how to season a turkey for thanksgiving, thanksgiving turkey recipe, preparing thanksgiving turkey

If you want to start a debate, ask anyone in my family how to season a turkey for Thanksgiving. You’ll get a barrage of subtly different answers, each with a unique blend of delicious herbs, spices, and aromatics. 

chicken brine, chicken brine recipeTruthfully, there’s no correct way. As much as I hate the way my family argues, I owe them quite a lot of thanks. Every year, I get to try a wonderfully seasoned bird that’s cooked to perfection as one of my aunts or uncles tries to show up the rest of the family.

The cook is always keen to show off his or her “secret” recipe with me afterward. As a result, I’ve been able to compare quite a few different turkey preparations first-hand. This lets me cook my own fowl just the way I like it.

Just The Basics — The Simple Way To Season A Turkey

I think the fairest way to start any conversation about turkey seasoning is to mention that almost every recipe starts the same way. Whether you’re frying or roasting, you’ll want to wash your bird thoroughly and remove any parts you don’t want to eat.

Dry the turkey with paper towels, then coat it inside and out with a generous amount of salt. Most recipes call for a hefty sprinkle of black pepper here, too, but you can get away without it.

Fitting In WIth Other Dishes

salt seasoning, saltOne of the best turkeys I had was baked with this simple salt seasoning. My uncle (on my father’s side) wanted to serve it with an especially flavorful gravy. He didn’t want any herbs or spices on the bird itself to interfere with the taste of his carefully constructed sauce.

His turkey was seasoned with nothing except salt and basted regularly with melted butter as it cooked. Even without my uncle’s fancy gravy, the bird came out wonderfully.

Simplest Does Not Mean Best

I don’t think every bird should be cooked this way. Instead, you should use it as a baseline for your turkey-day forays. When you add a complicated mixture of herbs and aromatics to your bird, make sure that they actually improve the taste versus a simple turkey with just salt, butter, and maybe pepper.

Add-Ons To Suit Your Palate

veggies ingredients, mixed veggies ingredients

It’s not very much in vogue to put your stuffing inside the turkey itself lately, but you can add quite a bit of flavor by doing so. A mixture of chopped carrots, onions, apples, herbs, and berries can be placed inside your turkey’s cavity as it cooks.

Depending on the aromatics you use, you might use this stuffing as a kind of seasoning you remove after your bird cooks, or you might place it in a casserole dish and serve it with the turkey at your dinner table.

In either case, throwing some of your favorite aromatics in the middle of your turkey is a great way to customize it to your liking.

Working Well Together

Be sure to choose flavors that complement each other. As an example, if I had to cook a turkey today, I would probably use a couple sprigs of fresh rosemary, lemon zest, and plenty of chopped garlic.

I’d also sprinkle the turkey with lemon juice before I cooked it and squeeze a lemon or two into my basting liquid.

how to make melted butter, recipes with melted butterAdding To Your Rub

If you’re not big on stuffing things inside your turkey, you can still rub it down with your favorite seasonings. Remember that old jars of dried spices aren’t as flavorful as the fresh kind.

Instead of using the dried sage, rosemary, or thyme in your cupboard, consider getting some fresh herbs and infusing their flavors into some melted butter. You’ll get a much fresher tasting bird.

Making Your Own Spice Blend

Still, there’s nothing wrong with dried spices. Thyme, sage, and rosemary are favorites for a traditional turkey, while tarragon, basil, and paprika make appearances in many recipes. Don’t forget about onion and garlic powder, either. I recommend mixing your favorite spices together before you start to season.

You’ll want to rub a generous amount over the entire turkey and then have some spice blend left over for your gravy and your guests at the dinner table. As you mix, be sure to taste-test periodically in order to ensure that you’ve gotten your proportions right. You want your favorite spices to be in the foreground!

How To Season A Turkey For Use In Top Turkey Fryers

chicken seasoning spices, poultry seasoning spicesYou usually don’t want to put stuffing inside of your bird if you’re going to deep fry it. Top turkey friers will give you a moist, flavorful bird without any stuffing at all. Instead, rub it down with a mixture of salt and your favorite spices, as discussed above.

You’ll usually want about 4 tablespoons of salt + spices in total for every 10 pounds of turkey. Once your turkey has reached room temperature, fry it according to the directions on your fryer.

Overall, the seasoning process is very similar to how you’d season a turkey for roasting.

Putting It All Together

The bottom line here is that you shouldn’t freak out about seasoning your turkey “perfectly.” Frankly, managing the temperature is much more important when it comes to the taste of your bird. Your guests are probably going to douse it with gravy and consume it with stuffing, potatoes, or other vegetables, anyway. While the spices your rub on the outside will make a small difference, they’re not going to massively change how your Thanksgiving dinner goes.

seasoning chicken, seasoning whole chicken

So relax! Experiment a bit.

Season your turkey the way YOU want to, not the way the cookbook says. I’ve had birds coated with a spicy cumin and pepper blend, ones seasoned with cinnamon sticks and nutmeg, and even a turkey that was glazed with honey and cloves.

All of them came out delicious. If you keep your recipe simple and stick to ingredients that work well together, you’ll be able to cook a wonderful turkey that the whole family can enjoy.


Peter's path through the culinary world has taken a number of unexpected turns. After starting out as a waiter at the age of 16, he was inspired to go to culinary school and learn the tricks of the trade. As he delved deeper, however, his career took a sudden turn when a family friend needed someone to help manage his business. Peter now scratches his culinary itch on the internet by blogging, sharing recipes, and socializing with food enthusiasts worldwide.

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