Thanksgiving may have become so synonymous with turkey that it goes by the name “Turkey Day,” but the hard truth is that the bird is rarely the highlight of the dinner. A traditional whole roast turkey is prone to turning out dry and low on flavor, a serious blow for a style of turkey preparation that most people don’t eat often enough to have a soft spot for anyway. (And that’s not even touching on the stiff competition turkey faces from the often-much-more-enticing side dishes that make up the Thanksgiving spread.)
Longtime readers will already know that the best way to cook a turkey for moist, juicy meat and that essential crispy skin is butterflying (otherwise known as spatchcocking): removing the backbone and flattening out the bird before roasting so that each part cooks evenly. In that spirit, we’re offering a whole range of spatchcocked-turkey recipes, cooked both in the oven and on the grill, all of them perfect for making a Thanksgiving centerpiece that’s impressive-looking and delicious. But if you can’t give up on the idea of that picturesque whole roasted turkey, or if you’re cooking for only a few people, don’t fret—we have plenty of solutions for you, too. And check out our guides to brining your turkey, developing a gorgeously crispy skin, testing the temperature, and carving to make sure the meal goes off without a hitch.
If Thanksgiving just isn’t Thanksgiving to you (or your family) unless someone marches a whole bird on a platter into the dining room, this is the best way to get that traditional look without sacrificing good flavor or texture: Say good-bye to the expensive roasting pan, and instead place your turkey on a V-rack set directly on a half sheet pan, which improves circulation so that the belly skin gets crisp. In addition, we place a preheated baking stone or Baking Steel underneath the tray to focus intensely high heat at the legs, helping them to cook through before the breasts dry out.
Other than that Rockwellian presentation, the primary reason for cooking your turkey whole is so that you can add stuffing right inside the cavity—that is why it’s called stuffing, after all. In reality, though, doing this in a safe way is tricky: Bringing the stuffing up to a high enough temperature generally means overcooking the meat itself. Our solution? Simply par-cook the stuffing in the microwave before adding it to the turkey, allowing it to reach a safe temperature more quickly in the oven.
Though it might sound like a gimmick to the uninitiated, there really is something to deep-frying your turkey—it’s a great way to get juicy meat and potato-chip crispiness in the skin. But doing it without ending up the inadvertent star of a viral video…well, that takes a good bit of care. (For one thing, it’s vital that your turkey be dry—water or ice + hot oil = disaster.) Luckily, this recipe and the accompanying explanation will give you all the tips and step-by-step directions you need to execute the process successfully and safely.
As we’ve gone on about time and time again, spatchcocking your turkey is the easiest route to evenly cooked, moist meat encased in shatteringly crisp skin—and it doesn’t hurt that it requires less cooking time than an intact roast, too. This recipe takes just two hours, start to finish, which leaves you with plenty of spare time to whip up a meaty homemade gravy.
A properly roasted spatchcocked turkey should be so flavorful that it won’t really need any seasonings beyond salt and pepper, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get more creative if you want to. This recipe follows our basic spatchcocked-turkey method, but adds an herb butter seasoned with garlic, chives, parsley, sage, thyme, and shallot. Rub it both on and under the skin before cooking.
We designed this rub (and the seasoning blends in the two recipes that follow) for spatchcocked turkeys, but you could just as easily use them on whole birds if that’s what you’re planning for Thanksgiving. Here, we coat our turkey with a Cajun-inspired mix of paprika, cayenne pepper, coriander seed, cumin, black pepper, onion and garlic powders, dried oregano, and dried thyme, for a flavor profile that’s a departure from the everyday yet still distinctly American. Because the rub is so powerfully flavored, you’re better off serving the meat with a simple jus rather than a traditional gravy.
A deep-fried turkey porchetta makes an incredibly delicious holiday centerpiece, but it also requires quite a bit of work. This recipe offers a simpler option, applying classic porchetta flavors—sage, fennel seed, garlic, and red pepper flakes—to a roast spatchcocked turkey.
There’s no way around it: This is a highly atypical treatment for a Thanksgiving roast turkey, and it may not be for the traditionalists in your crowd, but man, is it ever tasty. Drawing on a Chinese technique for braising meat, we glaze the turkey in a combination of soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, sugar, and spicy aromatics, like ginger, cinnamon, and star anise. If you really want to commit to the theme, try giving the rest of the meal a Chinese twist, adding a little ginger to your cranberry sauce and Chinese sausage to your stuffing.
If November is still grilling season where you live, you’ll be happy to know that spatchcocked turkeys cook just as well over live fire as they do in the oven. By assembling your coals in a crescent shape, you’ll keep the most intense heat under the legs and thighs, helping to cook the meat more evenly. Adding just one or two chunks of cherry- or applewood to the fire will give the turkey a nice whiff of smoke.
Looking for more than just a hint of smoke? This is a true barbecue-style turkey, cooked low and slow to ensure moistness. Adding baking powder to the brine helps the skin crisp up beautifully. While a whole turkey smokes just fine, if you butterfly yours, you’ll be rewarded with crisper skin and a significantly shorter cooking time.
Breasts and Legs
Don’t get us wrong—we love Thanksgiving leftovers at least as much as we love the meal itself. But if you have just a small group to cook for, roasting an entire turkey is definitely overkill (in both the food and the effort departments), so consider a single breast instead. Nestling it into a bed of stuffing to cook will catch the drippings and add flavor. It’ll also add fat, so reduce the amount of butter you use in the stuffing, and remove the stuffing halfway through to let the meat finish cooking on its own.
Using a sous vide precision cooker allows you to safely cook turkey at temperatures that aren’t possible in the oven, leaving your meat extra tender and juicy. Deboning the turkey breast and tying it into a tight cylinder helps it cook evenly, and makes for a lovely presentation besides. To make sure that skin is good and crackling—a feat that sous vide can’t accomplish—just remove it from the breast and roast it on its own, then serve a portion with each slice of meat.
Being more of a dark-meat person, if I’m not in the market for a whole roast turkey, I’ll choose flavorful legs over breasts any day. One of the best ways to cook turkey legs is to braise them, which breaks down their abundant collagen; the meat ends up meltingly tender and the skin a deep mahogany brown. As a bonus, the red wine–based braising liquid, seasoned with thyme and rosemary, becomes a ready-made base for a rich gravy.
Cutting up a whole bird and roasting the breasts and legs separately is the best way for ensuring they’re each cooked to the appropriate temperatures, since you can pull the breast out as soon as it’s done and leave the legs in the oven for a little while longer. The added advantage to this method is you have the carcass around to make a deeply savory stock for gravy. And while you may lose out on the picture-perfect whole bird, arranging the cut-up, cooked bird on a platter still makes for an eye-catching centerpiece.
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