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Delicious Turkey Tips From Food Scientists


If you're roasting a turkey on Thanksgiving, we've got some advice that might be helpful or that might strike you as really weird. The weird comes a little later. We start with Shirley Corriher, a cookbook author who writes about the chemistry of cooking. Back in 1997, I asked her to explain some of the principles that would help us make a better turkey. It's still really good advice.

SHIRLEY CORRIHER: Well, my absolutely favorite thing to do with turkeys and with large roasting hens - and I've even done it with shrimp - is to soak them in brine. Now, this is a - what I do, say, with the large hen, I would use, like, a full cup of salt. Now, with the turkey, the smaller turkeys, I'd go with a cup-and-a-half of salt and put them in a large container that I could cover it with ice water, and keep it in the refrigerator overnight.

Then before you roast the turkey, you want to rinse it very well, get all the surface salt off. And it is astonishing how much juicier turkeys are prepared in this way. And they've weighed birds, you know, before and after brining, and they gain weight significantly. And you can certainly see it in the incredible juiciness.

GROSS: Now, what principles determine how long to cook a turkey and what temperature to roast it at?

CORRIHER: Well, now, I think anybody you ask is going to have a different answer on this, and I'd certainly advise people, if they have a system that has worked, stick with it. Some things to remember: The leg and thigh meat has to be cooked to a higher temperature than the breast, and this is a real problem. Those legs and thighs actually taste metallic and slimy if they're not cooked over 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

And then the breast, on the other hand - which is the broad expanse that gets the most heat, usually - that starts drying out anywhere from 155 up. It's getting drier and losing more moisture. So what I try to do is arrange it in the pan so that I can actually move the whole pan and the bird over to one wall so that that hot wall - so that it's near the hot wall of the oven to get that leg and thigh cooked well.

And then I divide the time, and then I push it over to the other wall so the other leg and thigh get some extra heat on the cooking time. I think everybody's oven varies dramatically. I like to start at a very high temperature, and then turn the oven down for slower cooking. I want to get the outside hot, you know, get things really going, and then turn it down so that it cooks more slowly to stay juicy and tender inside.

So I would say I would actually start a bird maybe 450, 475, and if the bird's not too big, I start it breast down, and then do these to both sides, and then flip it over.

GROSS: You are an advocate of a good thermometer. How do you use the thermometer when you're roasting a turkey?

CORRIHER: Well, you want to try to be careful not to touch bone. So I like to insert either - I insert it once in the thigh, and try to get into the fleshy area and go down so that, you know, at least an inch or so of the thermometer shaft is in the bird. And now this is with one of the little instant reads. Some people - and, now, on the breast, I insert it there, also.

So I like to check both places, check the temperature of the leg and thigh, and check the temperature on the breast. Now, the big, fat-based thermometers go into the bird, and I would say they would have to go into the breast portion of the bird and can remain in during the whole cooking time.

The important thing to remember is that that temperature is going to increase after you take the bird out of the oven. So be sure to get the bird out before it reaches your maximum temperature.

GROSS: Wait, wait. Why is the temperature going to increase after you take it out of the hot oven?

CORRIHER: Oh, because, see, the outside of that bird was super hot, and that heat is still being conducted from layer to layer to layer inward. And a big turkey could increase, easily, 10 degrees after it comes out of the oven. So you want to be sure to get it out 10 degrees before you really want it.

GROSS: What temperature do you look for?

CORRIHER: Now, we're - the FDA absolutely insists on 180 degrees. So this would mean get it out at 170. I think the breast is way too dry at that, and I'm willing to take my risk personally to go, you know, a little lower on that. I hate to cook a turkey breast over 160.

GROSS: Shirley Corriher is the author of "CookWise" and "BakeWise." Last year, I spoke with another expert on the chemistry of cooking, Harold McGee, after the publication of his book "Keys to Good Cooking." He had some turkey advice too, some of it a little odd.

So, Thanksgiving is coming up, Christmas too, which for a lot of people will mean making turkeys. And one piece of advice I want to ask you about from your book regarding turkeys is you say it's very difficult to roast a whole bird and do it well. Why is that?

HAROLD MCGEE: It's because the whole bird has two very different kinds of meat on it, the breast meat and the leg meat. Breast meat is very delicate and really dries out very easily above 150 degrees. The leg meat has a lot more connective tissue. It's fattier, and it's actually much better at something more like 165, or even 170 degrees. But they're both on the same bird. They're both in the same oven when you're cooking the bird whole.

And so the question is: How can you possibly get two different done-nesses in two different parts of the same bird? It takes some thought and planning and some tricks to come as close as you can.

GROSS: Share one trick with us.

MCGEE: Take the bird out ahead of time and let the legs warm up a little bit while you keep the breasts covered with ice packs. That way, you keep the breasts cold. The legs warm up by maybe 10, 20 degrees, and that way, when you put the bird in the oven, you've already built in a temperature differential. The breasts are going to end up, at a given time, less-cooked than the legs. And that's exactly what you want.

GROSS: Wow. That is going to look a little weird.


MCGEE: It looks weird, yeah, to begin with, especially if you use an Ace bandage to hold the ice packs in place, because they're kind of slippery. And - so that's what I do. So, yeah, it does look a little peculiar. But what you care about is what the bird looks like when it comes out.

GROSS: Harold McGee, recorded last year after the publication of his book, "Keys to Good Cooking." Good luck with your turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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