No other holiday has such a laser focus on a single piece of food–the Thanksgiving Turkey. Say what you will about the sweet potatoes, green beans, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, the pies, even the rolls (oh, those rolls); all eyes are on the turkey on Thanksgiving afternoon. They don’t call it Turkey Day for nothing.
If the turkey isn’t right, the day gets an asterisk. If the turkey is just perfect, everything seems brighter. And YET, how often do you cook a whole turkey during the other 364 days of the year? Maybe Christmas? Maybe never?
Cooking a perfect Thanksgiving Turkey on cue is a little like being called in to throw the winning touchdown when you haven’t thrown a ball all year.
So here’s a little gift from us to you: a few key concepts and principles to help guide you on the big day. This is not a recipe, mind you. These principles should work with whatever recipe or cooking method you choose. But understanding these basic concepts and principles should give you the leg up on your competition (Aunt Sally??) and help assure your super-star status with the family come Turkey Day. Disregard these ideas at your own peril!
Underlying Concept: Two Very Different Types of Meat in One Turkey
You have to understand that with turkeys, it’s all about getting even results. There are so many variables to keep track of (the size of the bird, the type and direction of the heat: above? below? oven? grill? charcoal? gas? etc.). But the basic storyline always boils down to this: white meat versus dark meat.
Before you cue the Darth Vader theme music, all we’re saying is that it is almost impossible to get both types of meat to their desired degree of doneness on the same bird at the same time unless you take special measures. Dark meat has a lot of connective tissue and needs to reach a higher final temperature than white meat, which tends to dry out at higher temperatures.
We’ll examine some techniques to deal with this basic conundrum, but one of the best things you can do is make sure the entire turkey is fully thawed. Let’s repeat that for emphasis…
Principle 1: Fully Thaw Your Turkey
Proper thawing is the foundation for all success. There are two ways to thaw a turkey but only one way to be sure you’ve done it thoroughly.
Thaw Method 1: The Fridge
The preferred method is to put your turkey breast side up on a rimmed cookie sheet in your refrigerator and let it thaw gently (allow at least one day for every five pounds of Turkey). For most of you, this means buying a frozen turkey on a Saturday or Sunday and letting it rest on the very bottom shelf of your refrigerator until Thursday morning.
Thaw Method 2: The Bath
If you don’t have several days at your disposal, you can try the speed method. Place your unopened turkey (it must be in an airtight bag) breast side down in a basin or sink full of cold tap water. Try to cover the turkey with an inch or two of water, though your turkey may want to float. Allow 30 minutes per pound, so it will still take some time. And don’t go far because you’ll want to drain the basin and fill it again (or add ice cubes) every time the water gets above 45°F (usually every 20 minutes to half hour) to avoid bacterial growth.
“Be Certain” Method 1 and Only: A Thermometer
Use an instant-read digital thermometer like a Super-Fast Thermapen to check the temperature of the turkey meat in various locations. If the meat is colder near the bone or center of the bird than near the surface, keep thawing! You want about a 40-45°F reading throughout.
Principle 2: Dry Surface, Moist Interior
Now that your turkey is thawed, it’s ready for the oven right? Not so fast! A couple of things you’ll want to consider…
1) What to put inside your turkey?
Mostly we say no to actually putting the stuffing inside of the bird. But if you’re a strict traditionalist, it’s a good idea to cook the stuffing in the microwave before it actually goes into the bird. If you bring the stuffing to 120-130°F before spooning it into the bird (too hot to handle with your hands) you stand a much better chance of hitting your food safety target of 165°F when all is said and done. A cheesecloth sack around the stuffing is also a good idea–it makes it easier to retrieve the stuffing from the bird when it’s time to carve. If the turkey meat reaches temperature and the stuffing is still below 165°F, you’ll be stuck. You’ll need to keep cooking the turkey until the stuffing reaches a safe temperature, which means the turkey meat will likely be dry and overcooked. That’s why it’s a good idea to pre-heat the stuffing or simply cook it separately.
Stuffing in the center cavity (and neck cavity) and sealing the cape flap of skin over the opening with a string truss* or bamboo skewers also has the effect of keeping moist air inside the bird while it is roasting. However, you can achieve this same result with a “stuffing” of diced carrots, celery, and onions that you will later discard or with an herbal rub inside the bird. (Google “Herb-Roasted Turkey”).
2) What to put on the outside of your turkey?
Watery meat (of any kind) is slower to cook. The heat of the oven or grill must first work to evaporate the surface water before the cooking really begins. Because of this, most recipes recommend you pat your turkey dry with paper towels right before you put it in the oven. This is particularly important if your chosen recipe involves brining your turkey (soaking it in saltwater). Be sure to get the entire surface of the turkey (even the inside surface of the main cavity and neck cavity) nice and dry before basting. Then, lather on the butter or oil or butter and spices (whatever your recipe calls for) and go to work with your baster.
If you want extra crispy turkey, a little extra effort up front can pay real dividends. Air-drying, or leaving your turkey uncovered in the refrigerator for the morning (8 hours) or the entire day before (24 hours) will help produce a crispier skin.
Principle 3: Uneven Cooking Time
As mentioned, the white turkey meat in the breasts and the dark meat in the thighs and drumsticks cook differently. Dark meat is naturally moist while white meat has a tendency to dry out. The USDA used to recommend cooking white meat to 170°F and dark meat to 180°F, but in 2006, they revised their recommendation to 165°F throughout. That is a basic food safety recommendation, but in our experience, the white meat is optimal when it peaks at 165°F and dark meat at 175-185°F.
How do you get different parts of the same bird to reach different temperatures in the same oven? That’s a very good question. Here are three ideas:
1) Rotating the bird
One of simplest ways to achieve differing temperatures for the different types of turkey meat is simply to rotate the bird halfway through the cooking process. Test kitchen recipes almost always recommend starting with the turkey upside-down (breast-side down) and then flipping the bird back right-side up halfway through the cooking process. This leverages the natural shape of the turkey, with the legs and thighs being thinner and on the outside of the bird and ensures a nice, even golden skin all the way around. Some recipes even recommend turning the turkey leg up and then other leg up for 15 minutes each before finally turning the bird breast-side up.
Of course, this technique begs the question of how to turn a hot turkey mid-way through your cook. Tongs don’t really fit around a turkey. But two good wads of paper towels can be used to grip the bird at the neck and tail and “barrel-roll” the bird when you reach the half-way point (be sure to close the oven door while you do this to preserve heat). It’s also important to remember to line your V-rack and/or roasting pan with foil and give it a coating of non-stick spray to make sure the breast doesn’t stick.
Note: A large bird (18-22 lbs.) can be difficult to rotate. If you choose to skip rotating the bird and leave it breast side up the entire time, you may need to loosely cover the turkey with foil when it is two-thirds done to avoid over-browning. Keep an eye on it.
2) Icing the bird
Another more unconventional idea is to actually rest ziploc bags half-filled with ice on the breast meat and inside the turkey cavities for an hour prior to roasting. This pre-supposes a fully thawed turkey, of course, but can bring down the temperature of the white meat itself to give the dark meat a head start come roasting time Be sure the ice doesn’t touch the legs. And you’ll want to increase your recipe’s roasting temperature by about 25°F if you try this adventurous method. (None of us do this, but other experts do.)
3) Cutting the bird
Recently, some top chefs have recommended butterflying the turkey or actually cutting it into pieces before roasting. This, of course, deprives your family of that Norman Rockwell moment when you place the golden bird surrounded by garnish in the center of your family table and step back to receive the adulation of your adoring public, but it makes a ton of sense if what you’re most interested in is delicious moist turkey meat.
Good step-by-step instructions on how to cut your turkey into pieces and artfully roll the breasts together into a single “roast” like cylinder of juicy turkey meat can be found here and step-by-step butterfly instructions can be found here.
Once cut, arrange your turkey pieces on rimmed baking sheets fitted with a rack, leaving at least a 1/4 inch between pieces. If butterflying, tuck the wings tucked under the breasts and push the the legs up on the lower portion of the breast on the same rack and baking sheet.
Principle 4: Temperature, Not Time
Your chosen turkey recipe should be very explicit about how hot your oven or grill should be to roast the turkey (usually between 275°F and 400°F) and how long to keep it in (usually between 1 and a half hours and 3 hours, depending upon the size of the turkey). It’s useful, however, to keep two ideas in the back of your mind:
1) Low and Slow
Larger birds tend to be more evenly done and moist when cooked at lower temperature for longer. If your bird is 18 pounds or heavier, there should be alternative roasting instructions allowing you to reduce the oven or grill temperature halfway through and extend the cooking time (say 400°F for an hour with the breast-side down, and 250°F for two hours with the breast-side up).
2) Temperature is king, not Time.
Time recommendations are helpful for getting in the ballpark, but getting the different parts of the turkey to the right temperature is the absolute key to success. Whatever method you choose for roasting, we recommend pulling your turkey when the white breast meat reaches 155-158°F, so that the meat can then rise to 165°F during resting. The dark meat should be pulled when it reaches 165-168°F (which is easy to do if you can take out the parts separately and a little more tricky if the bird is still whole).
The best way to ensure great results is to have both an Oven Alarm Thermometer (like the ChefAlarm) and an instant-read thermometer (like the Super-Fast Thermapen). Place the probe of the Oven Alarm Thermometer so the tip is at the thickest part on of the breasts near the cavity. Be sure to avoid the bone. Set the alarm to sound when the breast meat reaches 145-147°F (ten to fifteen degrees below the temperature at which we want to pull the bird out of the oven). Once the alarm sounds, check the turkey in several places with a highly accurate instant-read thermometer (like the Thermapen) to gauge doneness until you reach your target.
The best places to check with your instant-read are in the thickest part of each thigh, and through the top or “shoulder” of the bird, parallel to the roasting pan, towards the thickest part of the breast on each side.
Principle 5: Resting the Meat
Last but not least, don’t forget to rest your bird before serving. This allows all the juices that gather during roasting to be reabsorbed into the fibers of the turkey meat. If you skip resting, you will likely spill flavorful juices out onto the platter when the turkey is carved.
Rest your turkey for at least half an hour up to a full hour and a half before serving. As we mentioned in the previous section, you can expect an increase in temperature during the resting phase, from 10°F to 15°F or more, depending upon the size of the bird. Larger birds will have a greater increase in temperature.
Your final temperature should be about 165°F for the breast meat and about 175-185°F for the drumsticks and thighs. Do you need to be exact? No, Keep in mind that the required time for the pasteurization of poultry meat at 155°F is only one minute. So if you are confident you’ve kept your bird at at least 155°F for a full minute than you should be safe.
In passing, it is interesting to note, that most Thanksgiving Day illness comes not from undercooked turkey (most people cook it to the balsa-wood stage) but from not being careful with cleaning and disposing of the raw turkey juices on dishes, utensils, kitchen rags and towels and splashes on countertops.
There you have it! A few key principles that can make all the difference when you’re trying for a touchdown this coming Thanksgiving. Whatever recipe you choose, remember, to get the right doneness takes careful control of temperature–one more reason its awfully nice to have a Super-Fast Thermapen handy!