Thanksgiving is a holiday that’s all about food, and your turkey is what takes center stage. This post is the first in a series of 5 essential thermal principles you need to know to make this year’s Thanksgiving turkey the best yet! Keep an eye out for each new installment.
The number of recipes and cooking methods available to help you cook the perfect turkey are nearly endless. Regardless of the cooking method used or the size of your bird, temperature tracking is a major key to turkey success from start to finish, and the thermal principles we’ll cover apply to any cooking method.
When cooking a turkey, you need two thermometers, not just one. An oven-safe leave-in probe thermometer to track the cook and an instant read thermometer to verify its doneness. And the first thing you need to do to ensure perfect turkey doneness at the end of your cook, is to properly place the probe of your leave-in probe thermometer at the beginning.
The First Step: Accurate Probe Placement
For best results this Thanksgiving, place your thermometer’s oven-safe probe (today, we’re using a DOT® with a Pro Series® High Temp Straight Penetration probe [included with every DOT]) into the deepest part of the turkey breast, avoiding bone.
Bones have a different mass than that of meat fibers and conduct heat differently. A probe resting against a bone will not give an accurate temperature reading for the meat itself.
How to Place the Probe
- Insert the probe laterally, from near the neck cavity, parallel to the cutting board or pan.
- The probe’s tip should be about 1/2 to 1 inch (1.3 to 2.5 cm) from the internal cavity of the bird to avoid touching the bone.
With the DOT’s probe in place, we’re ready to track the internal temperature of the breast during the cook. Note that the target internal temperature for the leg meat is different, but we’ll cover how to measure that later in the series.
To Get it Right, Understand These 3 Things:
1. Temperature Gradients
While meat is cooking, heat transfers from the outside in. Because of this, the outside of a turkey will be at a higher temperature with lower temperatures as you move toward the center of the meat. This difference in temperature between the exterior and interior of the meat is referred to as a temperature gradient.
When cooking anything, the higher the temperature you cook at, the larger the temperature gradient inside the meat. That is, turkey cooked at 450°F [232°C] will have a larger band of overcooked meat around its edges than turkey cooked at 250°F [212°C]. —The Food Lab’s Step-by-Step Guide to Smoking A Turkey, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
Understanding temperature gradients leads right into the core of where to place your thermometer’s probe. The thermal center:
2. Thermal Center
The thermal center is the point in the turkey furthest from the exterior of the meat that takes the longest to cook.
The largest mass of the turkey is its breast meat, and the deepest part of the breast in its thickest area is where the thermal center will be. This lowest temperature is the one that needs to be tracked during the cook because your meat is only as done and safe as the lowest temperature found.
3. Know Your Thermometer’s Probe
For the most accurate probe placement, it helps to know a thing or two about your leave-in thermometer’s probe.
☼ Sensor location
• In the DOT’s probe, the sensor is situated in the very tip (within 1/8 of an inch [.3 cm] of the end of the probe). With the sensor in such a small area, you can pinpoint accurate readings from very small low-temperature gradients within the meat.
☼ Minimum Immersion Depth
• If you are using a bi-metal stem dial thermometer, be aware that the minimum immersion depth (usually marked with a dimple on the probe’s stem) can be up to 4 inches (10 cm) for an accurate reading. The temperature reading with a dial thermometer will be the average temperature over the entire length of the minimum immersion depth.
Turkey Cooking Challenges
We all want the same thing on Thanksgiving: a juicy, flavorful, picture-perfect turkey you can be proud to share with your loved ones. But most of us only cook a turkey once a year, making it difficult to get really good at making one in the first place. And cooking a whole turkey is actually a fairly complicated undertaking.
➤ Lack of Uniformity
The more uniform a piece of meat is in shape and size, the more evenly it will cook. This is why we tie up roasts and butterfly some cuts of meat before cooking them. Needless to say, whole turkeys are anything but uniform in shape.
The breasts are thick at one end and tapered toward the other, while the legs are quite a bit smaller. Not to mention the fact that some areas of the turkey are shielded from exposure to the heat of cooking. These different areas of the turkey simply will not cook at the same rate.
With all of these variables at play, accurate temperature tracking is never more critical to success than it is when cooking a turkey. Regardless of whether your bird this year is roasted, smoked, deep-fried, or spatchcocked, knowing how to track and spot-check the turkey’s internal temperature will allow you to cook this year’s bird with confidence. And the critical first step to gauging the internal temperature of your bird this Thanksgiving, is properly placing the probe.
More to Come…
Some of the other things you need to know to be master of perfect turkey this Thanksgiving include how to properly thaw a turkey, how to deal with the different muscle profiles of white and dark turkey meat, how to verify your turkey’s doneness and what to expect when resting your turkey.
Be sure to stay subscribed to our mailing list for more critical turkey tips in the coming weeks, and be your family’s Thanksgiving hero this year!