Ok, I'm not actually going to offer my own roast turkey recipes because there are three excellent ones available on the web.
- The first is a brined and smoked turkey recipe by Meathead over at AmazingRibs.com Clear, accurate instructions, and he will answer your questions in near-real time by email. Delicious.
- The second technique, from America's Test Kitchen is a bit novel. No brining, but first cut the turkey into parts, then cook low and slow over a water tray. Monitor the dark and light meat temperatures separately, and pull each from the oven when done. Much simpler than trying to get the whole bird to cooperate and cook simultaneously, despite differences in muscle type and thickness, yet consistent with my experiments on brining and moisture.
- Spatchcock the turkey (e.g. baking flat, then folding the carcass back into a bird shape for presentation at the table), via Mark Bittman at the NYTimes. This is similar to the way I cook turkey at home. In a whole, intact turkey, the chest cavity, though open to the oven, is surprisingly cold and dank. Spatchcocking eliminates the cavity and cooks the flattened bird evenly and quickly. Unlike Bittman, I always rub the spathcocked turkey 2 days ahead of time with a dry brine consisting only of salt- about 1/2 tsp/lb. The salt helps keep the meat moist. Plus, a dry brine is much easier to control than a wet icy salt bath. Surprisingly, salt even passes through skin and bones.
Of course, if your turkey was pre-brined by the "manufacturer", no additional dry brining is necessary. Or advisable.
And while we are on the subject of roast turkey, here are a few myths and misconceptions:
- Basting is the secret to a moist bird. Completely false. While the pan juices may add a rich sheen and color to the bird skin (like spraying apple juice on ribs), most of the moisture simply drips off the skin.
- Cooking with breast side "down" for half the time bastes the meat and adds juices. Well, only partly. As the meat cooks and muscles relax and proteins unravel, juices are expelled from the interior. Basting cannot push these juices back in. But, the continual flow of extra liquid (compared to occasional basting) does slightly evaporatively cool the breast compared to legs simply dangling in the air. That slows down the white meat's cooking speed, allowing the breast to reach 155F at the same time the dark meat reaches 180F. So its not overcooked and dry. More importantly, the temperature an inch or two above the water pan is 50F to 100F lower than the oven temperature, again slowing the breast meat's cooking rate. See this article for more details.
- Brining adds moisture to the meat. Actually, very little useful water is absorbed during brining. The absorbed water mostly evaporates by the time the meat is ready, at least if your cook takes an hour or more. Mostly, the salt is adding flavor. But, salt also helps the meat retain its existing supply of moisture, so if you slightly overcook, the bird is juicier. For this reason, dry brining works just as well as wet brining. Injecting salt is even better.
- Oven bagged turkeys are always pale and unappetizing. Not my favorite cooking technique, but infra-red radiation from the cooking elements will pass through the bag, and slowly brown the bird. Not as efficiently as unbagged, but still effective. In a closed bag, the meat is steamed into tenderness.
Additional articles on kitchen science can be found HERE.
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In the practice of all-things barbecue, we appreciate the support and conversations with Meathead at AmazingRibs.com, Sterling at BigPoppaSmokers, along with numerous competition pitmasters and backyard chefs.