Crispy, Golden Turkey Skin: 4 Methods Put to the Test (and One Winner!)

I’ve been wrist deep in the business end of chickens all week. I’m on a quest to determine the best way to achieve perfect deep, golden, crispy skin, both for our everyday roast chickens and also for that bird of all birds — the Thanksgiving turkey.

Why? A well-roasted bird makes an undeniably beautiful presentation on your holiday table. Also, of course, the snap of salty, crisp skin with each tender morsel of meat is a little bite of heaven. In the end, we want a bird with tender, flavorful meat, and deeply golden, crispy skin. The goal is to inject the meat with moisture while eliminating it from the skin.

DRY SKIN = CRISPY SKIN

Ultimately, you want dry skin. The drier your skin to start, the crispier it will be after roasting.

Different cooks and chefs have varying techniques for doing this. Some leave the chicken uncovered in the refrigerator (a technique I support), others use salt and or baking powder to draw the moisture out of the skin, and some simply pat the bird dry with paper towels, pop it in the oven and hope for the best.

I tested four different techniques to evaluate their effectiveness at creating golden, crispy skin. I tested with chickens rather than turkeys to save time, money, and limit the amount of poultry my family had to eat in a single week. (As it is, they’ve made me promise not to serve chicken for a least a month.)

What works for one bird will likely work for another, so you can apply any of the techniques outlined below to any kind of poultry – including, yes, your Thanksgiving turkey.

Crispy Turkey SkinTESTING METHOD

I tested four different methods for achieving crispy, golden skin:

  1. Dry the bird with paper towels, then roast
  2. Rub with baking powder mixture
  3. Air-dry for 24 hours
  4. Air-dry and baste during roasting

To ensure accurate results, I applied a few standards to all the chickens. First, all the chickens were between 5 and 6 pounds. Two were from the supermarket, and two were from a farmer down the street from my house. All chickens were trussed and set on the counter to come up to room temp for 30 minutes before I popped them in the oven.

For this test, I was most concerned with the crispness and color of the skin, so I didn’t worry about the flavor of the chicken until the end, adding herbs, or stuffing the cavity. However, I still wanted the chicken to taste good, so except for Chicken No. 2 (see below), I seasoned each one with 2 teaspoons of kosher salt, 1 teaspoon of freshly cracked pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon of dried thyme.

All the birds were roasted in on a sheet pan lined with parchment with a wire cooling rack placed on top. This allows air to circulate under and around the chicken, similar to roasting a turkey in a roasting pan with a roasting rack. I roasted the chickens on the second lowest rack in the oven and used Ina Garten’s recommendation for cooking time: 1hr and 30min at 425-degrees Fahrenheit for each bird.

THE RUNDOWN

Each method produced at least some color and a bit of crispness, so even on your least motivated day in the kitchen, you can make a decently crispy, golden chicken. The exact method you use depends on how much time you have and how loyal you are to crispy skin.

Crispy Turkey Skin 1

Chicken No. 1: The Quick Pat Down

This first chicken served as my control. It required the least amount of effort and still provided some level of crisp skin. I simply patted this chicken dry with paper towels, then rubbed it with two tablespoons of olive oil on the outside of the skin, under the skin, and inside the cavity of the bird. I combined the salt, pepper, and thyme together then rubbed the spice blend in all the same places.

The result after roasting was lightly golden, slightly crisp skin. Basically, consider this bird the “I don’t have any time, but it’s cool, I can still pull off dinner” bird. You aren’t going to win any awards for this one, but it still gets the job done.

Crispy Turkey Skin 2

Chicken No. 2: Baking Powder Rub

This was a technique I pulled from Serious Eats, and the author swears by using baking powder to achieve a super crispy chicken.

This chicken was rubbed down in a mixture of 1 tablespoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of baking powder, and 1/2 teaspoon of cracked pepper, then left uncovered in the fridge for 18 hours.

This chicken definitely had some crackling skin, but some parts looked a bit leathery and the color was actually lighter than the first bird. The meat was tender and flavorful, but there was a very slight, subtle metallic flavor from the baking powder.

Crispy Turkey Skin 3

Chicken No. 3: The 24-Hour Chill

I left Bird Number 3 uncovered in the fridge to air-dry for 24 hours, following the technique espoused by Thomas Keller and several other chefs. Then I used the same combination of oil, salt, pepper and thyme I used for Chicken Number 1 to season and assist crisping the skin just before putting it in the oven.

This attempt yielded a beautiful golden color and a nice, crispy skin. The flavor of this bird was the best of those I’d tested so far. The meat was tender and not dry, but trying to season the bird under the skin after air drying proved difficult. More on that later.

Crispy Turkey Skin 4

Chicken No. 4: Because I’m All About that Baste, about that Baste.

To baste or not to baste, that is the question! My editor and I both read various accounts debating the merits of basting, so we felt it was worth the time to put this method to the test.

I prepared Chicken Number 4 exactly as I prepared Chicken Number 3. The only difference was that I basted the chicken during roasting using the pan drippings. I don’t even have a proper baster, I just used a large spoon to scoop up and drizzle that chicken in all the fat it was working so hard to burn off.

I didn’t want this one to win because I don’t like things that require more work, but Grandma knew what she was doing. I basted the chicken every 20 minutes during the 1 1/2 hour roasting time, and it was gorgeous.

This bird had a deep brown color, and the skin was nice and crisp. It was the obvious winner.

Crispy Turkey Skin

Chicken No. 5: Bonus Bird!

I now knew that air-drying and basting created a beautiful bird, but trying to season a bird under the skin after drying it for 24 hours wasn’t the easiest. I took the time to test one more chicken, this time seasoning it before air-drying instead of after.

For Bird Number 5, I created a paste of salt, pepper, thyme and one tablespoon of olive oil, and rubbed it on top of and underneath the skin. Then I left it uncovered in the fridge to dry for 24 hours. Just before roasting, I rubbed the outside of the skin with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. I then basted it every 20 minutes as it cooked.

The result was a chicken that was easy to season, had deep richly colored, crisp skin, and tender flavorful meat. Visually, it looked exactly the same as Bird Number 4, but the flavor was much better.

CONCLUSION

I’m a big believer in the “less is more” philosophy in the kitchen, so if I could make a perfectly beautiful, and delicious bird without too much fuss, then that’s a win for me. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly how this test turned out.

In conclusion, if you want the crispiest, most golden skin on your bird this holiday season, or your next Sunday night chicken, the best way is to rub it with oil and spices under and over the skin, then leave it uncovered in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Rub it down with one more tablespoon of oil just before putting it in the oven, sprinkle with a bit more salt and pepper. Roast and baste the chicken every 20 minutes.

Sometimes a little bit of planning and extra effort is well worth the payout.

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Comments

  • Luke

    I do like a good methods paper. :)

    • Summer

      You and me both!

  • Dawn

    Great experiments, thank you so much to you and your family! I have a question about the basting. What exactly do you baste with? My grandma would have basted with pan juices, but I suppose this may put water (from the juices) back onto the skin. If you used more olive oil or melted butter, it wouldn’t be at oven temperature. If it works with pan juices, great, but I just wanted to have the same spectacular results as you. :D Thanks again!

    • Dawn

      By the way, the current photos of chicken number 4 and 5 are the same dish from a different angle ;) You probably know, but it doesn’t demonstrate a difference.

      • Summer

        Good eye! Yes, I didn’t photograph bird number 5 because it looked exactly like bird number 4. I only made the 5th bird to see if seasoning it under the skin prior to drying impacted the crisp factor. Lucky for us it didn’t! Easy to season, crisp skin and great flavor all in one bird.

    • Summer

      Hi Dawn! I basted with the pan juices. There is enough fat from the skin and oil to keep it crispy. Good luck with your turkey!

  • rich

    Well done. Thanks for the heads up as we enter turkey week. Letting the seasoned bird air-dry in the fridge for a day is the key.

    • Summer

      Happy to help!

  • Dee Sturgis

    That was a lot of work. Thank you for being type A!

    • Summer

      Thank you! I’m going to have my husband read your comment!

  • Karen

    I have been hearing a lot of conversation regarding this lately. My question is, what about brining the bird? I wonder if you brine overnight and then let it air dry in the refrigerator the next night and then cook??

    • Emma Christensen

      Excellent question, Karen! Brining ALSO seems to be a matter of some debate. Personally, I’m a big fan. I think you’re on the right track with brining and then air-drying overnight. Think you’ll try doing that this year?! Let us know how it turns out, if so!

      • Karen

        I may try it if I get the turkey on time, depends on if my hub picks it up Tues or Wed…We also cook it on the weber and it is always delish. Happy Thanksgiving! I will post if I brine and then dry overnight

        • Summer

          I’m a fan of brining (either wet or dry). Good luck with your bird. I’m eager to hear your results.

  • Alida @My Little Italian Kitchen

    This looks great! Thanks for the great tips especially the one of the dry skin. These photos make me hungry!

  • Bryce

    This is so thorough and helpful for the home cook.

    • Summer

      Thanks, Bryce!

  • J. Ed

    You need to check out Alton Brown’s method of brining then roasting the turkey. A little different approach but I’ve found this to work wonderfully.

    • Summer

      Thanks for your recommendation. I will have to check it out.

  • Patricia

    I plan to try this with the local turkey I pick up this afternoon. Thank you for an alternative to brining; I’ve never liked the saltiness or affect of brining on the texture of the meat.

  • PHYLLIS KARL

    WHEN I PUT THE CHICKEN IN THE OVEN IN 20 MIN.
    THERE IS NO JUICE IN THE PAN TO BASTE.

    • Emma Christensen

      Hi, Phyllis! Try tilting the bird to let the juices run out of the inside. If you still don’t have any juices, you can use chicken broth instead. Hope this helps!

  • Linda

    I have been drying my chicken overnight oiled and seasoned for years. I “came up with” the idea when I made Peking Duck and thought I could probably get crisp chicken skin using this same method. I was so proud of myself and looked online and realized other people had already figured this method out. Boo as usual I wasn’t the first.

    • Summer

      Great minds!

  • Ann Baker

    Thank you for all your work and testing (and to your family for hanging in there with all that chicken!) After much experimentation over the years, I found that the brining + 24 air drying works well. I just rub melted, seasoned butter over the skin before cooking then follow the Alton Brown method ) high heat for 30 minutes to brown, then lower heat and no basting. Although…I will say that basted chicken looks amazing!

    • Summer

      Yum, butter. Maybe I will run a series of tests with butter next year!

  • Stephanie

    I’ve read that basting allows the oven to cool too much resulting in a drier bird. Your thoughts are appreciated!

    • Summer

      Hi Stephanie! I read that too, which is why I tested the method. In my test, basting the chicken didn’t have any impact on the meat. It was still tender and full of flavor. Choosing to brine the bird (either wet or dry) has the most impact on the moisture content and flavor of the meat. I highly recommend using a brine. Lots of things are holding heat in the oven — the bird, the heavy roasting pan, etc., the small amount of air that comes out shouldn’t have much of an impact. For this test, basting created a crisp skin, with flavorful, tender meat. Good luck!

  • SHARYN

    what do you think of trisha yearwood’s “no bother no baste” method of cooking turkey?

    • Summer

      I’m not familiar with her recipe. I will have to check it out.

  • Marcy Chestnut

    What about a boneless, skinless turkey breast? I have one, about 2 lbs, that I intent to butterfly, stuff and roll. Without a ksin to provide moisture, is there any point to dry brining or letting it air dry? I certainly appreciate any advice.

    • Emma Christensen

      Hi, Marcy! I might skip the brine and air-drying and opt for wrapping it in bacon instead, similar to this recipe. Let us know how it turns out!

  • Sharon Russell

    In my many years of cooking turkeys, I’ve come to the same conclusion that basting is best! I’ve tried every trick in the book to speed up cooking time, make crispier skin, moister meat, etc, but I agree that Grandma knew best! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  • Ellie

    I thought that I had learned from you guys – to roast the bird upside down- ? Has that gone out the window?

    • Emma Christensen

      Hi, Ellie! That’s still a great way to roast a turkey for great white and dark meat! This post is more about getting the crispy skin, which you can also apply to the upside-down turkey if you like. Enjoy!

  • Cathee

    Hi! I did #4 and can’t believe how great it looks. Haven’t tried it yet! Never did the air dry but I’m now hooked. Would love to post a pic but not sure how

    • Summer

      Hi Cathee! I’m so glad the recipe worked for you! Thanks for letting me know!

    • Elise Bauer

      Great Cathee! Best way to share a pic is in Instagram, just tag it #simplyrecipes

  • Sherie

    The goal for us is always a crispy skin, flavorful meat and no dry white meat. A seemingly impossible task until you went and did all the work for me. I made the “Bonus” bird for Thanksgiving yesterday and followed your recipe exactly. I always do that the first time I make something a la James Beard and then make adjustments the next time I try to cook the recipe, adjusting for our taste. This was the most flavorful bird, with the best skin (which I’ve saved to make some cracklings to go on top of turkey Risotto as leftovers). The dark meat was cooked to a turn and the white meat was juicy, yet cooked through, and the flavor was superb. Used the pan drippings to make a great gravy. I didn’t have a lot of fat at the outset to baste, but I added a little turkey stock I had made the day before, and it was perfect. Another bonus, by airing the turkey, you can grab the neck, etc. and make your turkey stock the day before. Just an outstanding, five star recipe. Going to try it out on roast chicken next.

    • Emma Christensen

      Hooray! Hearing this makes me so happy, Sherie!

    • Summer

      Hi, Sherie! I’m so glad this recipe worked for you! Thanks for letting me know! Turkey risotto sounds fantastic!

  • Jelena

    Baked a chicken today, the 5th method and everyone loved it :) Thank you and Happy New Year!

    • Summer

      Hi, Jelena! Happy New Year to you as well! I’m so glad your chicken was a success!

  • Clinton

    I agree with seasoning the bird well with butter, kosher salt, pepper and thyme. I like butter better than olive oil. I make a paste with the seasonings spreading the mixture under the skin as well cover the outside. Then place in frig for 24 hours. Remove from frig and let warm up for an hour before baking in 425 deg oven to 150 deg temp. Let the bird rest for 30 minutes before carving. I love this method. Try it, you quite possibly will like it!