This Indian spiced masala turkey is flavorful and juicy with perfectly golden, crispy skin.
After obsessing over the perfect way to cook a turkey for far longer than I care to admit (every fall for the past decade), this year, I’ve finally figured out the best way to do it.
I’m going to show you how to make an incredible masala spiced turkey using a foolproof method that will result in a perfectly cooked turkey.
Let’s Talk Turkey
Today I’m tackling the centerpiece of your holiday meal, and I want you to know I don’t take that responsibility lightly. I have tested this recipe many times to ensure perfect results (also why I’m sharing it later than I would have liked – but it’s worth the wait!).
We all know about turkey’s reputation for being boring, bland, and dry. Every year around the holidays, we’re collectively trying to figure out how to make a whole turkey taste better. It’s a tricky task – getting the dark and white meat to cook in the same amount of time.
Turkey isn’t just a vehicle for gravy and cranberry sauce. A holiday turkey should taste as magnificent as it looks, and this masala turkey promises to do just that.
The Best Way to Cook a Turkey
My recipe calls for combining several methods I’ve read about, analyzed, and tested. I’ve also added some tweaks of my own. I really believe that this is the best way to cook a turkey.
There’s no messing around with oven temperatures, or opening oven doors. Forget about using a basting brush or making foil tents. You don’t need to fret about the turkey breast overcooking, because it won’t. Follow my directions and your turkey will turn out perfectly cooked.
Just a heads up, I know some of these methods might seem a bit unorthodox, but trust me – they work.
We’re using the following methods:
The Dry Brine Method
This method, developed/popularized for turkey by Russ Parsons, has become increasingly popular over the years, so perhaps you’re familiar. All it means is that we’re salting the bird (rather than soaking it in salty water). Rub spices all over the turkey and let it sit uncovered in the fridge for a day. Easy.
This step is important in achieving moist meat and crispy skin. Why? Well, according to The Science of Good Cooking, this technique draws out the natural juices from the bird through osmosis where it dilutes the salt on the surface. The salty solution (again, made with natural juices) eventually gets reabsorbed back into the bird. The writers of the book say “after the salt we’ve applied causes the moisture to migrate back within the bird, we are left with a drier surface area. This means we more rapidly obtain a high outer temperature and, as a result, there is better browning and a supremely crispy skin.”
In previous years, I would make two turkeys for our family gatherings, one “American style” using a dry brine and one Indian masala-style, but with a yogurt or cream marinade. While I favored the flavor of the Indian turkey, I always preferred the crisp skin of the other turkey. It took me a while to connect the dots – but now that I have, I’m here to tell you that a dry brine using Indian spices is the way to go.
The Bread Method (gluten-free bread works too!)
I believe we have Martha Stewart to thank for this method. Basically, instead of a rack, we’re using buttered bread as a trivet in our roasting pan. This is helpful because we’re roasting the bird breast-side down (I’ll get to that in a second) and having the soft bread act as a trivet will help protect the skin on the breast (I learned about this method after having turkey skin rip on me while using a rack).
Bonus: once done cooking, you can snack on the bread while waiting for the turkey to cool down. That said, I wouldn’t make plans to serve the bread as a side dish – it’ll be soaked with drippings and while some parts might be quite tasty, other parts of the bread might be a bit too salty.
- Gluten-free? While I’m sure any gluten-free loaf will work, I’ve tried this using gluten-free Udi’s hamburger buns. Schar Ciabatta rolls work too, but I prefer the way the Udi’s hamburger buns hold up, and also taste once roasted. You want to use enough buns to keep the turkey skin from touching the bottom of the pan (6 Udi’s buns).
The Upside-Down Method
We are cooking the turkey breast-side down. I don’t know who first came up with this, but the idea is genius. The dark meat gets direct heat, and the fat from the dark meat runs down to the white breast meat, essentially self-basting the bird. You end up with juicy, perfectly cooked white and dark meat.
Most people who suggest cooking the bird breast-side down will tell you to cook the bird this way for a short time before flipping it over (while still raw inside) and then they’ll have you change oven temperatures, baste the bird, and tent the bird. That’s too complicated. I suggest cooking the turkey breast-side down the entire time at the same temperature until fully cooked. It’s easier, and it works. There’s no risk of overcooking which means you’ll get perfectly tender white breast meat.
After the bird is fully cooked, you can then flip it over and broil it to brown and crisp the skin on the turkey’s breast. This helps make it look more presentable.
If the idea of flipping the bird (ha) makes you nervous, you can always skip the final broil. Since the bird is well-coated in masala, the breast will already be a bit brown and there’s already plenty of crispy golden meat elsewhere on the bird. The turkey will still taste amazing.
How Long to Cook Turkey in the Oven
I suggest 15 minutes per pound of turkey.
- 10-pound turkey = 150 minutes = 2.5 hours
- 12-pound turkey = 180 minutes = 3 hours
- 14-pound turkey = 210 minutes = 3.5 hours
- 16-pound turkey = 240 minutes = 4 hours
The turkey is done when it registers 165°F for the thighs and 160°F for the breasts. I highly recommend getting a digital probe thermometer (this is the one I have) that goes inside the oven – it’ll alert you when the turkey reaches the correct temperature. I also use a digital instant read thermometer to take the temperature again, after taking the turkey out of the oven.
Having a thermometer is really nice – it’s reassuring. I know you may only use it a few times a year, but it’s worth having, even if only to quiet the nerves that come with preparing a high-stakes holiday meal.
How much turkey per person? How big of a turkey should I buy?
When trying to decide how big of a turkey to buy, I think it depends on how many other items you plan to have on the table. To be sure there’s enough meat, you can go for 1 to 1.5 pounds per person. If you have 10 people coming to dinner, you can get a 10 to 15-pound turkey.
If you have leftover turkey, you can always make my Festive Holiday Turkey Biryani!
Should I stuff the turkey?
No. Stuffing the bird can affect the cook time and can also prevent proper air circulation within the bird.
Can I use the drippings?
The bread in this recipe will absorb most of the drippings, so there won’t be much left to use. Also, the drippings here are going to be very salty, so I don’t think you’ll want to use them anyway.
Should I truss the bird?
Trussing a bird sounds complicated and while there are plenty of sophisticated ways to truss, my method is silly simple. Tie one string around the wings and another string around the legs, that’s it.
You only have to do this if you want the turkey to look nice on a platter – it’s really just for presentation purposes. The string keeps the wings and the legs from spreading out while roasting.
Should I tuck the wings behind the turkey? No, and here is why:
No, do not tuck the wings behind the turkey. The point of tucking the wings under the bird’s shoulders before roasting is to prevent the wing tips from burning, but when you are roasting the bird upside down (breast-side down) the entire time, the wing tips should be on the side, not tucked behind the back under direct heat. That’s why you’ll either want to truss the way I suggest above or leave them as they are.
What to Serve with Masala Turkey:
You can serve this Indian-style turkey with any of the sides below. I’d also suggest making some plain basmati rice and raita (my Beet Raita would be great) to go along with it.
- 1 12 to 15-pound turkey (cook time is 15 mins per pound)
Dry Brine Spices:
- 20 fresh or dried curry leaves, minced
- 3 tablespoons coarse kosher salt I use Morton’s Kosher Salt – the size of salt granules can vary by brand.
- 2 tablespoons coriander powder
- 2 tablespoons paprika or Kashmiri chili powder
- 2 tablespoons garam masala
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon roasted cumin powder
- 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons cayenne optional
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 2 teaspoons ginger powder
- 2 teaspoons onion powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 loaf of ciabatta bread 1 pound OR 6 gluten-free Udi’s buns
- 1 stick butter room temperature
For Serving (optional):
- 1-2 fresh bunches of cilantro
- 1-2 fresh bunches of mint
- 1-2 pomegranates cut into wedges
- 2-3 lemons cut into wedges.
- Thaw the turkey, if frozen. Thaw the turkey in the refrigerator. For a 12- to 15-pound turkey, this will take about 3 days, estimating 5 hours of thaw time for each pound of turkey. (If you have a 12-pound turkey, it’s about 60 hours or around 2 ½ days, to defrost in the refrigerator).
1 Day Before Roasting – Prepare the Turkey:
- Remove the turkey from the packaging and remove any unnecessary parts. Remove the thawed turkey from the wrapping. Remove the giblets and neck from inside the turkey’s cavity.
- Mix the spices together. Add the ingredients listed under “dry brine spices” together in a bowl and mix well. Set aside for now.
- Pat the turkey dry, loosen the skin, and season the meat. Pat the outside of the turkey dry with paper towels, then using your hands, gently loosen the skin over the breast and separate it from the meat, making sure to break through the thin membrane between the skin and breast while leaving the skin itself intact. Loosen the skin over the meaty part of the legs. Rub the dry brine mixture under the skin of the breasts, on legs, and wings as well as inside of the cavity and all over the turkey. I know it seems like a lot of masala, but use all of it!
- Truss the Turkey. Tie one piece of string around the wings to keep the wings close to the body (do not tuck them behind the neck! We are going to roast breast-side down and if you tuck them, they will burn), and then tie another piece of string around the legs to keep them together. This helps with the presentation of the bird once it’s done.
- Refrigerate. Place the turkey breast-side up (it will dry out better breast-side up) in a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate uncovered for 24 hours. After this length of time, you will notice that the turkey skin will look taut and dry, which is good as it will ensure crispy skin once cooked.
Roast the Turkey:
- Allow the turkey to sit on the counter at room temperature for 2 hours before roasting. A room temperature turkey cooks more quickly and more evenly.
- Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Make sure the oven rack is set in the lower-third of the oven.
- Cut a loaf of ciabatta bread in half (level if needed) and spread butter on both sides. If you are gluten-free, Udi’s hamburger buns work well – place them on the bottom of the pan.
- Place the bread in a dry, clean roasting pan, then place the turkey on the buttered bread so that the turkey is breast-side down. The breast should be facing the bread. Get any spices remaining in the other pan, scoop them up, and place them on the bird.
- Roast the turkey. Roast for 15 minutes per pound of meat, so if you have a 12-pound turkey, that’s 3 hours. The larger the turkey, the longer it will take to cook, so adjust the time accordingly. You don’t need to remove the turkey from the oven or open the oven door during this time. A digital probe thermometer is extremely helpful here. The turkey is ready when it registers 165°F for the thighs and 160°F for the breasts. (I also use a digital instant read thermometer to take the temperature again, after taking the turkey out of the oven. Remember, the meat will rise about an additional 10º as it rests).
- Remove the turkey from the oven and carefully, using clean oven mitts, turn the turkey over so that it is breast side up. This step can be messy, so make sure to protect your hands from the hot bird. Cut and remove the strings around the bird.
- Broil. Put the bird back into the oven with the breast side up and broil for 2 to 3 minutes or until the skin on the breast browns a bit. All broilers are different, so you will need to keep a very close eye on the turkey during this part! This is the only time you have to pay attention to the bird in the oven. I suggest keeping the oven light on and opening the oven door every minute to peek.
- Let it Rest. Remove the turkey from the oven and let it rest for 40 minutes before carving to allow time for the juices to redistribute within the meat. This way they won’t run out as soon as you slice into it.
- Decorate Platter & Carve Turkey. Put the turkey on a platter and arrange fresh bunches of cilantro and mint, pomegranate arils, and lemon wedges.
- If the idea of flipping the bird makes you nervous, you can always skip the final broil. Since the bird is well-coated in masala, the breast will already be a bit brown and there’s already plenty of crispy golden meat elsewhere on the bird. The turkey will still taste amazing.
- The bread is mainly to be used as a trivet and to protect the skin. I wouldn’t make plans to serve the bread as a side dish – it’ll be soaked with drippings and while some parts might be quite tasty, other parts of the bread might be too salty.