A few years ago, I took our method for roasting a whole turkey back to the drawing board. My goal was to hit all the high points—evenly moist white and dark meat, golden skin, deep seasoning, concentrated gravy—but avoid the hoops we usually jump through to achieve them. With some ingenuity (involving a baking stone!) and rigorous testing, that’s exactly where I landed: a holiday bird that’s as classic as it gets but requires a whole lot less fuss.
That turkey has since become one of the most popular recipes we’ve ever published, so this year I decided to match my novel method with a savory, verdant herb paste. It’s a mix of herbs, spices, and other simple seasonings that comes together quickly in the food processor. And its flavor is incredibly pervasive and impactful, thanks to a combination of purposeful ingredients and the three-pronged way that I apply the paste to the bird. The formula for the paste is also adaptable, so I’ve included a handful of flavoring options that will see you through the next few holidays—if not longer. Maybe this mash-up of ease and big flavor will become your new go-to bird.
Without further ado (but with plenty of Rockwellian ceremony), may I present my easiest-ever roast turkey—all freshened up.
Sign up for the Cook's Insider newsletter
The latest recipes, tips, and tricks, plus behind-the-scenes stories from the Cook's Illustrated team.
Three Keys to Easier, Better Turkey
What are a baking stone, aluminum foil, and baking powder doing in a turkey recipe? A lot, actually. Here’s a breakdown of how each of these items improves the turkey-cooking process.
Baking Stone: Preheated along with the roasting pan in a hot oven, the stone is a heat sink that pumps energy directly into the part of the bird that needs it the most: the collagen-rich leg quarters, which must be cooked to a higher temperature than the leaner breast meat. The stone soaks up so much energy that the pan stays hot when the bird is added, ensuring that the dark and white portions finish cooking concurrently. The superhot pan also concentrates the drippings, so minimal reduction is required to make a rich gravy.
Foil Shield: Covering the breast with a double layer of aluminum foil during the hotter first stage of roasting protects the lean meat from overcooking and the skin from burning. Once the oven temperature is reduced midway through roasting, the foil comes off so that the skin can brown and crisp.
Baking Powder Rub: Baking powder has alkaline properties that speed up browning. It also causes proteins in the skin to break down more readily and produce crispier results. Mixing it with a little oil and rubbing it over the bird’s skin before roasting makes for a deeply bronzed, beautifully crisp exterior.
The Herb Paste: Hardworking Base, Elegant Flavors
I had grand ambitions for the herb paste: not just a fistful of greenery minced and rubbed over the skin, where it would burn, or crammed into the easiest-to-reach crevices between the skin and meat, nor a powdery dried mixture that would taste dull instead of vibrant. A great herb paste, I discovered after experimenting with various combinations of herbs and spices, delivers verdant color; a cohesive but relatively loose, coarse consistency that’s easy to spread; and flavor that combines freshness with savory depth. Here’s my formula, broken down into the ingredients that I use in every paste plus the seasonings that define each variation and my strategy for applying the paste.
Build a Base
It’s a source of vibrant color and soft, fresh bulkiness that makes the paste easier to distribute and apply evenly.
A couple tablespoons bind and lubricate the paste so that it doesn’t clump and is more cohesive and easier to apply under the skin. It also carries the herbs’ aromatic flavor throughout the paste.
It’s not prone to burning like raw garlic; its toasty, complex savoriness doesn’t overpower the delicate fresh herbs; and the fine powder distributes easily throughout the past
It adds subtle heat and savory depth.
Pick a Profile
Herbes de Provence and Lemon
The robust, bright pairing of dried herbs such as rosemary, thyme, marjoram, and fennel plus lemon is quintessentially southern French.
Thyme and Fennel
In combination with orange zest, these classic flavors make for a versatile paste that pairs nicely with bold side dishes.
Sage and Fenugreek
Maple-y fenugreek plus minty, peppery sage leans into the flavors of New England fall.
Three-Way Application: Under, Over, and All Around
1. Spread Under Skin
How: Combine most of the paste with the kosher salt and sugar that’s used to dry-brine the bird and spread it under the skin.
Why: Flavor compounds from the garlic powder and pepper will penetrate the meat while the skin air-dries in the fridge. During roasting, the skin will protect the herbs from burning.
2. Add to Basting Butter
How: Stir some of the paste into melted butter and brush it onto the turkey midway through roasting.
Why: Applying the paste over the skin not only doubles down on the herb flavor but also adds herb flavor to areas of the skin that might be hard to reach from underneath. Plus, the herbed butter enhances the skin’s browning.
3. Stir Into Gravy
How: Stir the remaining herb paste into the finished gravy to pass at the table.
Why: The gravy acquires a light and fresh herb flavor that reinforces the roasted version that perfumes the turkey.
Tips for Applying the Seasoned Herb Paste Under the Skin
Before you apply the herb paste and salt, the skin must be loosened. Here are a few tips to make it easier.
- Bring the bird to fridge temp: Allowing a turkey—fresh or frozen—to come to fridge temperature (35 to 40 degrees) makes it easier to loosen the skin without tearing it. Frozen turkeys can take two to four days to defrost. Fresh turkeys are chilled to 26 degrees for shipping and may feel firm; refrigerating them overnight (or 12 to 16 hours for the largest birds) will help them soften a bit.
- Enter from multiple angles: Slip your hand between the skin and the meat above the cavity and up about two‑thirds of the breast. Then turn the bird 180 degrees and come in through the neck end to loosen the skin on the top of the breast.
- Don’t detach the membrane along the breastbone: t helps the skin stay intact and even and helps you divide the seasonings evenly.
- Season the cavity too: he whole turkey will taste more deeply seasoned.