Spooning hot pan juices over a roasting bird has always been one of the quintessential images of Thanksgiving. The promise of a juicier, more golden bird is what drives basting advocates, but with more and more modern turkey recipes leaving basting out entirely, it leaves us wondering: Is basting our Thanksgiving turkey really worth the extra fuss?
Is Basting the Turkey Really Necessary?
The short answer is no — basting isn't required when the goal is to roast a beautiful, juicy turkey. The main theory behind basting is to ensure moist and tender meat, usually by spooning pan juices over the roasting turkey. The fat in the drippings melts into the skin and the meat closest to the surface, preventing it from drying out in the oven's dry heat while also adding flavor. At the same time, the liquid in the basting mixture evaporates and keeps the surface slightly cooler, helping the meat cook evenly.
When you want to go from fridge to oven without much fuss — that is, when you're looking for the simplest, easiest method (no brining, no butter) — basting helps you prepare a juicy bird. But there are a lot of other methods that can also ensure moist and tender meat, some of which supplement and some of which replace traditional basting.
Brining: Brined turkeys often don't need to be basted as rigorously since the salting process already ensures a moist turkey. If you're cooking a smaller turkey that doesn't need as much time in the oven, you can also simply rub the outside with butter or lay a few pieces of bacon over the quick-cooking breast meat.
Upside down + tenting: Flipping the turkey for cooking or tenting it with foil partway through cooking also helps to prevent it from drying out. These techniques protect the meat from direct oven heat and regulate cooking speed.
Honestly, all these methods come with their own pluses and minuses — basting is fussy and ties us to the stove, turning a turkey is unwieldy, rubbing the outside isn't always reliable. Most recently, I've settled on a combination of basting plus tenting the turkey with foil towards the end of cooking. No complaints yet!
What's your favorite method for making sure your turkey stays moist?
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This post has been updated. Originally published November 23, 2009.