Cook a Better Thanksgiving Turkey, Faster — With Science!
One turkey. Two types of muscles. Two different temperatures needed to cook properly. Put away the roasting pan and get ready to spatchcock the bird.
J. Kenji López-Alt is the Managing Culinary Director of Serious Eats, and author of the James Beard Award-nominated column The Food Lab, where he unravels the science of home cooking. A restaurant-trained chef and former Editor at Cook's Illustrated magazine, he is the author of the New York Times best-selling cookbook The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science.
J. Kenji López-Alt: So turkeys are a tough animal to cook, poultry in general, and it's because there are two types of muscle in a turkey. There's the breast meat and the thigh meat. So fast-twitch muscle, that's the breast meat; that's the muscle that's used for fight or flight, the adrenaline, the muscles that the turkey doesn't use very often during its lifetime. Then there's the slow-twitch muscles, which is the legs, the dark meat. Slow-twitch muscle has a lot more connected tissue in it so it needs to be cooked to a higher temperature in order to make sure that that connective tissue breaks down. So typically when you're roasting a turkey, you want the breast meat to come to around 150 degrees or so and you want the leg meat to come to around at least 165 to 175 degrees. So the issue is the same bird, two different temperatures, how do you do that?
The way people typically cook a turkey is they'll put it in a roasting pan, like in a rack with a roasting pan with kind of a high sides, and that's actually the worst way you can possibly cook the turkey. Because that roasting pan is heavy metal; it has these high sides that kind of shield with the bottom of the bird, which is where the legs are. It shields it from the heat of the oven so your breast ends up over cooking far before your legs are done. And that's why so many people have dry turkey breast meat on Thanksgiving. The easiest way to deal with this problem, and there are all sorts of tricks like flipping the bird upside down, turning it while it's in the oven, icing down the breast, separating it into parts. I find the easiest way to do it is to butterfly it, to spatchcock the bird.
So you can either do that yourself with a pair of poultry shears or you can ask your butcher to do it for you. And the idea is you cut out the backbone of the bird and then you kind of splay its legs out in this kind of pornographic way and press down on the breasts so that the whole turkey lies flat with all of its skin on top. And what you end up with there is you'll find that the breast then becomes sort of the biggest thickest part of the turkey while the legs lie a little bit flatter; the legs are exposed to more heat; the breast gets a little bit less heat; the heat goes in a little bit more slowly because it's so thick and so naturally it ends up cooking perfectly. By the time your breast meat hits 150 degrees in the center your legs are like 175 degrees. So all the meat comes out perfectly.
Using this method, you can also cook it at a much higher heat and cook much faster. So you could cook a 12-pound turkey in like 45 minutes to an hour using this, which is about half the time it takes to cook a traditional turkey. And then finally it also has all that skin. All the skin gets exposed to the heat of the oven so you get really nice crispy brown skin. So the only disadvantage to it is that it ends up looking like a leg-spread-apart turkey when you bring to the table. But I always carve it in the kitchen and serve it anyway. And plus, you know, I would take good-tasting turkey over great-looking turkey any day.
One turkey. Two types of muscles. Two different temperatures needed to cook properly. Put away the roasting pan and get ready to spatchcock the bird. What does it mean to spatchcock a turkey? Split that mother open, says Food Lab columnist J. Kenji López-Alt, and splay it out so the parts of the bird that need to cook hotter are exposed to more heat. Your turkey will end up looking a little less than ideal, but it also won't be dry and boring like most Thanksgiving turkeys.
"I would take good-tasting turkey over great-looking turkey any day."
For more food tips from Kenji, check out his new book, The Food Lab.
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