When prepping a bird for the oven, do you put water in a turkey roaster? If so, that’s not your best bet for the juiciest, flavorful meat. Learn why you shouldn’t add water to turkey roasting plans, plus score better, easier, and surefire tips to roast a turkey.

By Karla Walsh
Updated September 11, 2020
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From the looks of the happy family in Norman Rockwell’s iconic “Freedom From Want” painting, you might have grown up believing that whipping up a classic roast turkey is a simple and stress-free prospect. That is, until you actually got around to hosting Thanksgiving yourself and realized the bird brings up a whole host of questions. Do you stuff or bake that separately? How long do I cook a turkey for juicy meat? What’s the deal with brine? Do I put water in the roasting pan for turkey? That last question is what we’re here to discuss. Read on to learn more about cooking turkey with water in a pan, including answers from Butterball Turkey Talk-Line pros who field all of those queries and thousands more each holiday season.

Credit: Con Poulos

Should You Add Water to the Turkey Roasting Pan?

“You can imagine all the turkey cooking methods we’ve tested over our 39 years at the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line,” says Nicole Johnson, the director of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line located in Naperville, Illinois. “Often consumers will inquire about adding water to the bottom of their roasting pans. We do not recommend adding water to the bottom of the pan. Cooking a turkey with steam is a moist heat-cook method and is acceptable, sure, but is not the preferred method for cooking your turkey.”

While it likely won’t hurt—unless you don’t cook the turkey to a safe temp—there are five main reasons Johnson advises against cooking turkey with water in the pan:

  1. This will create spotty browning and may look underdone—even when the meat is fully cooked.
  2. The meat may separate from the bones, meaning you won’t have those emblematic handheld drumsticks to devour.
  3. The meat will be less flavorful by cooking via steam instead of roasting.
  4. The drippings will be less flavorful and not as concentrated as roast turkey drippings. As a result, your turkey gravy may taste lackluster. 
  5. Adding water to the turkey roasting pan can lead to spattering or popping during the roasting process as the turkey fat begins to melt and drips into the water. This may cause a mess in your oven that you’ll have to clean up later. (No, thank you!)

When roasting a turkey without water, the turkey will produce its own flavorful juices. After cooking, you can extend the turkey's juices with broth or wine, then add it to your gravy for extra flavor.

“The quantity of juices is influenced by whether the turkey is basted or unbasted. Pre-basted turkeys will have enhanced tenderness and juiciness and will contribute to flavorful drippings,” Johnson says.

So What Should You Do Instead of Cooking Turkey with Water in the Pan?

Johnson and her Butterball pros have found the most foolproof method (which our Test Kitchen also abides by) to be the flat rack roast, meaning roasting on a flat rack in a roasting pan so the turkey is lifted off the bottom of the pan. 

“The purpose of the flat rack is to allow heat circulation and expose more of the pan surface to heat. Ideally, a flat rack or a v-rack with a stable base should be used,” Johnson says. This BergHOFF EarthChef Roaster ($50, Bed Bath & Beyond) and this Ayesha Curry 11- 15-Inch Copper Nonstick Roasting Pan ($40, Target) are great options for each style—roasting pan included. “No rack? No problem. Crush a long length of foil into a ‘rope’ and form a ring which we like to refer to as our ‘coil of foil.’ You can also substitute out a rack by using whole raw vegetables like carrots and celery on the bottom of your roasting pan.”

The open pan, flat rack method is much more likely to produce an excellent golden-brown turkey, rich roasted flavor, with tender and juicy results than if you add water to the turkey roasting pan. 

A few more turkey tips from the Talk-Line pros to ace this water-free strategy: 

  • Opt for a shallow open roasting pan, no more than 2½ -3 inches deep.
  • Spray the turkey rack with nonstick cooking spray to prevent the turkey from sticking to the bottom of the hot pan and eliminate the need to add water to the turkey roasting pan.
  • Thaw your turkey in advance, keeping in mind that it takes 24 hours for every 4 pounds of turkey meat to thaw in your refrigerator. (But if you’re really in a crunch, we’ve got some turkey thawing hacks for that.)
  • Place a piece of foil (about the size of a notebook sheet of paper) over the breast about two-thirds through the roast time to prevent over-browning.

So skip the H2O and stop cooking turkey with water in a pan if you want a succulent, art-worthy, and delicious turkey this Thanksgiving. 

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