The songs were initially recorded at Caribou Ranch with members of Elton John's band and produced by Chicago producer James William Guercio. Dissatisfied with the results, Joel dismissed Guercio. He then took over as producer and returned to New York, where he re-recorded the album in its entirety. Producing his own record allowed Joel to use his own touring band, which consisted of Long Island musicians Richie Cannata and all four members of the band Topper: Liberty DeVitto, Russell Javors, Howie Emerson, and Doug Stegmeyer. Turnstiles marked the first time that Joel's band played on one of his studio albums.
Joel has stated in an online interview that the album cover photo was shot in "an abandoned subway station." It was actually shot in the Astor Place station on the IRT Lexington Avenue Line of the New York City Subway. In the same interview, Joel notes that each of the characters on the album cover was meant to represent a particular song (e.g., the girl in headphones for "All You Wanna Do is Dance," the wealthy couple for "I've Loved These Days").
In the 1998 CD reissue of Turnstiles, the original version of "New York State of Mind" with Richie Cannata on saxophone was replaced with the version featuring Phil Woods on that instrument, which appeared for the first time in the Greatest Hits Volume 1 & 2 compilation album in 1985.