place it in a large bag, and chill it for 3 days. Then you remove the turkey from the bag and allow it to air-dry in the fridge for 12 to 24 hours before roasting (I went for 12 hours).
Results: The creases of the skin were especially crispy, verging on crunchy, and the skin over the top of the drumsticks was irresistibly crisp. But other parts of the skin, like over some of the breast, was a bit tough and almost papery. The skin on the underside of the thighs and wings stayed soft and a little chewy. The meat was so moist that it dripped juices as I sliced it, so the long brine was definitely worth it for flavor and juiciness. And some of the skin was quite crisp, but not enough to be declared the winner here.
Crispy Turkey Skin Method: Brushed with Oil
- Prep time: 5 minutes
- Rating: 9/10
About this method: In an article on Popsugar, the author explains that the experts at Butterball recommend brushing a whole bird with a high-heat oil before it goes into the oven. So I brushed my bird with avocado oil, sprinkled it with salt and pepper, and into the oven it went.
Results: While there were a few spots of skin that were chewy, there were more areas where it was impressively crisp. The skin was wonderfully golden and blistered in spots, with little bubbles forming on the surface. As with other methods, the skin on the underside of the thighs and wings remained more chewy than crispy. The meat had a mild flavor and was pleasantly moist. Pretty impressive results for 5 minutes of prep time.
Crispy Turkey Skin Method: Dry Brined with Baking Powder
- Prep time: 24 hours
- Rating: 9.5/10
About this method: Following a technique from Serious Eats, I mixed up a combination of kosher salt, baking powder, and black pepper and rubbed it over the turkey, then let the turkey rest, uncovered, for 24 hours (you can go 12 to 24 hours; I chose the latter) before roasting.
Results: As explained on the Serious Eats site, baking powder in the dry brine “raises the skin’s pH levels, which allows proteins to break down more efficiently, giving you crispier, more evenly browned results.” Indeed, the skin of this bird (with the exception of the underside of the thigh and wings) was fantastically crisp and hard not to devour completely. The meat was also incredibly juicy, rich, and well-seasoned, so this method gives you the best of both worlds.
Bonus Test: Spatchcocked and Dry Brined with Baking Powder
- Prep time: 24 hours, 20 minutes
- Rating: 10/10
About this method: As I’ve noted with every method, the skin on the underside of the thighs and wings never got crisp — no doubt due to the shape of the bird. To solve for that, I decided to take the winning method (the baking powder dry brine) and use it with a turkey that I spatchcocked. I removed the backbone and opened the bird up flat on the wire rack, then rubbed it with the baking powder mixture and let it rest, uncovered, for 24 hours in the fridge. I then followed the Serious Eats recipe for spatchcocked turkey and roasted it at a high temperature (450°F).
Results: With all of the skin on top of the bird, the entirety of it became gorgeously crisp. If you’re a skin fanatic, you’ll want to take the extra step of spatchcocking. No, you won’t get a Normal Rockwell moment of presenting a whole bird to the table — but you will get plenty of ooohs and ahhs for the amazing skin. Besides, you can carve the turkey in the kitchen and present a beautiful, much easier-to-serve platter to your family.