A Novel Method for Cooking a Turkey

TurkeyEditor’s Note:  Below are a food scientist’s recommendations for cooking a turkey so that it comes out tender and moist.  His comments also include interesting recommendations for thawing and marinating the bird.


The author, Dr. Clair L. Hicks, is a food scientist and faculty member of the Department of Animal and Food Sciences at the University of Kentucky.  He is also a member of the Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board.


The palatability of cooked turkey is largely determined by the temperature it was cooked at.  Turkey cooked to less than 158°F may be undercooked and have a slight raw flavor in spots.  However, at temperatures above 165°F and particularly at 170°F, water loss becomes very rapid, and, by the time the turkey reaches the USDA-recommended temperature of 180°F, you have a dry piece of meat that is hardly worth eating.


If you want the ultimate turkey for Thanksgiving, you need to be very temperature conscious.  If you plan to try something different from the USDA recommended guidelines, be sure that the advice you follow comes from a reputable source.  Below are my recommendations.


Use two thermometers: an oven thermometer to determine the exact oven temperature and then a food (meat) thermometer to check the temperature of the turkey as it’s nearing the end of the cooking period. An important reminder: The USDA recommends that the turkey not be stuffed with dressing, which is a great recommendation because getting the internal temperature to a safe point becomes much more difficult when the bird is stuffed.


The raw turkey may be prepared by rubbing with salt and pepper and/or doing something a bit more complicated.  For example, some recipes call for injecting butter, a brine solution, or a marinade into the turkey.  Normally, this is done with a 3-12 inch gauge hypodermic needle.   This procedure allows the material to infuse through the tissue during the cooking process.  Some neat flavors can be added using this technique. Also, I know a few people that thaw their turkey in salt, brown sugar brine (with just a gram of sodium nitrate) in the refrigerator.  It takes three days to thaw a 20-pound bird this way.  They usually do the brine soak for 4 days to allow sufficient time for the salt and brown sugar to diffuse into the tissue. When the turkey is prepared using this method, it is absolutely the best I’ve ever eaten.


Before cooking, follow these steps:  preheat the oven to 225°F, place the thawed UNCOVERED turkey on a cookie sheet,  slide it into the center of the oven, pour a large glass of water into the cookie sheet to create steam for a faster cook, and close the oven door. 


Figure that the turkey cooking time will be approximately 16-18 minutes per pound. (Note: this is faster than the 20-minute-per-pound USDA recommendation).  When the internal temperature reaches 161°-163°F, turn the oven off, and leave the turkey in the hot oven for an additional 30-45 minutes. Measure the temperature deep into the breast and inside thigh muscle.  During this period, all of the collagen in the turkey will be converted to gelatin.  With this method, your turkey will probably not lose more than 1 cup of water. You will not have enough drippings to make gravy, but you will have a very moist turkey that will be a delightful eating experience.  The drumsticks will twist off as easily as if the turkey had reached 180°F.



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