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What herbs and spices go well with turkey?

When cooking turkey, whether for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or any time of year, herbs and spices can add great flavor. Choosing the right ones can enhance the taste of the turkey and complement the other dishes being served. Here’s a guide to picking herbs and spices to use with turkey.

Popular herb choices

Many classic herb varieties pair deliciously with turkey. These provide familiar flavors that complement the turkey without overpowering it:

  • Rosemary – Rosemary has a woodsy, pine-like flavor. It goes well with roasted turkey, adding an earthy note.
  • Thyme – Lemony thyme has a mild flavor that works well with turkey. It brings out the natural flavor of the meat.
  • Sage – Sage is a savory herb with a slightly peppery taste. It’s a traditional pairing with turkey at Thanksgiving.
  • Marjoram – Subtly sweet with a hint of citrus, marjoram has a pleasant flavor that suits turkey.
  • Parsley – Fresh parsley brightens up turkey dishes. Both curly and flat leaf parsley varieties work well.

Spice blends

Pre-mixed spice blends are an easy way to add lots of flavor to turkey. Blends that contain herbs like rosemary, thyme, and sage are especially tasty with turkey. Here are some excellent store-bought blends to try:

  • Poultry seasoning – As the name suggests, this blend is designed for poultry. It typically contains sage, thyme, marjoram, and rosemary.
  • Herbes de Provence – This French blend includes marjoram, thyme, rosemary, basil, and savory, which all complement turkey.
  • Italian seasoning – With basil, oregano, thyme, and marjoram, Italian seasoning brings Mediterranean flavors to turkey.
  • Cajun seasoning – The spicy kick from peppers and the savory blend of spices in Cajun seasoning give turkey exciting flavor.

Individual spices

Specific spices can also be used alone to season turkey. Here are some top options:

  • Sage – The quintessential Thanksgiving herb, sage gives turkey an earthy flavor.
  • Pepper – Freshly ground black pepper provides a touch of heat and spice.
  • Cumin – Warm and nutty cumin pairs well with turkey, especially in dishes like chili.
  • Cinnamon – A dash of cinnamon enhances the natural sweetness of turkey meat.
  • Allspice – With warming notes of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg, allspice suits fall turkey dinners.
  • Paprika – Whether mild, smoked, or spicy, paprika provides turkey with rich flavor.

Seasoning under the skin

One effective way to infuse flavor into turkey is to apply herbs and spices directly under the skin before cooking. Try this technique with any of these combinations:

  • Rosemary, thyme, sage
  • Lemon, garlic, parsley
  • Onion and garlic powder, dried oregano
  • Cinnamon, allspice, black pepper

Gently loosen the skin from the breast and legs of the turkey using your fingers. Rub the herb and spice blend under the skin, directly on the meat. The skin will hold the seasoning against the turkey while it roasts.

Herb butter under skin

For even more moisture and flavor, slip compound herb butter under the turkey skin. Combining softened butter with herbs and massaging it directly onto the meat keeps the turkey extra tender and juicy. Make herb butter with any of these mixes:

  • Parsley, tarragon, lemon zest
  • Sage, rosemary, thyme
  • Chives, paprika, garlic powder

Aromatic ingredients in the cavity

Stuffing the turkey cavity with fresh herbs, citrus, onions, garlic, or peppers adds flavor from the inside out. Some good options include:

  • Lemon halves
  • Garlic cloves
  • Chopped onion
  • Sprigs of fresh rosemary, sage, thyme, or parsley
  • Sliced apples or oranges
  • Dried chilies or chili powder

The juices from these ingredients will season the turkey as it cooks. Aromatics like these can be used alone or along with traditional stuffing or dressing inside the cavity.

Basting and glazing

Basting turkey as it roasts helps keep it moist and infuses herb flavor into the meat. You can baste with melted butter or oil mixed with any combination of herbs and spices. Here are a few tasty baste options:

  • Olive oil, orange juice, thyme
  • Chicken stock, rosemary
  • Butter, mustard, sage
  • Maple syrup, cracked pepper

A glaze made from herbs and spices also gives turkey beautiful color and flavor. Whisk together olive oil, Dijon mustard, and honey as a base then add your choice of crushed peppercorns, chopped rosemary, paprika, cumin, or other spices.

Side dish seasoning

Don’t forget to season the side dishes that accompany the turkey. Many of the same herbs that complement turkey also pair well with classic Thanksgiving side items like stuffing, mashed potatoes, roasted vegetables, and more.

Side Dish Herb/Spice Suggestions
Bread stuffing Sage, thyme, rosemary, parsley
Mashed potatoes Chives, parsley, garlic, paprika
Roasted vegetables Rosemary, thyme, oregano, garlic
Squash Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger
Cranberry sauce Orange, cinnamon, ginger
Green beans Dill, lemon pepper, garlic

Tying the herb flavors together throughout the entire meal creates a cohesive and delicious palette.

Herb pairings to avoid

While most herbs complement turkey well, a couple combinations are less appetizing. Steer clear of these herb choices when seasoning turkey:

  • Basil – The sweet flavor of basil clashes with savory turkey.
  • Cilantro – Turkey and cilantro pair poorly, often creating a soapy taste.

Tarragon, dill, and mint are also not ideal pairings for turkey. Stick with more conventional herbs like sage, rosemary, thyme, and marjoram to be on the safe side.


From traditional options like sage and rosemary to creative blends and international spices, herbs and seasonings can enhance turkey in many delicious ways. Whether roasting a whole bird or cooking turkey breasts, legs, wings, or ground turkey, spices make the flavor pop. Use fresh or dried herbs, spice rubs, aromatics, glazes, and seasoned side dishes to serve your turkey with maximum flavor this Thanksgiving and all year long.