Skip to Content

Should I rub butter or oil on my turkey?

As Thanksgiving approaches, one of the biggest questions on many home cooks’ minds is whether to rub butter or oil on the turkey before roasting. Both butter and oil can help achieve crispy, golden brown skin and tender, juicy meat. But which is better? Here’s a comprehensive look at the pros and cons of each.

Benefits of Rubbing Butter on Turkey

Butter is a classic choice for basting and rubbing on turkeys and imparts plenty of flavor. Here are some of the main benefits of using butter:

  • Butter contains milk solids that brown well, leading to that coveted deep golden crispy turkey skin.
  • The milk solids also add a signature roasted flavor.
  • Butter keeps the turkey skin and meat moist and tender.
  • It’s easy to spread softened butter evenly over the skin.
  • Adding herbs and spices to the butter provides seasoning and flavor to the meat.
  • Butter adds a rich taste that complements the turkey.

Downsides of Using Butter

Despite its advantages, butter does have some potential drawbacks to consider:

  • Butter can burn and even catch fire if the oven is too hot. The milk solids are more prone to burning than oil.
  • The butter flavor may clash with other strong seasonings applied to the turkey.
  • If you’re making a kosher or halal turkey, butter is not an option since it contains dairy.
  • Butter is more expensive than vegetable oil.

Pros of Rubbing Oil on Turkey

Vegetable oil or olive oil are also excellent options for preparing turkey. Here are some benefits of using oil:

  • Oil helps achieve crispy browned turkey skin.
  • It keeps the turkey meat very moist and juicy.
  • Oil has a high smoke point so it’s less likely to burn or cause flare ups.
  • It allows any other seasonings and flavors to shine rather than imparting a buttery taste.
  • Olive oil provides some flavor from the olives.
  • Vegetable oil is more budget friendly than butter.
  • Oil works well for kosher and halal turkey preparations.

Potential Drawbacks of Oil

However, oil does have some possible disadvantages to keep in mind:

  • It may not brown the turkey skin as deeply golden as butter.
  • Vegetable oil doesn’t add much flavor on its own.
  • Olive oil has a lower smoke point so it can burn if the oven is too hot.
  • The turkey may not have as rich, roasted flavor as with butter.

Key Considerations

When deciding between butter and oil, keep these key factors in mind:

  • Food safety – Butter can promote bacterial growth more readily than oil. Take care to properly store and handle butter.
  • Allergies – Butter contains dairy and is not suitable for those with milk allergies.
  • Flavor – Butter provides a more pronounced roasted, buttery flavor. Oil allows other seasonings to shine.
  • Budget – Vegetable oil tends to be more economical than butter.
  • Religious restrictions – Butter is not kosher/halal. Oil is kosher/halal friendly.
  • Smoke point – Butter and olive oil burn more easily than vegetable oils if oven is too hot.

Quick Guide: Butter vs. Oil for Turkey

Here is a quick summary comparing using butter vs. vegetable oil to prepare turkey:

Butter Vegetable Oil
Provides rich flavor Allows other flavors to shine
Browns skin deeply Browns skin decently
Can burn at high heat Has high smoke point
Not suitable for kosher/halal prep Good for kosher/halal prep
Higher cost Lower cost

How Much to Use?

A good rule of thumb is to rub 2-3 tablespoons of butter or oil per pound of turkey. So a 12-lb turkey would need about 24-36 tablespoons (1 1/2 to 2 sticks of butter or 3/4 cup to 1 cup oil). Focus on evenly coating the skin rather than drenching the turkey.

Application Tips

To get the best results from butter or oil, follow these tips:

  • Rub the butter or oil evenly all over the turkey skin. Get into every nook and cranny.
  • Apply herbs, spices, zest, or other seasonings on top of the fat layer if desired.
  • For butter, make sure it is softened for easy spreading.
  • Lift the skin and rub some fat directly onto the breast meat for extra moisture.
  • Be careful when basting. The fat can flare up if it drips on oven heating elements.
  • Consider placing a pan lined with onions, carrots, and celery under the turkey to catch the drippings.

Health Considerations

Both butter and oil add a lot of saturated fat to your meal. Here are some health factors to keep in mind:

  • Butter provides more saturated fat – about 7g per tablespoon compared to 2g for oil. This can raise cholesterol levels.
  • Going easy on portion sizes of turkey skin helps limit saturated fat intake.
  • Using broth or nonstick cooking spray for basting cuts down on overall fat.
  • Oil, especially olive oil, provides some monounsaturated fat which has health benefits.
  • Herb-infused oils provide flavor without extra calories from butter.

Other Basting Options

While butter and oil are traditional, turkey can also be effectively basted and prepared using lower-fat options like:

  • Chicken or turkey broth
  • White wine or wine vinegar
  • Fruit juices
  • Sugar-free soda
  • Low-sodium soy sauce
  • Nonstick cooking spray

The key is finding just the right balance to allow browning while keeping the turkey moist. Combining broth and oil can provide a good solution.

Preparation Methods

There are a few different ways to prepare turkey using butter or oil:

Traditional Rub

Rub the fat evenly over skin and under skin directly onto breast meat. Roast turkey as normal, basting every 30 minutes.

Herb Butter

Blend softened butter with herbs, garlic, citrus zest, or other seasonings. Spread mixture under and on skin.

Oil Herb Rub

Combine olive oil with dried herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage. Pat mixture over turkey skin.

Brown Butter

Cook butter over medium heat until it turns nutty brown. Let cool and rub over turkey for richer flavor.

Dry Brining

Rub turkey with oil or butter. Refrigerate uncovered for 1-2 days. Air drying concentrates flavor.

Trussing Method

For easier access to rub butter or oil evenly, consider not trussing the turkey. Leaving legs free allows lifting skin.

Best Practices

Follow these tips for success with your holiday turkey:

  • Pat turkey dry before rubbing on fat to help it adhere and evenly coat.
  • Add fresh herbs right before roasting for best flavor. Dry rubs can go on under the fat.
  • Use high quality ingredients like European butter or extra virgin olive oil.
  • Consider inserting pats of flavored butter under the skin along the breast.
  • Use a brush or silicone spatula to evenly distribute the fat.
  • Make sure oven rack is properly positioned so turkey cooks evenly.
  • Let turkey rest 20 minutes before carving for juicier meat.


Can I use margarine instead of butter?

Margarine contains more water than butter so it may not brown the skin as well or impart as much flavor. However, it can work in a pinch.

What kind of oil works best?

Refined olive oil, avocado oil, grapeseed oil, and canola oil all have high smoke points and lend nice flavor without overpowering.

Should I rub oil under and over the skin?

Yes, apply fat both under and on top of the skin to help ensure every part of the turkey stays moist and juicy.

How often should I baste the turkey?

Baste every 30 minutes. Take care not to let the drippings burn or splatter when basting.

Can I flavor butter and oil?

Absolutely! Compound butters and infused oils take the flavors to the next level. Get creative with ingredients.

Buttery Herb Oil Recipe

Get the best of both worlds with this recipe that combines butter and oil:


  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped
  • 2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • Kosher salt and pepper to taste


  1. In a small bowl, combine butter, olive oil, garlic, rosemary, thyme, lemon zest, salt, and pepper until well blended.
  2. Rub mixture all over turkey skin. Refrigerate turkey 30 min – 1 hour to allow flavors to meld.
  3. Roast turkey as desired, basting every 30 minutes with pan juices.
  4. If butter mixture softens during roasting, rub again over turkey skin before serving.


While both butter and oil can help lead to golden, flavorful turkeys, oil may have a slight edge for most cooks. The high smoke point and versatility of vegetable oils makes it difficult to go wrong. But greasing up your turkey with butter can provide nostalgic roasted flavor. Whichever you choose, proper technique and thorough coating are key to successs. Here’s to a mouthwatering holiday bird!