Why You Should Pre-Season Your Turkey

A dose of salt a day ahead of Thanksgiving is the secret to the juiciest turkey ever.

Spatchcocked Sheet-Pan Turkey with Brown Sugar and Coriander
Photo: Photo: Jennifer Causey / Food stylist Chelsea Zimmer / Prop stylist Kathleen Varner

OK, turkeys. Roasting season is upon us, and with it, convivial meals around the table; mouthwatering aromas of perfectly cooked birds; mahogany brown skin and crispy, fatty bits; and sumptuous pan juices.

If you’ve been reading Food & Wine for a while, chances are you’ve roasted your share of turkeys. (If you’re a newbie, start with Culinary Director at Large Justin Chapple’s recipe—butterflying the turkey [aka spatchcocking] is one of the best techniques to ensure the legs and breast cook to the right temperature at the same time.) But let’s back up for a second. 

Do you season your bird at least a day ahead of cooking? I can’t emphasize enough how much the simple, foundational practice of pre-seasoning almost any protein delivers deeper flavor and juicier results than a sprinkling of salt just before cooking.

I do this year-round at home when I’m roasting, grilling, or braising. Every piece of poultry and pork, plus thicker cuts of beef and lamb, and even meatier fillets of fish like swordfish and grouper get seasoned at least one day ahead, and sometimes more, with kosher salt.

Here’s how it works:

Salt Assertively

Plan on 3/4 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon of Diamond Crystal kosher salt per pound for larger cuts of meat like beef chuck and any cut of pork or poultry. (This adds up to 3 to 4 tablespoons for a 12-pound turkey.) This may sound like a lot, but the resulting flavor will be one of savoriness, not saltiness. Use Diamond Crystal kosher salt because it has a consistent small-medium flake size and is easier to sprinkle more consistently than smaller-grain Morton kosher salt. (One tablespoon of Diamond Crystal equals about 1 1/8 teaspoons of Morton.) For turkey and chicken, you can salt the skin if you want, but if you want deeper flavor and crispier skin, loosen the skin over the breast meat with your fingertips, and rub the breast with salt.

Refrigerate Overnight

Arrange the seasoned roast on a rimmed baking sheet fitted with a wire rack, and place it, uncovered, on the bottom shelf of the fridge. At first, you’ll notice moisture on the surface of the meat. That’s the salt going to work and drawing water out of the cells. Within an hour or so, reverse osmosis will carry that moisture — and seasoning — into the meat. And as the cold air circulates over and around the protein, the surface will become tacky and begin to take on a darker, richer color.

Score One for Science

As the salt goes to work inside the muscles, it begins to denature proteins, unraveling their molecular strands, which are made up of amino acids like savory glutamic acid, while also allowing more water to penetrate and tenderize the meat. That juicy texture is one way to take advantage of the science of osmosis. Another way is to add other flavors to the pre-seasoning, like ground fennel seeds, cumin, and citrus zest; the salt acts as a carrier, delivering those flavors into the cells millimeters below the surface.

Temperature Matters

Take the roast out of the refrigerator for at least an hour before cooking it to raise the surface temperature. If roasting, use a low sided-pan like the rimmed baking sheet to allow the hot air of the oven to wash over and around the bird just as the cold air does in the fridge. I like to start larger cuts and whole birds at 500°F for about 20 minutes to encourage browning before reducing the oven or grill temperature to 325°F. This allows the roast plenty of time to continue browning slowly as it cooks. You’ve gone to all the trouble to dry out the surface, so don’t compromise the crispy skin of poultry by basting.

Rest and Relaxation

Build in enough time to rest larger cuts, like whole turkeys, for at least 20 minutes before carving so the juices that have been pushed out of the cell walls redistribute back toward the center of the roast. This is a good time to open bottles of wine and finish heating side dishes.

Continuing Education

Want to learn more? Judy Rogers’ The Zuni Café Cookbook is the urtext for this method. I also recommend J. Kenji López-Alt’s The Food Lab, All About Roasting by Molly Stevens, and Slow Fires by Justin Smillie. Need to talk turkey strategy before Thanksgiving prep begins? Email me at hunter@foodandwine.com between November 7 and November 11 with the size of your roast, your planned technique, and any questions you might have about recipes and methods.

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