Craving a Thanksgiving turkey with juicy, tender meat and crisp, perfectly bronzed skin? Science can help.
That’s because there’s more to cooking the bird than simply tossing it in the oven: What you buy, how it’s prepared, the roasting method and temperature, and the resting process all factor into the final (delicious) result. Read on to learn the principles behind roasting a turkey right.
Avoid frozen birds. Freezing creates ice crystals that expand and puncture the meat’s cells. The meat can then leak as much as 10% of the bird’s moisture as it cooks. Fresh turkey meat stays juicier when cooked.
Go for pasture-raised. Much of a turkey’s flavor develops when its muscles are exercised. Muscles in the wings, thighs, and drumsticks are fueled by fat, and as these muscles exercise, their dark-meat flavor develops from aromatic compounds in the fat and from two proteins, myoglobin and cytochromes. (Less exercised breast meat tastes milder primarily because these muscles are fueled by glycogen instead of fat and contain fewer flavorful compounds.) Pasture-raised turkeys tend to get more exercise than those raised in the crowded pens of concentrated animal-feeding operations, so they develop more flavor.
Consider heritage breeds. Most turkeys sold in the U.S. are Broad Breasted White turkeys, which have been bred to produce about 70% mild-tasting white breast meat. These top-heavy turkeys are too ungainly o fly or reproduce naturally. On the other hand, heritage breeds, like Bourbon Red and Royal Palm, are closer to wild turkeys and have richer, gamier-tasting meat.
Skip self-basting birds. Broad Breasted White turkeys are often “enhanced” or injected with salt water (and “other approved substances,” according to the USDA) to mitigate the meat’s dryness and lack of flavor. While these “self-basting” birds are juicy, they still taste very mild. For more flavor as well as juiciness, start with a flavorful “unenhanced” turkey, and then brine it yourself (see below).
If you do buy a frozen bird, thaw it safely. A refrigerator set no higher than 40°F is the safest place, because foods that spoil easily should be kept out of the “danger zone” of 40°F to 140°F, where harmful bacteria tend to thrive. This refrigerator method can take up to six hours per pound, so a 16-lb. turkey could take four days to thaw. If you’re pressed for time, you can safely thaw a frozen turkey in cold water, which transfers heat more efficiently than the cold air of a refrigerator. This method cuts thawing time to about ½ hour per pound, or eight to ten hours for a 16-lb. turkey. Completely submerge the wrapped turkey in cold tap water and replace the cold water every 30 to 45 minutes to maintain a safe temperature.
Brine for juiciness. Turkey meat contains only 68% moisture and dries out easily. Brining (soaking in salt water) can increase the moisture content of cooked turkey meat by up to 10%. Salt in the brine breaks down and loosens protein in the meat, so when the turkey cooks and firms up, it squeezes out less moisture, which makes the cooked meat taste juicier. A typical ratio for a brine is 2 Tbs. kosher salt in 2½ cups water for every pound of turkey. Completely submerge the turkey in the brine and refrigerate for 16 to 18 hours.
Don’t brine all birds. Turkeys labeled “kosher,” “enhanced,” or “self-basting” have already been brined and do not need further brining.
Cook the stuffing safely. Stuffing inside the bird has to reach 160°F to be safe to eat, but by that point, the bird’s breast meat will be overcooked and dry. So cook the stuffing in a separate pan, and spoon some turkey drippings over it for flavor. If you must serve a stuffed bird, cook the stuffing and then spoon it loosely into the turkey toward the end of roasting.
Roast the turkey upside down. Typically, turkey breast meat finishes cooking before the leg meat. To solve this doneness discrepancy, start roasting your turkey breast side down at 450°F to transfer maximum heat directly to the legs and thighs while protecting the breast. After 45 minutes, lower the heat to 300°F. For the last hour of roasting (estimating that your turkey needs about 20 minutes per pound), flip the turkey breast side up. Thirty minutes before the turkey’s done, raise the heat to 375°F and brush the exposed skin with oil to crisp it.
Don’t cover. Covering the turkey with foil puts a shield between the heat radiating from the oven walls and the bird, slowing down heat transference from the oven. It also traps moisture around the skin, diminishing surface drying, and thereby decreasing browning and crisping. And while some people believe that a cover keeps the meat moist, it actually does the opposite. Trapping moisture under a cover will steam the meat rather than roast it; the moist heat denatures protein more thoroughly than dry heat, causing it to tighten and leach juice. If the skin is getting too dark before the turkey is done, it’s better to slow down heat transference by lowering the oven temperature rather than covering the bird.
Use a rack. Roasting on a rack set in a rimmed baking sheet or shallow roasting pan lifts the turkey off the pan, encouraging air circulation around the bird and speeding up cooking. A rack also keeps the bottom skin crisper by raising it above the juice in the pan.
Baste for color. Turkey skin browns because of a series of reactions between sugars and proteins, known as Maillard reactions. These begin when a free sugar connects with an amino acid in meat or skin protein. They form an unstable structure that produces hundreds of flavorful and colorful byproducts when exposed to high heat. Adding a little sugar-say, basting the skin periodically with pan juice mixed with dark agave or brown sugar-encourages Maillard browning. Contrary to popular opinion, basting doesn’t keep turkey meat from drying out (this is solely a function of overcooking), nor does it keep the skin from burning.
Use high heat for crisp skin. Turkey skin is loaded with collagen, a protein that turns gelatinous when wet. Eliminating moisture dehydrates the collagen, turning it crackling crisp. For super-crisp skin, crank the heat up for the last 30 minutes of roasting and brush with oil, which also promotes crispness by speeding the heat transfer from the oven to the turkey skin.
Rest for juiciness and easier carving. Heat makes the meat’s protein contract, forcing its moisture toward the center of the turkey. If sliced immediately, the juice runs readily from the center. Resting allows the juice at the center to redistribute more evenly throughout the meat. Also, as the turkey roasts, collagen in its connective tissue melts, tenderizing the meat. Letting the turkey cool for at least 15 minutes before carving gives the collagen a chance to cool and firm up, which allows you to cut thinner slices that hold their shape.
Degrease by cooling the pan drippings. Stir a few ice cubes into the drippings to cool them down and increase the amount of liquid. Because fat and water molecules are incompatible, and because fats have less surface tension than water, the fatty parts of the drippings will float on top of the watery meat juices. The ice cools the turkey fat, solidifying it, so that you can simply lift it off the liquid. Freezing the drippings for about 30 minutes will achieve the same effect.
Thicken gravy with pure starch. Wheat flour is a combination of about 75% starch and 10% protein by weight (the remainder is a mixture of moisture and plant fiber). When making gravy, only the starch in the flour acts as a thickener. To get more thickening power with less added thickener, use a pure starch like cornstarch, potato starch, tapioca, or rice starch instead of flour. One teaspoon of pure starch will thicken the same amount of liquid as 1 Tbs. of flour. Starch-thickened gravy is clearer and has deeper color than flour-thickened gravy; the protein in flour is what makes gravy opaque and pale.
David Joachim and Andrew Schloss are the authors of the award-winning reference book The Science of Good Food.