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Forty-six million turkeys die every year in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. I don’t have a problem with that; I’d be a hypocrite to say I did and then put one on my Thanksgiving table. My moral repulsion kicks in when I consider how many turkeys have to die twice—once in the slaughterhouse, and once during a prolonged stay in the oven of a cook who doesn’t care or doesn’t know better.
The Trouble with Tradition
Unless you nerd out on science-based food media like I do, you might lack some fundamental knowledge about the challenges of cooking a turkey—that’s not your fault.
As of 2006, USDA guidelines recommend cooking to 165 degrees on every part of the bird, including the stuffing. Much worse—in accordance with previous guidelines, many turkey companies still stick birds with pop-up thermometers that go off at 180-185 degrees. Unfortunately, these are both recipes for failure.
Farm-raised turkeys don’t fly much, so their breasts—designed to power the wings—don’t get much of a workout throughout their lifespans. As with the tenderloins of most four-legged creatures, turkey breasts are naturally tender and should be cooked just past the point where they’re no longer raw—150-155 degrees is ideal.
As ground dwelling birds, turkeys’ legs and thighs receive the bulk of their physical workload. The harder-working parts develop collagen, a tough muscle fiber that needs to be cooked longer to become tender. In the case of poultry, this workload is the difference between white meat and dark meat. Dark meat should be cooked to at least 165 degrees.
So how do we perfectly cook a bird to two different temperatures? For starters, we don’t stuff it. It doesn’t matter what’s in your stuffing; if it comes into contact with raw turkey, it needs to be cooked to be sterilized. By the time the very center of the stuffing reaches a safe temperature, the delicate white meat will inevitably be incinerated. I’m not saying we should skip the stuffing—I just recommend making it separately using turkey (or chicken) stock to emulate the flavor of stuffing the bird. If you want brown crispy bits and a more whimsical presentation, consider making your stuffing in mini muffin pans.
Brining works on a microscopic level to increase the meat’s water retention, which effectively limits the damage of overcooking—but only to a certain extent. If you want to maximize your turkey’s potential in both white and dark meat, you must alter its geometry to ensure the dark meat cooks faster than the white.
The New (and Improved) Normal
Fortunately, over the last few years, my Mount Rushmore of American food writers and recipe developers has come to a unanimous decision about the best way to cook a turkey in order to yield a juicier, better cooked, showstopper of a bird in less time and with less effort than traditional brining, stuffing and roasting.
If cooking up the juiciest, crispiest-skinned, most technically perfect Thanksgiving turkey possible interests you, follow the steps below. For more, check out J. Kenji López-Alt’s expertly researched and delightfully down-to-earth report in his Serious Eats column, The Food Lab.
1. Spatchcock your bird. Spatchcocking is the poultry-specific term for butterflying: a process in which the backbone is cut out with poultry shears, flipped breast-side up and flattened out with a firm CPR-style push to the breast plate. A quick YouTube search of “spatchcocking a turkey” will render you an expert in minutes—and if the process seems a little too similar to the end of “Braveheart” for your comfort level, most butchers (like our friends at The Butcher’s Market) are more than happy to sell you a bird and spatchcock it for you.
Spatchcocking increases the surface area of the bird, especially near the legs and thighs, allowing it to cook more efficiently. Since the legs and thighs need to be cooked more than the breast, this geometrical adjustment is extremely advantageous.
2. Dry-brine your turkey the day before. Classically brining your turkey can be messy, and depending on the size of your bird, can take up a lot of space. Many of the pros recommend a process called dry brining. To dry-brine your spatchcocked turkey, liberally apply salt and spices to every part of the bird. Let it rest uncovered on a wire rack over a sheet tray overnight. If you can only find pre-brined turkeys (like Butterball or any bird that has salt in the ingredients list), skip the salt, but feel free to apply your favorite spices.
3. Use a hotter oven than usual,and pull the bird from the oven when the breast meat registers 150 degrees. For a 12-14 pound bird, turn your oven to 450 degrees. If you own a roasting thermometer that can stay in the meat while cooking, insert it into the deepest part of the breast, almost, but not quite, touching the bone. If you have an instant read thermometer, start checking the temperature about 75 minutes into cooking. Check every few minutes after that.
The downside to spatchcocking? You lose the aesthetic of bringing a brown, boulderous bird to the table, but I promise, what you lose in visual appeal is more than made up for in the palate. And you can rest easy knowing for certain that your turkey did not die in vain.
In this series, local chef Bobby McFarland offers tips on how to cook like the pros. Currently the lead culinary consultant at The Kitchen Raleigh, McFarland loves eating pomegranate, cheese and all things pork. His culinary hero is Alton Brown.
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