From Fine Cooking #113, pp. 34-35
by David Joachim and Andrew Schloss
Crisp, bronzed skin, juicy meat, flavorful pan drippings: These are the hallmarks of a perfectly cooked turkey. Unfortunately, these qualities aren’t always easy to achieve, and all too often, the turkey ends up dry and overcooked. To roast the tastiest bird, cooks employ a wide array of culinary tricks; here are some of the most common ones, plus the science behind how (and whether) they work.
Brining makes a bird juicy
This process involves soaking a whole turkey in a salt solution, also known as a brine. The salt in the brine breaks down proteins in the meat and exposes more bonding sites for water molecules, which allows the meat to retain more water as it cooks. During brining, a turkey absorbs 10 to 15 percent additional weight in water. As it cooks, the bird naturally loses 20 to 30 percent of its initial water content, so brining cuts the net loss in half. The result: a juicier turkey. The meat is also tenderer, because some of the broken-down proteins stay soft during cooking, rather than coagulating and firming up as they normally would. Another plus, the salt in the brine makes the bird taste more seasoned (Read Why Brining Keeps Meat So Moist for more on this). On the downside, the pan drippings from a brined bird can be very salty, so be sure to use little to no additional salt in gravy made from the drippings. (Watch the video to learn how to apply a dry brine to your turkey).
Trussing is just for good looks
Tying the turkey’s legs in place helps the bird hold its compact shape, allowing for a more attractive presentation at the table. (Watch our Test Kitchen demo to learn how to properly truss a turkey). But it also reduces the amount of hot air circulating around the legs during roasting and increases the likelihood that the breast meat will overcook before the leg meat is done. You can truss for appearance’s sake, but if you’re planning to skip the table presentation and carve in the kitchen, you’ll get a more evenly roasted bird by leaving it untrussed.
Basting prevents over cooking and browns the skin
Moistening the bird with broth or another watery liquid slows down heat transfer, because the surface cools as the basted on moisture evaporates. This can help keep the turkey breast from overcooking. Basting the turkey evenly with a clear fat like clarified butter or oil during the last 20 to 30 minutes of roasting has the opposite effect, speeding up heat transfer and helping to create a darkly bronzed bird with crisp skin.
Turning the turkey lets it cook evenly
Roasting a bird breast side down for at least half of the cooking time shields the delicate breast meat from heat currents in the oven. It also exposes the thigh meat to direct heat, resulting in more even doneness overall. But at some point, the bird has to be turned breast side up to allow the skin on the breast to brown and crisp. Plan on roasting the turkey breast side up for at least the last hour of roasting. If the breast skin doesn’t show signs of browning, raise the oven temperature slightly and baste the skin with clarified butter or oil. Or as an alternative to flipping, cook the bird breast side up the whole time, but shield the breast with foil until the last half of the roasting time.
Resting the bird makes it easier to carve
A turkey that sits at room temperature for at least 30 minutes after roasting tastes juicier. As the turkey rests, the meat cools down, ideally to about 130°F, which is pleasantly hot for eating. Meanwhile, the proteins in the meat firm up as it cools, so it becomes easier to carve, holds its shape when sliced, and is better able to retain its juice in every slice.
To Stuff or Not to Stuff?
Whether it’s cooked inside the turkey or out, stuffing must reach 160°F to kill bacteria and make it safe to eat. But by the time it reaches that temperature inside the bird, the breast meat is at a much higher temperature and therefore becomes overcooked and dry. That’s why we don’t recommend stuffing the bird. Instead, cook the stuffing separately. To infuse it with turkey flavor, you can spoon some of the turkey pan drippings onto the stuffing just before baking it in its own pan, or spoon the cooked stuffing into the cooked bird for serving. (Watch a video for a step-by-step demo on the best method for stuffing a turkey, ensuring thorough, even cooking for both the stuffing and the bird).