It comes down to brining, butter, and basting.

By Kelsey Ogletree
November 04, 2020
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“Crisp turkey skin” is a term that always spikes in Google searches mid-November—and for good reason. While you obviously want to avoid a turkey that’s entirely crisp (à la Christmas Vacation), a crispy skin on a perfectly cooked, juicy bird is what we’re all going for on Thanksgiving Day.

For starters, crispy skin makes your bird (and your Thanksgiving table) look pretty as a picture. There’s something so dramatic and special about presenting a perfectly golden-brown turkey and setting it amongst your guests eagerly anticipating the feast.

But more importantly, crispy turkey skin is about the taste. Achieving perfectly crisp skin means you’ve rendered all the fat out, which in turn basically bastes the turkey as it cooks, says James Doxon, director of culinary operations at Colorado-based restaurant group Vibe Concepts. This adds a ton of flavor and moisture to the meat itself. “Imagine all of the seasoning and herbs that you rubbed on top and inside the skin being slowly glazed all over the turkey meat as it cooks,” says Doxon. “Using these cooking techniques is like having a chef constantly ladling beautiful flavor and moisture over your turkey the entire time it is cooking.”

So how exactly do you do this? It comes down to the three Bs: brining, butter, and basting—plus cooking your turkey at the correct temperature. The experts explain.

Brining

The most important factor in getting that desirable crisp skin on your turkey is brining, says Rob Clagett, executive chef at Flathead Lake Lodge in Bigfork, Montana. Brining allows the protein chains in the turkey to relax. Through osmosis, the salt and sugar in the brine change the moisture content of the turkey, he explains. “By adding salt and sugar to the water molecules on the turkey skin as well, you allow it to more quickly and easily have a Maillard reaction (like a caramelization of proteins) when cooked,” Clagett says.

How to brine a turkey: You should plan to brine your turkey in a simple sweet and salty mixture: Try 1 cup of kosher salt and 1 cup of sugar mixed with ½ gallon of water, says Doxon. Bring these to a simmer on the stove, then add another ½ gallon of ice to cool it down. Submerge the turkey overnight—this is where a large food-grade bucket comes in handy—but never more than 24 hours, as that will cause your turkey to become chewy.

This is where you’ll have to plan ahead to make space in your fridge: After brining is complete, it needs to sit uncovered in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours, or up to three days. “The longer, the better,” says Doxon, as dry skin gets crispy faster and more evenly. If you don’t have time to let it sit that long, pat it dry very well with paper towels.

Butter

Another step toward creating crispy turkey skin is to cover it in fat before roasting. Don’t be shy; you want to “slather the skin with butter like suntan lotion,” says Jason Goldstein, a recipe developer for the food blog Chop Happy. This will help to flavor the skin as well as crisp it up. Don’t forget to add butter under the skin, too, says Brian Jupiter, chef with Ina Mae Tavern & Packaged Goods in Chicago, who smokes more than 150 turkeys each Thanksgiving. Doing so will help to crisp the skin and also give your turkey a nice color, he adds.

Basting

This is another critical part of the turkey cooking process. Most home cooks use some mixture of the broth and drippings coming off the turkey to baste while it’s cooking—but this is a mistake, according to EJ Hodgkinson, culinary director of Electric Hospitality in Atlanta. “Pouring liquid that is not fat-based on the exterior of the turkey will only result in softening of the skin,” he explains. Instead, you should baste with melted butterclarified butter is best, as the water and white milk solids have been removed (leaving you with pure fat).

Best oven temp for crispy skin

Plan to cook your turkey at 400 degrees. “People are always shocked when they hear that, but if you want crispy skin, it’s a must,” says Doxon. A smaller turkey will need a slightly higher temperature, and a larger turkey needs slightly lower temperature as to not burn the skin before the bird cooks through.

How to save a turkey that isn’t crisping up

If your turkey is nearly done and the skin isn’t as crisp as you’d like, you can brush it with a little oil and turn the heat up high for 5-10 minutes, says Goldstein. Just don’t leave it in too long, as you’ll end up with dry meat. Hodgkinson adds that the only true way to fix turkey skin that isn’t crispy at the last minute, though, is to have a turkey fryer waiting in the wings—so do the prep work to ensure you’ll have crispy turkey skin the first time.