Turkey lovers, you’ve been lied to. Picture in your mind’s eye the perfect Thanksgiving spread: crusty and moist stuffing, creamy green beans, wiggly cranberry sauce, and that glistening chestnut-brown turkey. It’s that last bit I’m talking about. A turkey will never come out of the oven roasted to a perfectly even mahogany color that gleams and sparkles on the platter, no matter how you light the room. IRL, the roasted bird will have dark spots and pale spots (wing crease, I’m looking at you) and look matte and puckery by the time you bring it to the table for carving. In other words, it will be rather fugly when you take a second look.
That perfect holiday spread you’ve seen in glossy mags for years, then, is all a food stylist’s trickery: The secret to an Instagram-perfect turkey is a glaze I call “motor oil.”
I was once the chef of an upscale deli where we moved a lot of poultry: Rotisserie chickens, roasted turkey breasts, duck legs, goose, you name it — if it was once a bird, it was in our deli case. To make them all look enticing to our discerning customers, I brushed them with a mixture of equal parts soy sauce and molasses: It makes a dark, viscous mixture that, when brushed on a cooked turkey or other meaty roast, creates a welcoming glimmer. The stickiness of the molasses helps adhere the mixture to the surface of the roast without just sliding off, as soy sauce alone would do. And despite motor oil’s moody, goth look, it actually adds a subtle flavor of sweet, salty, and umami, with a twinge of something like dark maple syrup in the finish. In other words, it tastes like Thanksgiving.
To use motor oil, baste the roast with it once during the last 10 minutes of cooking — any earlier and you risk the sugars in the molasses burning. Then, when the bird is out of the oven, motor-oil it again as it rests in the pan. Once it’s on the serving platter, give it another little touch-up, just a few brushes of the stuff anywhere that looks pale right before you bring it to the table. (Don’t overdo it once it’s on the platter; you don’t want your roast dripping like Giuliani at a press conference.)
Motor oil helps with gravy, too. Good-looking gravy is not an anemic beige color unless it comes out of a packet, which it shouldn’t. Gravy should be rich-looking, matching the color of that beautiful bird you just put makeup on. The great news is that a little drizzle of motor oil in your gravy will give it a toasted hazelnut hue and a savory boost that makes it so good, you’ll want to roll around in it. I mean, why add just salt to a sauce you slaved over when you can add umami and sweet, salty roundness?
I usually avoid weird food-stylist trickery when I actually cook. I don’t spray my veggies with glycerin to make them look “fresh,” score my steaks with a hot metal skewer to make them look more perfectly grilled, or pour Elmer’s glue on my cereal instead of milk so it’ll look less blue-hued in my Insta posts. But in the isolated case of motor oil, form does follow function, so I’ll be vamping up my turkeys this way forever.
Ivy Manning is a Portland, Oregon, food writer and author of 10 cookbooks, including the best-selling Instant Pot Miracle 6 Ingredients or Less. She loves her whippets, and truffles of both kinds. Dina Ávila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Photo assistant: Eric Fortier