Scientifically-Based Tips for the Juiciest Turkey Ever
I know—it seems odd to be talking turkey in March, but there are good reasons to. First of all, roast turkey is a great meal any time of year—there’s no reason to wait for Thanksgiving to make some. And the cost per pound is often lower in the “off season,” so now’s a great time to plan on turkey for dinner. You may just find yourself with a new Easter tradition! If your favorite store doesn’t have a whole turkey right now, they may have fresh turkey parts, which work just as well, or they can order one for you.
It seems that almost every chef guarantees a perfectly moist turkey, yet many of their recommendations actually cause dehydration of the meat. How can you know which advice is solid and which is simply a kitchen myth? The answer—science. As a physician, I had a basic understanding of science, but I didn’t bring those skills to the kitchen until I married a world-class chemist. So, if you want the real tips, based in scientifically sound principles to create a guest-raving, seconds-please turkey, read on.
Myth: A salt brine is the best way to soften a turkey.
Truth: Although salt will help soften the meat, combining with water will make your turkey even juicier. Plumping your bird starts a day or two before. Thoroughly clean a cooler with hot soapy water, or even follow directions using household bleach to ensure that the container is safe for food. Rinse thoroughly. With a clean cooler, fill halfway with ice water and add ½ to 1 cup of salt. Remove the turkey from the package and submerge into the ice bath. Then you can add some aromatics to the bath to start giving it flavor, such as rosemary, lemon, grapefruit, or even onions. The ice bath serves to soften the protein of the turkey, and the salt helps to augment this process. (Nerd tip: This process actually untwists the quaternary structure of the protein. The relaxation causes the meat to become more tender and juicy.) Keep the cooler closed, except for checking the temperature twice a day to ensure it remains between 37 and 41 degrees Fahrenheit, for proper food safety.
Tip: After the ice bath, the turkey will have gained a pound or two of water, so you may need to start cooking it a bit earlier than originally anticipated.
Myth: Butter on the skin makes the meat juicier.
Truth: Butter on the skin only makes for crispy skin, because the oil doesn’t penetrate the skin. If you want a juicy bird, then you need to place the butter in the potential space between the meat and skin. Create an herb butter with softened butter and chopped sage, rosemary, and parsley. Add a drizzle of olive oil to the butter mixture because it helps keep the butter from burning. For a large bird, use two sticks of butter and plenty of herbs.
Then loosen the skin from the meat by gently separating it with your fingers. In surgery, we call this a blunt dissection. It is creating a pocket for your butter. As the turkey cooks, the butter melts and travels into even deeper pockets of the bird.
Myth: A foil tent keeps the bird moist.
Truth: A foil tent or even cheesecloth over the bird still allows the water to evaporate. The best way to keep the breast from overcooking is to first brown it in the oven for about 10 to 20 minutes. Once it is golden, remove from the oven, and cover the breast with hickory-smoked bacon. Not only does the fat provide an occlusive sealant to keep the juices in, but it also gives the turkey a delicious layer of flavor, and then the bacon is cooked to add to your gravy, green beans, or mashed potatoes.
Myth: Frequent basting keeps the meat moist.
Truth: Opening the oven door, even to baste, will dry out your turkey. Water will evaporate from the turkey while it cooks, but with the door closed, it creates a satiated environment and limits the amount of evaporation. Each time you open the oven door, and steam comes out, your bird will give up that much more liquid to replace what you just lost, so keep the door closed. (Nerd tip: Every environment attempts to become homeostatic; opening the door disrupts the balance.)
Myth: Putting wine in the roasting pan makes the turkey moist.
Truth: Alcohol will dehydrate your meat, just as it does to human bodies. (That’s the reason why meat isn’t marinated in alcohol and why alcohol is typically only added at the end of a recipe.) If you want to place a bit of broth in the bottom of the roasting pan or a cup of water and aromatic vegetables, such as onion, carrots, and celery to add flavor, do so. However, leave the wine for the table.
Myth: Turkey is juiciest just out of the oven.
Truth: Allowing the bird to rest, for at least an hour, results in softer meat. The proteins continue to denature while it is still hot, which means they are uncoiling to create a wonderfully moist treat.
Dr. Jennifer Hanes is a board-certified emergency physician, best-selling author, and mom who has shed more than 70 pounds without surgery or pills, while eating plenty of turkey. Whether she’s helping patients at the bedside or through her romantic medical novels, she practices the belief that love is powerful medicine. You can read her blog, Behind the Stethoscope, and learn more at www.DrHanes.com.
Want to read more blogs by Mommy MD Guide Jennifer Hanes, DO? Here’s her recent blog about sleep.