Using Salt and Science, We Can Roast a (Nearly) Perfect Bird
Wednesday, November 19, 2008; Page F04
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.