The Most Flavorful Roasted Turkey Legs or Thighs

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A simple spice rub and one clever trick are the keys to crispy skin and tender, juicy meat that's brimming with flavor. Easy to prep ahead and pop in the oven when ready. 

A simple spice rub and one clever trick are the keys to crispy skin and tender, juicy meat that’s brimming with flavor. Easy to prep ahead and pop in the oven when ready. 

 

 

 

 

 

Where turkey and chicken are concerned, there have long been two distinct camps: Team White Meat and Team Dark.

This recipe is dedicated to all those who prefer the deeper flavor of the latter as well as for white meat enthusiasts who enjoy the occasional variety. It also comes in handy when you don’t want to cook a whole turkey, or with families like mine, where three people consistently vie for a turkey’s two drumsticks.

For the record, after eating this recipe quite a few times recently as I strived to perfect the flavor and cooking method, my family proclaimed that it should be served all year round. They also declared a new favorite turkey part!

Would you believe that the boys who for years brokered deals over turkey legs declared the thighs as the winner by a small margin? (Look below the recipe for a cutie who will gladly take their legs!)

A simple spice rub and one clever trick are the keys to crispy skin and tender, juicy meat that's brimming with flavor. Easy to prep ahead and pop in the oven when ready. 

The beauty of this recipe is that you can prepare any amount you like, from one turkey part to many. Simply choose a baking dish (or rimmed baking sheet) that accommodates the number of parts with some breathing space, but not too much. Closer quarters prevent the pan juices from cooking off, while a little bit of space between multiple pieces ensures the air circulation necessary to crisp the skin. 

When the meat is done, you may broil the turkey for a minute or two if the skins aren’t browned to your liking, watching closely to avoid burning. I’ve broiled on occasion, although the pictured batch came out of the oven looking exactly as you see it, with no broiling. Factors such as color of baking dish/sheet (dark pans aid browning) and total number of parts cooked lead to subtle variances from batch to batch. Individual ovens vary, too, so you may or may not feel inclined to do this.

You may also cook a combination of thighs and legs. And in the interest of keeping everyone happy, you could absolutely follow this recipe using a bone-in, skin-on turkey breast half. Simply check on the early side and stop cooking when the internal temperature reaches 165℉. This temperature is lower than that preferred for dark meat and key to tender, juicy white meat.

Leading up to Thanksgiving, you’ll tend to see turkey parts that are quite large. If you’ve ever seen those really big drumsticks at Disney World-or for locals, at the Renaissance Faire-think at least that big!

I’ve been purchasing turkey from Shenk’s Poultry at Lancaster Central Market. Roger Shenk said that most of the parts weigh in the one pound plus range leading up to and through the holidays and are somewhat smaller the rest of the year. This is because the turkey farmers tend to breed bigger birds to meet the holiday demand. That said, the smaller turkey parts in the off-season will still be a good bit larger than the typical chicken drumstick or thigh. 

 

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How much is in a serving?

Plan on two servings per pound of bone-in turkey. If you have hearty eaters who enjoy their own piece, however, you may prefer to purchase one part per person and enjoy any leftovers. In my family, the guys do like their own piece but are fine with me slicing off a portion for myself. I get plenty this way and they do, too.

So, while this recipe will nicely accommodate a Thanksgiving for one or two, it will also come in handy when there are a lot of dark meat eaters. And because leftovers taste terrific, I always cook a few extra parts. I’ve even frozen some after cooking for a quick meal at-the-ready. 

A simple spice rub and one clever trick are the keys to crispy skin and tender, juicy meat that's brimming with flavor. Easy to prep ahead and pop in the oven when ready. 

What makes this recipe really shine?

  • Starting with a dry rub consisting of a few basic herbs and spices locks in flavor and moisture without the mess of a wet brine. Conveniently, this simple but effective step may be done several days in advance. 
  • I borrowed the second trick from my crispy buffalo wing recipe and traditional whole roasted turkey recipe, and it’s easy. The night before or the morning of cooking the turkey, you pat the pieces dry and refrigerate them, uncovered, in a single layer. This allows the skin to dry out a little, and that means the skin will become crispier when cooked. It’s a simple trick with a big payoff. 
  • Spreading a layer of softened butter over the dried-out skin just before baking further crisps the skin and enhances the golden brown color.
  • The best part? A delicious end result can be achieved in a few easy steps with the added ease of advance prep. And though you can prepare whatever amount is needed, leftovers can be enjoyed in so many ways and freeze well.

 

So let’s get started!

A simple spice rub and one clever trick are the keys to crispy skin and tender, juicy meat that's brimming with flavor. Easy to prep ahead and pop in the oven when ready. 

What are the benefits of a dry brine over a wet brine? More flavor and less mess! The simple rub can be sprinkled on the turkey up to two days before cooking.

A simple spice rub and one clever trick are the keys to crispy skin and tender, juicy meat that's brimming with flavor. Easy to prep ahead and pop in the oven when ready. 

After refrigerating the turkey parts uncovered-a trick to ensure crisp skin-the softened or melted butter is spread over the skin before popping the turkey in the oven.

A simple spice rub and one clever trick are the keys to crispy skin and tender, juicy meat that's brimming with flavor. Easy to prep ahead and pop in the oven when ready. 

Cooking the turkey to an internal temperature of 175℉-180℉ ensures fully cooked meat that is tender and flavorful.

A simple spice rub and one clever trick are the keys to crispy skin and tender, juicy meat that's brimming with flavor. Easy to prep ahead and pop in the oven when ready. 

The recipe is written so that it can be easily be adjusted for any amount of turkey, making it ideal for one person or a crowd. As an aside, if you compare this photo to the one prior to cooking, you can see how the pieces shrink somewhat as they cook. 

A simple spice rub and one clever trick are the keys to crispy skin and tender, juicy meat that's brimming with flavor. Easy to prep ahead and pop in the oven when ready. 

As delightful as this turkey is served alongside the traditional Thanksgiving sides, it offers a lovely alternative to chicken all year round.

 

Don’t miss links to a more holiday classics below the recipe card. ⇩⇩

The Most Flavorful Roasted Turkey Legs or Thighs
Yield: 2 servings per 1-pound thigh or leg (recipe is easy to scale up and adjust by weight of turkey parts)
A simple spice rub and one clever trick are the keys to crispy skin and tender, juicy meat that's brimming with flavor. Easy to prep ahead and pop in the oven when ready. 
Ingredients
  • Per pound of turkey (approximately 1 large turkey leg or thigh*)
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt (use a scant ½ teaspoon if using table salt)
  • ¼ teaspoon EACH freshly ground black pepper and garlic powder
  • ⅛ teaspoon EACH dried thyme, sage, and paprika
  • 1 tablespoon butter, softened or melted**

 

Instructions

Mix the dry rub: In a small bowl, combine the salt, pepper, garlic powder, dried thyme, sage, and paprika. (Prep ahead tip: this may be done several days in advance and stored, covered, at room temperature.)

1-2 days before roasting the turkey: Pat the turkey dry with a paper towel if wet, and then sprinkle the herb mixture all over, gently working some under the skin and then pulling the skin back to cover the meat. Transfer the turkey to a zip-top plastic bag. Seal the bag and refrigerate on a rimmed baking sheet or plate (or wrapped in another bag to catch any leaks) for 1-2 days, turning over a few times if you think of it.

The night before or earlier in the day of cooking: Remove the turkey from the bag and pat dry with a paper towel. Place the turkey, uncovered, back on the baking sheet. Return to the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or overnight in order to dry out the skin (this helps crisp it).

When ready to roast:  Remove the turkey from the refrigerator and allow it to sit at room temperature while the oven preheats. Preheat the oven to 350℉. Brush the turkey skin with the melted butter, or smear it on if you opted to soften the butter. Place the turkey in a baking dish and roast, uncovered, for 45-50 minutes or until the internal temperature taken in the meatiest part of the thigh or leg reads 175℉-180℉. (Tip: Check a little early and extend the cooking time as needed based on size of turkey part and typical oven variances.)

At this point, if you prefer slightly crisper/browner skin, you may switch to the broil setting and broil for a minute or two, watching very carefully to avoid burning. Allow the turkey to rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Notes

*If the weight of your leg or thigh varies, simply go a little heavy or light on the seasonings and adjust cooking time up or down slightly.

**I have skipped the butter and the results are still good. However, the skin will not crisp as much or brown quite as deeply and evenly.

Prefer turkey breasts? You could replace the leg or thigh with a bone-in, skin-on turkey breast half, following the recipe as instructed but reducing the cooking time to achieve an internal temperature of 165℉.

A few more things:
Dark meat is more forgiving (harder to try out) than white meat and, I think, tastes better when it is cooked to a slightly higher temperature than is called for with breast meat (175-180℉ versus 165℉).

I get about ¼ cup of pan juices from each pound of turkey, which is delicious drizzled overtop the turkey or mashed potatoes, stuffing, etc. If desired, you could thicken it and turn into gravy (or add it to this make-ahead gravy base).

The Fountain Avenue Kitchen https://fountainavenuekitchen.com/

 

🦃 More holiday favorites:

This hands-off, foolproof way to achieve tender, juicy white meat can be prepped the night ahead if desired and the gravy is spectacular.

Slow Cooker Turkey Breast and Gravy is the white meat complement to the recipe above, and is equally ideal for smaller get-togethers or to ensure leftovers with larger gatherings. The hands-off method virtually ensures tender, juicy white meat and the gravy options are excellent! 

HOW TO ROAST THE PERFECT TURKEY - Step-by-step instructions guarantee a perfectly seasoned turkey with crisp skin and white meat that's just as juicy as the dark meat. If you already have a tried-and-true recipe, you may simply like to incorporate the easy dry rub or the night-before tip for crisper skin!

Of course, if you’re looking to cook the whole bird, this how-to guide will answer all your questions and produce a perfectly cooked turkey with ease.

SLOW COOKER STUFFING (with oven method) -Tender stuffing with crispy edges is 100% possible in a slow cooker, freeing up precious oven space. Classic flavor will win you over, optional add-ins and prep-ahead tips will keep everyone happy!

Slow cooker stuffing saves oven space and produces those much-loved crispy edges. They are simply on the sides and bottom, where they make contact with the cooker.

Stuffing Balls  -  Clever, portion-controlled, and a surefire hit on a holiday table or alongside a variety of poultry and pork dishes throughout the year. They’re easy to make for any size crowd and offer prep-ahead convenience.

Stuffing Balls are a fun alternative to the classic preparation and offer built-in portion-control and prep-ahead convenience.

A quick and easy base to which pan drippings are added for a deliciously stress-free (and lump-free!) gravy. May be prepared up to 4 days in advance.

Making gravy can be a pain in the neck, but not with this gravy base. It can be prepared well in advance and pan juices may be stirred in at the last minute. And no lumps!

For additional inspiration from breakfast through dessert, feel free to peruse the various recipe categories, which will reveal the likes of…

 

A simple spice rub and one clever trick are the keys to crispy skin and tender, juicy meat that's brimming with flavor. Easy to prep ahead and pop in the oven when ready. 

I sent some turkey home with Donovan Witmer, who helped me with the photography for this post. His son was a fan of the legs! 

 

 

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Comments

  1. emily russo

    I’ve been holding off on weeknight turkey in anticipation of thanksgiving….but after seeing this (and Donovan’s son’s face) I may have to make for the kiddos sooner than later!

    Reply
    1. Ann Post author

      Turkey is now being requested far more often around here, that’s for sure! And there is something fun about wielding the whole drumstick…especially when you’re little and it’s so big!

      Reply
  2. Lisa Post author

    I made a combination of thighs and legs for Thanksgiving and the skin was perfectly crisp and the meat so full of flavor. A definite keeper and we are beyond thankful for the leftovers!

    Reply
    1. Ann Post author

      I’m so happy to read your comment, Lisa. Coincidently, we just enjoyed leftovers of the roasted thighs last night!

      Reply