How to Season a Turkey

published Nov 3, 2023
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Someone running dry brine on turkey
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

Between us? Turkey has a reputation for turning out bland — but we like to think of it more as a blank slate for flavor. When it comes to seasoning your Thanksgiving turkey for roasting, what many of us crave is a turkey that tastes like all the nostalgic flavors of Thanksgiving: herbs like sage, rosemary, and thyme, with the rich umami of poultry. This can be achieved without too much trouble. Here is how to season a turkey so it comes out flavorful and juicy — just the way you want it.

Quick Overview

How to Season Turkey

There are two main ways you can season a turkey.

  • Dry brine: Combine salt, pepper, dried herbs, and spices and rub the mixture under the turkey skin, inside the cavity, and then over the skin. Let sit overnight or up to 24 hours.
  • Compound better: Combine butter, salt, pepper, fresh chopped herbs, citrus zest, and other flavorings. Then spread over and under turkey skin just before roasting.

Seasoning Method #1: The Dry Brine

Our favorite way to season a turkey is through a dry brine. This simply involves rubbing a seasoning mix (like salt, pepper, dried herbs, and maybe spices) all over — and inside — the turkey well before you are going to roast it. Dry-brining injects both flavor and moisture into the turkey, plus it makes the skin extra-crispy. The seasoning mix works its magic over a long period (at least one day, but ideally three), and when you roast the bird (it’s already prepped!) the seasonings flavor it even more.

We recommend a dry brine over a wet brine for a number of reasons:

  • A dry brine requires no special equipment or large containers.
  • A dry brine is easier to manage; a wet brine can be messy and cumbersome.
  • A wet brine or marinade can result in meat that is more mushy than juicy.

Ingredients for Turkey Dry Brine Seasoning Mix

For the most traditional flavored turkey, we recommend the following for a 14- to 16-pound turkey:

  • 3 tablespoons kosher salt (we use Diamond Crystal brand)
  • 1 1/2 combined teaspoons dried herbs: thyme, sage, and rosemary
  • 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

But this is your turkey, so adjust the seasonings to your preferences. A teaspoon of cayenne pepper can give your turkey a subtle kick, for example.

How to Season a Turkey with a Dry Brine Mixture

Start by dividing the seasoning into thirds. 

  1. Season under the skin: With your fingers, gently release the breast and thigh skin. Apply some of the seasoning to the meat under the skin.
  2. Season inside the cavity: Remove the giblets and rub some of the seasoning all over the inside of the cavity.
  3. Season the skin: Pat the turkey dry with paper towels and then apply the last of the seasoning on the skin.

Let the seasoned turkey sit in the fridge for 24 hours or at least overnight. For the crispiest skin, leave it uncovered.

How to Store Your Seasoning Mix

Yes, you can make your seasoning mix ahead of using it. Store in a glass or plastic container with a tight lid in a cool, dark, dry place until ready to use.

If your seasoning mix involves fresh citrus zest (like our lemon-fennel turkey rub), it’s best to use it right away, or store it in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to two days. 

Seasoning Method #2: Compound Butter

Compound butter is another effective way to season turkey. This is butter that’s been softened and mixed with flavorings like herbs, spices, and minced or crushed garlic, onion, etc. You can make the compound butter ahead then store it well-wrapped in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use it.

Our citrus herb roast turkey recipes uses a compound butter made with orange and lemon zest with fresh herbs, salt, and pepper. The fat in compound butter does two things: It enhances the flavor of the seasonings, and it enriches the flavor of the turkey.

Ingredients for Compound Butter

You can customize your compound butter with any of the herbs or spices you want to season your turkey with. Start with the basics.

For a 12- to 15-pound turkey, start with the following: 

  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Freshly ground pepper

Then add any combination of the below ingredients.

  • 2-3 tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs
  • 1-2 tablespoons of zest from citrus fruit
  • Minced garlic, onion, or shallot
  • 1-2 tablespoons of spices

How to Season Turkey with Compound Butter

If you haven’t already dry-brined your turkey (see more on that below!), start by patting dry your turkey with paper towels.

  1. Season under the skin: With your fingers, gently release the breast and thigh skin. Spread some of the compound butter over the flesh, under the skin.
  2. Season the skin and cavity: If you didn’t dry brine, apply salt and pepper to the skin and inside the cavity.
  3. Stuff cavity: For bonus flavor, add the orange and lemon you used for zest to the cavity. You can also add some whole, fresh herbs.

More Compound Butter Recipes

Can You Season with Both Dry Brine and Compound Butter?

Absolutely. In fact, bonus points to whoever dry-brines and seasons their roasted turkey with compound butter. If you go this route, simply skip the salt in the compound butter. The salt in the dry brine will be sufficient enough to season the turkey. 

How to Season If You’re Deep-Frying  

If you’re deep-frying your turkey we recommend dry brining, of course. This is the seasoning method that can best minimize your risk of dangerous splattering.

How to Season a Frozen Turkey

Just because you haven’t defrosted your turkey ahead of time doesn’t mean you’re stuck with a bland bird. You can definitely still season it.

Once the turkey has roasted for about 2 1/2 hours (and thighs or breast read about 100 degrees), remove it from the oven and brush the turkey with melted butter. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and any other seasonings you’d like to use. Rub in the spices with your fingers. Return to oven to continue roasting.

Flavor Boosters

Here are a few more ways you can infuse your turkey with even more flavor.

  • Stuff with aromatics like fresh whole stems of herbs, quartered lemons or oranges, onions, and/or garlic cloves.
  • Roast with broth, beer, wine in the pan (we use 2 cups for a 12- to 16-pound turkey in our  simplest, easiest roast turkey recipe).
  • Add chopped veggies like onions, carrots, and celery to the roasting pan (also good for starter for the gravy).
  • Baste every 45 minutes per main recipe.
  • Drape bacon over the breast.
  • Make a glaze, like in our coke-glazed upside-down turkey.