IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Turkey Science: Achieving a Perfect Bird

You can roast it or fry it, brine it or baste it, cook it whole or do it in pieces. There are dozens of ways to cook a turkey, and just as many opinions about which method produces the perfect poultry product.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

You can roast it or fry it, brine it or baste it, cook it whole or do it in pieces. There are dozens of ways to cook a turkey, and just as many opinions about which method produces the perfect poultry product.

This Thanksgiving, it might help to consider science before you pick your main course recipe. Understanding the chemical reactions involved, experts say, can help you turn a pink, raw bird into a golden brown work of culinary art that fills the house with holiday aromas and fits your personal definition of perfection.

What science will never do, however, is produce one answer that works for everyone.

"There are so many ways of cooking a turkey," said Peter Barnham, a physicist, molecular gastronomist and penguin researcher based at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

"The best is always an individual taste," he said. "There is no science that says A is better than B in terms of aromas and flavors. We all have different opinions, different smells, different tastes, and different taste receptors."

Among the scientific concepts involved in cooking a turkey, controlling moisture is perhaps the biggest challenge, said John Marcy, a poultry-processing specialist at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

Nobody likes dried-out meat. But liquid naturally evaporates during cooking through a process called moisture migration. To keep as much moisture in the meat as possible, many poultry producers inject their birds with broth and other ingredients before selling them.

Besides moisture, Marcy said, broth contains salt, which boosts the bird’s ability to hold in liquids. Injections also frequently include sodium phosphate, which shifts the pH of the bird, pushes protein filaments away from each other, and leave more space for liquids.

To maximize moisture, it can also help to get a turkey that has never been frozen, Marcy said. Freezing ruptures cells, allowing liquids to escape. If you buy a bird that has not had anything pumped into it, you can inject it with liquids and flavorings at home. Or you can soak it in a salt-water bath for a couple days in the fridge. Called brining, this step adds both flavor and moisture.

After you've soaked, marinated, or otherwise prepped your turkey, the next big decision is how to heat it up. The most traditional cooking method is to roast the bird in an oven.

You can cook it at a relatively low temperature for a long time, which leads to moister meat but doesn't brown the skin. You can cook it at high temperature for a shorter time, which does the opposite. Or you can get the best of both worlds either by starting out hot, then lowering the temperature, or by starting at low heat and then browning at high heat near the end.

To protect the breast from getting too hot and drying out -- another moisture migration hazard -- some people cook the bird upside down. Others protect the breast with bacon lard or aluminum foil. Many restaurants, Barnham added, simply cook their turkeys in pieces.

"They cook one turkey whole," he said. "That's the one they show their customers, not the one they serve."

The average cooking time for a roasted turkey is between 12 and 14 minutes a pound, Marcy said. To speed things up, you can deep fry the poultry. Heat travels much more quickly through oil than it does through air, leading to a crispy exterior and an average cooking time of just four minutes a pound.

You may or may not want to try this at home.

"It's about as dangerous a thing as you'll ever want to do," Marcy said. "People have burned down their houses doing it. And if there's any ice whatsoever left in that thing when you drop it in, it's just going to almost explode. If you go to YouTube, you can see some amazing turkey-fryer fires."

In previous years, Marcy has taken the middle road with an infrared cooker that concentrates heat inside a special pot, lowering cooking times to about eight or nine minutes a pound and producing a delightfully moist bird. This year, he plans to test out his new Electrolux oven, which has a "Perfect Turkey" button. The feature involves a temperature probe that gets inserted into the turkey's thigh.

If you want a crispy skin on an oven-cooked bird, one trick is to separate the skin from the meat with your hands before cooking. Then, baste the skin with butter.

You can also use a blowtorch on the bird's inner and outer surfaces, Barnham said. The high heat of the torch kills Salmonella bacteria. It also starts the Maillot reaction, an interaction between proteins and sugars that produces meaty aromas, flavors and the gleaming brown skin that many turkey-lovers look forward to all year long.

Stuffing is a whole other conundrum. The United States Department of Agriculture recommends against stuffing the turkey altogether. Stuffing can easily become contaminated with Salmonella from the bird's interior. Thick breading interferes with moisture migration, Marcy said, causing the turkey to cook more slowly, and making it extremely difficult to get the breading hot enough to kill bacteria without overcooking the turkey.

Once you take your Thanksgiving centerpiece out of your appliance of choice, let it sit for at least 20 minutes before carving it, Marcy suggests. Cutting it too early will let the steam out, leading to last minute drying.

Science may never produce the perfect turkey. But it might add a dose of insight into your Thanksgiving meal. At the very least, it can be a good conversation starter.

"I'm a scientist who cooks by understanding what happens," Barnham said. "I don't see how it could make it any worse to understand what’s happening."

"Basically," he added, "the best way of cooking a turkey is the way you cooked it last year."