Turkey talk: An expert's tips for effortlessly roasting the perfect golden-brown turkey

Turkey gets a bad rap for being boring — but not if you master a few easy techniques

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published November 17, 2023 11:16AM (EST)

Freshly roasted turkey with stuffing coming out of the oven (Getty Images/YinYang)
Freshly roasted turkey with stuffing coming out of the oven (Getty Images/YinYang)

I love turkey. One of my absolute favorite Thanksgiving traditions is prepping the turkey with my brother on Thanksgiving Eve: We opt for a compound butter (primarily chockfull of sage, thyme and rosemary) and a legitimate shower of coarse kosher salt before setting it (uncovered) in the fridge to help the skin further dry out before awakening at the crack of dawn to throw it in the oven with some mirepoix, bay leaves, garlic, lemon halves and a touch of wine or stock. 

I'm a proponent of a truly bronzed, immensely crisp skin. I could also drink gravy by the gallon, a trait that I most certainly inherited from my mother. A tip I once learned was — after your bird has rested — to carve it carefully with the sharpest knife imaginable, ideally keeping the skin and meat intact and arranging it on a platter with a touch of stock or broth on the bottom, which will help keep the meat as moist as can be during any residual cooking. Also, don't forget a final sprinkling of salt before bringing the platter to the table.

In addition to loving turkey, I also think the way people tend to hate on it — saying that it's bland, dry and boring — is also pretty reductive. You're really just telling on yourself  Perhaps you just haven't had well-made turkey

Which, to be fair, I totally get it. For many, that turkey can feel like the singular most inundating culinary project of the year, especially if you're serving a crowd and haven't worked with such a large bird before. So, Salon Food spoke with Heidi Diestel of Diestel Turkey Ranch to get the lowdown on all things turkey cookery for everyone from the top expert to the neophyte. 

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Is a frozen or fresh turkey "better?" Is there a distinct difference in taste or quality between the two once the bird is cooked?

“Better” depends on personal preference and how the bird is handled.

  • Convenience: Frozen birds can be purchased early and stored accordingly, keeping you out of the hustle of the fresh bird frenzy.
  • Thawing: Frozen birds require a ‘slow as possible’ thaw time, so make sure you have space in your fridge.
  • Cost: While it really doesn’t cost a farmer less to produce a frozen bird, they are usually a more ‘value’ driven price point. Saving a few extra dollars!
  • Texture: Chefs and consumers alike think a fresh bird have an optimal texture. However, this can also depend greatly on how the turkey is cooked, prepared and not just whether it was fresh or frozen.

What is your opinion on brining? Dry or wet? Is it necessary?

With Diestel birds, brining isn’t necessary. However, it is super tasty! Whether you are choosing "wet or dry,’"make sure you practice before the big day. Brining can make the bird super salty and that would be such a bummer to serve.

When prepping the turkey, is it best to drizzle with oil or coat with butter? I'm an herb compound butter guy.

Ohhhh! Such a good debate. Oil — depending upon the type you use — has a high smoke point and can help achieve a crispier skin set-up. Most are more neutral in flavor. However, butter usually adds a more rich and creamy flavor that feels more luxurious when eating. Match up the butter with herbs and spices and you can really add a more complex flavor to the turkey. In the Diestel Family, we use olive oil. Only because we are biased towards the bird and want to taste the turkey first!

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Should the turkey always be trussed? Or is it OK to not tie the legs?

It’s OK to leave your legs untrussed. However, tying the legs is both practical and aesthetically ideal. When trussed, the birds also tend to cook more evenly since the birds legs create a more compact shape. Trussing the bird ensures whatever herbs or stuffing in the bird stay in place. This also looks most ideal when presenting your bird. However, ultimately this is a personal preference and completely optional.

If you (or the people you're feeding) are only interested in white or dark meat, would you advise skipping the traditional purchasing of the whole bird and instead opting only to buy breast, thighs or drumsticks?

It certainly is easier to buy “parts or roasts” if you are looking for more of one style of meat than another. In general, most birds have a 70/30 split of white to dark meat. We’ve seen consumers who don’t want to manage a whole bird or are planning a smaller gathering opt for this approach to help simplify the holiday.

Of course, common knowledge is to roast the bird  is there another cooking method that you actually prefer?

In the Diestel family (specific for Thanksgiving) we still roast the bird – low and slow. However, there are so many ways to have a delicious bird. Throughout the year, we have many family dinners where we gather around our birds. We love spatchcocking and barbequing them. Also, if you don’t mind setting up all the equipment, there isn’t anything wrong with a fried bird (soo good!).

What would you say is the ideal amount of turkey per person?

One and a half pounds of meat per person is a great marker. But in our family, we always want leftover turkey sandwiches, so we usually have more than that.

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What are the best go-to strategies for timing when it comes to cooking the turkey, especially for someone with a small kitchen or oven?

Roast your bird early, cover it with foil and kitchen towels (to keep the heat in) and let it sit prior to serving. Just be sure you don’t over-roast the bird prior to letting it rest on the counter as your bird will continue to roast when it comes out of the oven. REST is key to a super juicy bird.

Is it best to tent or cover the turkey once it's done? At what temperature should it be pulled?

USDA requires poultry to temp at 165 degrees Fahrenheit. But what most don’t consider is that the turkey will continue to cook when it is pulled out of the oven. As long as the bird temps at 165 degrees at some point, you are in the safe zone. If temperature is something that is of the highest priority to you, we suggest getting a smart thermometer so that you can have a ‘live feed’ of the temperature throughout the duration of the roasting time.

How do you like to make gravy?

Keep it simple! Here is our recipe.

What are your favorite flavor profiles for turkey seasonings and preparations?

We love a salt, paprika, olive oil seasoning. That is our favorite way, as it allows the flavor of our birds to really shine.

Anything final notes about prepare before the big day? 

[Here is our] Turkey Day To-Do’s – a nice list to organize the week into more manageable pieces. Thanksgiving Theme: Make simple dishes with exceptional ingredients and let those ingredients work for you! Diestel Turkeys are raised with a lot of time, love and care. Let that bird work for you and keep it simple!

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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