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Using Salt and Science, We Can Roast a (Nearly) Perfect Bird

By Andreas Viestad
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Ever since the first bird was bestowed on the Pilgrims by the Native Americans, some people have questioned the value of the gift. In the 1980s, author and humorist Calvin Trillin launched a campaign to have the national Thanksgiving dish changed from turkey to spaghetti carbonara. "The only thing we know for sure about what the Pilgrims ate," Trillin wrote, "is that it couldn't have tasted very good."

The most common objections are that the bird is dry, chewy or tasteless -- or all of the above. "If only you could say that it 'tastes like chicken,' it would be all right," a friend once told me. "Is that too much to ask?"

It doesn't really matter what the critics say. Like it, love it or hate it, as long as we celebrate Thanksgiving, turkey is with us. And if we know more about the bird, we can avoid many of its pitfalls. Using a scientific approach, we might even be able to prove the critics wrong.

After many hours of studying and cooking, combining a wide range of well-tested techniques and household hints in conjunction with the findings of modern food science, I came up with a Thanksgiving turkey that is full-flavored, tender and surprisingly juicy (see recipe below). But I am getting ahead of myself.

The first challenge when cooking a whole turkey is its physiology. The reason some people prefer white meat and some prefer dark meat is that the two types of meat might as well be from two different animals. The white breast meat is fine, lean and oversize after centuries of breeding. The bird doesn't fly, so the breast muscle has not been used much and does not contain much connective tissue. Conversely, the muscles in the legs and wings have a lot of connective tissue. Ideally, the breast should be cooked at a high temperature (to bring out flavor) for a short time (to prevent it from drying out), and the legs at a lower temperature for a much longer time (to allow the connective tissue to break down and become gelatinous juiciness).

Most food scientists I have talked to recommend cooking the legs and breast separately, a method also preferred by many chefs, including Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin in New York and Westend Bistro in Washington. "There is really no way you can cook a whole turkey to perfection," says Peter Barham, a physics professor at the University of Bristol and the author of "The Science of Cooking" (Springer, 2001). "It is just too difficult, with all the different parts that need to be treated differently."

But cutting up the bird feels like cheating, and it contradicts the spirit of Thanksgiving. With the family gathered around the table, the experience is not complete unless there is a whole bird in the center.

Besides, just because you cannot reach perfection doesn't mean you shouldn't strive for it. For one thing, those different cooking times can be brought a little closer together. Allowing the legs to warm to room temperature while cooling the breast with ice cubes gives the legs a head start. Covering the breast with foil during the first part of the cooking further reduces the danger of overcooked dryness.

Stuffing fat of some kind (I think duck fat is best) under the skin does not seriously reduce the level of heat, but it leaves the meat fattier. So though the meat may actually be dry, it does not seem like it.

One way to address the turkey's flavor deficit is to use some sort of salting, either dry or wet, the latter being more commonly referred to as brining. These techniques have become much more popular in recent years. But this is dangerous territory to venture into; after all, salt seriously affects the moisture and texture of meat. Its ability to draw out moisture is the force behind curing, as for bacon or prosciutto, and it's why a sprinkle of salt will cause small droplets to form on the meat's surface.

The best method is a light salt brine. Though brines can dry out meat, a measured approach can have the opposite effect. As Harold McGee shows in his book "On Food and Cooking," a brine containing between 3 and 6 percent salt (by weight) will add flavor and disrupt the structure of the muscle filaments, making the meat more tender. It will also enhance the water-holding capacity of the meat, increasing the weight by as much as 10 percent and leaving the cooked meat noticeably juicier.

As if that isn't enough, the inward movement of salt and water also allows other flavors to penetrate. I use a combination of stock, herbs and apple juice in my brine. Duck, turkey, chicken or even game stock will give the otherwise bland meat more flavor. The sugars in the apple juice will increase the browning effect, so you can get a nicely browned and flavorful skin even by cooking at a lower, gentler temperature.

Dry-salting is, of course, much easier and more time- and space-saving than brining. But it can be risky, as a little too much salt will render the meat almost inedible and a lot drier. Again, a measured approach can lead to a good result, albeit not as good as with brining and without the same flavor advantages.

Cook's Illustrated suggests a dry-salt method using 1 1/4 teaspoons salt per pound of meat. Following the complicated multi-step technique in the magazine, I found that the cooked meat ended up being 30 percent lighter than when it was raw, an outcome similar to that of unsalted turkey. Repeating the technique without the many steps -- just salting about 18 hours before cooking -- I achieved a similar result. In both cases the lightly salted meat seemed tastier and juicier than the unsalted meat but not as juicy or flavorful as the brined bird.

According to Cook's and others, dry-salting initially pulls moisture out but then returns it over time. Scientists I talked to called such a thing improbable, saying the salt returns to the meat without carrying the lost moisture back with it. Indeed, during my experiments the raw meat lost 4 to 6 percent of its weight during the salting process and never regained any of it. But although it lost just as much water as the unsalted meat, it seemed juicier, probably because of the way salting affects the muscle and connective tissue. (By contrast, during brining my turkey gained about 8 percent weight, and during cooking it lost 24 percent of weight compared with when it was raw and untreated.)

Perhaps an even more misunderstood turkey technique is basting, which is supposed to help moisture penetrate the meat. It doesn't. When you shower, the water doesn't pass through your skin, and the skin of the turkey is just as water-repellent. However, basting does have some effect: Using fat speeds up cooking, because fat is a conductor of heat. Using water (such as cooking juices) slows down cooking in much the same way your skin cools off when water evaporates from it.

Surprisingly, scientists have found that one of the most significant effects of basting comes from simply opening the oven door. That drops the temperature, sometimes as much as 100 or 150 degrees, and depending on your oven, it may take 10 or 15 minutes or longer for the oven temperature to recover. That gives the meat time to rest. But the same thing would happen if you opened the oven door and sang a song, or just turned down the temperature.

To really get moisture, such as basting juices, into the meat, you need a syringe, which is why some recipes call for injecting the bird with liquid or fat before cooking. That is a trick often used by commercial producers, which inject water or brine using hundreds of tiny needles. But domestic food syringes make larger holes that create an easy escape route for the liquid you just added. I instead use the syringe to inject juices after cooking. When the flesh is cooked it is much spongier, and this is a great way to add flavor and moisture to the meat.

Although most recipes tell you to start roasting the bird at high temperatures and then to gradually reduce the heat, Barham at the University of Bristol recommends doing the opposite. By cooking the turkey at a relatively low temperature with stock or water in a roasting pan underneath, you steam the bird, a highly effective way to transfer heat while keeping the temperature low. (The steam rising from the water is at 212 degrees or a bit hotter.) The turkey is finished in a dry oven at a slightly higher temperature to get a crisp skin and a rich, roasted flavor before it is allowed to rest for almost an hour to give moisture and gelatin from the connective tissue time to set.

Then, finally, the bird is on the table, in all its splendor -- or at least the closest thing to splendor I am capable of. At the end of this long process I always find myself surprised at the complexity of it all. There are so many things to think about just to get dinner on the table. But then again, there are also so many things to be thankful for. Even, as it turns out, the bird.

Andreas Viestad, author of "Where Flavor Was Born" and co-host of the new public television series "Perfect Day," can be reached at http://www.andreasviestad.com or food@washpost.com. His Gastronomer column appears monthly.

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