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What should I season my turkey with?

As Thanksgiving approaches, many home cooks start thinking about how to prepare the perfect turkey. A beautifully browned, moist and flavorful turkey is the centerpiece of a great Thanksgiving meal. One of the keys to getting the best results is properly seasoning your turkey. But with so many seasoning options available, it can be tricky to know where to start. This article will walk through the most important seasonings to use when preparing your Thanksgiving turkey and provide tips on how to get the most flavor.


Salt is arguably the most important seasoning for your turkey. It penetrates deep into the meat to enhance flavor. Salt helps denature the proteins in the turkey, allowing them to hold onto more moisture as they cook. A properly salted turkey will turn out juicier. How much salt you use depends on the size of your turkey. Plan on about 1 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound. If using regular table salt, cut that amount in half. Kosher salt has a lighter flavor that doesn’t come across as salty. Apply the salt at least 24 hours before cooking and up to 48 hours ahead. Either rub it directly on the meat under the skin, or sprinkle it into the cavities and over the skin. The salt will dissolve and distribute evenly throughout.


Freshly ground black pepper is another seasoning essential for your turkey. It adds warmth and spice flavors that complement the turkey beautifully. Grind whole peppercorns just before using to get the most flavorful pepper. Coat the turkey with about 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper per 5 pounds of turkey. Rub it under the skin as well as over top. The pepper’s volatile oils will start infusing the meat with extra flavor.


Aromatic vegetables like onions, carrots, celery and herbs add loads of flavor when roasted alongside the turkey. Roughly chop the vegetables and stuff them into the turkey cavities along with a bundle of fresh herbs. Try sage, thyme, rosemary, parsley or a combination. The vegetables and herbs release moisture and flavorful compounds as they roast. Their aromas permeate the turkey meat, seasoning it from the inside out. Place any extra vegetables and herbs around the turkey in the roasting pan.


Garlic is a must for infusing rich flavor into turkey. Whole cloves or a garlic paste can be slipped under the skin before roasting. As the garlic slowly cooks, mellow roasted flavor will spread throughout the meat. Just be sure not to add too much, as garlic can become unpleasantly bitter if overcooked. For a 15-pound turkey, 7 to 8 cloves is plenty.


Brushing the turkey skin with melted butter or oil helps crisp up the skin while adding flavor. Butter, olive oil, duck fat, bacon drippings or a neutral oil like canola or grapeseed oil will all work well. The fat not only bastes the turkey as it cooks but also helps conduct heat more efficiently to the meat for better browning. Avoid coating the skin too far in advance, as the moisture can make it soggy. Brush on the fat right before roasting. Reapply halfway through cooking.

Poultry Seasoning

Commercial poultry seasoning is an easy shortcut for flavoring turkey. It typically contains sage, thyme, marjoram, rosemary, black pepper and other spices. The blend adds classic flavor notes reminiscent of roasted turkey in one step. Dust the inside cavities and outer skin with about 1 tablespoon poultry seasoning per 5 pounds of turkey.

Fresh Herbs

Don’t underestimate the power of fresh herbs for seasoning turkey. Herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage add woodsy notes, while parsley and cilantro brighten up the flavor. Use them alone or mixed into compound butter. Chop the herbs and combine with softened butter. Slip dollops of the herb butter under the turkey skin before roasting. As the butter melts, it bastes the meat with herbal flavor.

Spice Rubs

Homemade or store-bought spice rubs are a great way to add layers of flavor to turkey. Dry rubs containing spices like cumin, chili powder, paprika, coriander, mustard and more infuse the meat with punchy flavor. Make your own custom blend or use a barbecue or jerk style seasoning. Coat the turkey evenly inside and out up to 24 hours before cooking.


Soaking the turkey in a saltwater brine before cooking helps ensure a juicy, well-seasoned bird. The salt in the brine seasons the meat while also helping it retain moisture. Feel free to add your favorite herbs, spices, citrus and more to the brine to build even more flavor. Let the turkey brine in the refrigerator anywhere from 4 to 24 hours depending on size.

Compound Butters

Compound butters are a easy way to add flavorful fat to turkey both under and on top of the skin. To make them, blend softened butter with herbs, citrus zest, chopped garlic, spices and more. Try combinations like sage-orange butter, rosemary-lemon butter or chili-lime butter. Chill the flavored butter until firm, then dollop it over and under the skin before roasting.

Quick Tips for Flavoring Turkey

  • Salt and pepper generously, at least 24 hours before cooking
  • Fill cavities with chopped onions, carrots, celery and fresh herbs
  • Rub garlic under the skin
  • Coat with olive oil or melted butter before roasting
  • Dust with poultry seasoning or dry spice rub
  • Inject brines or marinades into the meat for extra moisture and flavor
  • Stuff herb butter or citrus slices under the skin
  • Baste frequently with pan juices during roasting

Avoid Overseasoning

While it’s important to infuse your turkey with lots of flavor, take care not to overdo it. An overly salty or strongly spiced bird can be unappetizing. Stick to modest amounts of salt, pepper and aromatics. Let the flavor of the turkey meat shine through.

Season Right Before Cooking

For most seasonings, aim to apply them right before roasting the turkey. Salting in advance is an exception since the salt needs time to penetrate deeply. But seasonings like herbs, spices and pepper will be most potent if applied shortly before cooking. Their flavors and aromas won’t have time to dissipate.

Get Seasonings Under the Skin

For maximum flavor impact, get seasonings underneath the skin whenever possible. The skin helps hold them against the meat so they infuse it more effectively during roasting. Loosen the skin over the breasts and legs, then rub seasonings directly onto the meat before replacing the skin.

Use Both Cavities

Don’t forget to season the interior cavities as well as the outer skin. Stuff the neck and main cavity with aromatics. Truss the cavities closed so the moisture and flavors are sealed inside. The steam and rendered juices from the aromatics will season the meat from the inside out.

Baste with Pan Drippings

Basting the turkey as it roasts helps keep the skin from drying out while also coating it with flavor. Use a bulb baster or large spoon to collect the browned bits and rendered juices from the bottom of the roasting pan. Brush or drizzle the hot pan drippings over the turkey every 30 minutes while it roasts.

Let Turkey Rest Before Carving

Resist slicing into the turkey right away when it comes out of the oven. Letting it rest allows the juices to redistribute evenly throughout the meat. Tent loosely with foil and let sit for at least 15 to 30 minutes before carving. The turkey will carve more neatly and stay juicier.

Consider Brining

For really foolproof juicy turkey, brining is a great option. Soaking the raw turkey in a saltwater solution helps it retain much more moisture during cooking. Make a basic brine with 1 cup salt per gallon of water. Or flavor it with aromatics like peppercorns, bay leaves, citrus, herbs and spices.

Try a Dry Brine

If you don’t want to fuss with wet brining, a “dry brine” works well too. Heavily salt the turkey and let sit on a rack uncovered in the fridge for 1-2 days. The salt will dissolve and penetrate the meat, seasoning it and helping it retain moisture just like a liquid brine.

Inject Flavors

Using an injection syringe is a great way to infuse flavorful liquids deep into the turkey meat. Try injecting melted butter, broth, marinades or even booze like wine, cider or bourbon. Inject into a few different spots to distribute flavor evenly.

Stuff Aromatics Inside

One of the easiest ways to impart flavor from the inside out is by stuffing the cavities with aromatics. Try wedges of citrus, halved onions, garlic cloves, fresh herbs andpeppercorns. The steam will release their flavors into the meat.

Use Compound Butter

Compound butters are a simple way to add flavor. Mix herbs, citrus zest, roasted garlic or other seasonings into softened butter. Chill until firm, then slip dollops under the turkey skin before roasting for incredible flavor.

Spice Up the Pan Drippings

For extra flavorful gravy and pan sauces, add aromatics to the roasting pan. Roughly chopped carrots, onions and celery tossed around the turkey will cook down into the pan drippings.

Make a Flavored Herb Oil

Infuse olive or another cooking oil with plenty of herbs, garlic, citrus zest or other aromatics on the stovetop. Let it cool, then brush the flavored oil over the turkey before and during roasting.

What to Stuff Inside the Turkey

Filling the main cavity and neck with aromatics is one of the easiest ways to pump up the flavor. Here are some excellent options for stuffing inside:

Stuffing Ingredients Benefits
Onion Adds savory, sweet flavor
Garlic Infuses rich, mellow roasted garlic flavor
Lemon Brings bright citrus and acidity
Herbs Choose thyme, rosemary, sage, parsley, etc. Loads of fresh herb flavor
Carrots Impart sweetness and color to pan drippings
Celery Enhances savory notes
Peppercorns Adds warmth and spice
Apple Brings sweetness and moistness


A beautifully browned turkey with tender, juicy meat and incredible flavor is within your reach with the right seasonings. Salt, pepper, aromatics and herbs are key for getting the best results. Apply them under and on top of the skin and inside the cavities. Brining, basting and resting also help ensure optimal flavor and moisture. With these tips, your Thanksgiving turkey will be one for the memories.