Is it better to baste a turkey while it's roasting, or not to baste it at all? I've seen recipes for both methods, and each one claims to produce the best results.
Ohhh, no! You're not going to drag me into the Best-Way-to-Cook-a-Turkey Olympics. I don't play that game.
Each year at this time, every food-related publication in the U.S.A. runs a feature on the best way to cook a turkey. You'd think we'd have it down pat by now, wouldn't you? What's so difficult? Insert buttered and seasoned turkey in oven and remove when done. (Whoops, I've given you my recipe.)
But despite the seeming simplicity of the task, one can juggle variables such as times, temperatures, seasonings, brines and bastings, generating more ways to cook a turkey than you can shake a drumstick at. Far be it from me, therefore, to enter the fray by offering a modest suggestion or two of my own. I'll address only your specific question about the "b-word," basting, in full realization that there is no universal agreement among chefs on whether "to b or not to b."
There is an undeniable psychological aspect to basting. Cooking, especially for a holiday gathering of friends and family, is (or should be) a loving, nurturing enterprise, and as a result we may be tempted to nurture and fuss over the turkey itself while it is cooking, thereby demonstrating to ourselves how caring we are about our loved ones. So we repeatedly suck up the dripped essences with a giant medicine dropper called, for lack of any other function, a turkey baster, and return them to their source.
The word baste comes from the Old French basser, meaning to moisten or, in the present context, to apply a liquid periodically to a food while it is cooking. The liquid applied during roasting may be mostly fat-based, such as oil or melted butter, or mostly water-based, such as the brothy parts of the pan drippings.
What does basting do or not do to an oven roast? Devotees of basting cite three advantages: improved flavor, improved browning and preservation of moisture.
No one can dispute the claim that adding a flavorful liquid to the surface of a roast will improve the flavor of that surface, especially if the liquid subsequently evaporates, leaving its seasonings behind. But turkeys are waterproof creatures, so the liquid and its flavors will not penetrate into the meat. Basting is purely a surface treatment. It works best for roasts that have large surface-to-volume ratios, that is, that have lots of surface area for their weight, such as a butterflied turkey or chicken parts on a grill. But for a compact, almost-spherical whole turkey, basting adds flavor only to a relatively small fraction of the roast. For skin lovers like me, however, basting is a boon.
Browning is also a skin-only phenomenon, and proper basting can help to produce a beautifully browned bird. Roasts turn brown in the oven because of chemical reactions called Maillard reactions that take place at high temperatures between sugars and amino acids in the meat. These reactions produce a broad spectrum of chemical products, many of which are highly flavorful and/or brown in color. A fatty basting sauce can enhance browning and crisping of the skin, essentially by frying it. But whether the fat needs to be continually replenished by repeated basting is debatable.
A water-based basting liquid, on the other hand, can have the opposite effect; it wets the skin and cools it by evaporation, temporarily stifling both the browning and the crisping of the skin. At the same time, it slows down the cooking of the breast meat, which has a habit of drying out faster than other parts of the bird. (Almost all of the dozens of variations on turkey roasting are intended to avoid overcooking and drying-out of the breast meat before the thighs and other internal parts are adequately cooked.)
So take a position: Do you want crisp skin or juicy breast meat? You can't have both by basting with watery pan juices. Fatty basting materials such as oil or melted butter therefore generally get the nod. But is it really necessary to reapply them every 20 minutes? Probably not. An initial coating will pretty much stay put on the turkey skin and needn't be replenished every 20 minutes, as many recipes advise. And remember that opening the oven door nine times over a three-hour roasting period wastes a lot of heat and lengthens the cooking time.
All in all, then, why baste? Okay, so it makes you feel good. There's certainly nothing wrong with that.
Labelingo: Perspicacious reader Dave Mueller of Highlands Ranch, Colo., informs me that the house brand of toilet paper in Albertson's grocery chain bears a warranty, stating that if you are not satisfied with the product you may return it to Albertson's. It does not say to return only the unused portion.
(Have you noticed any silly things on food labels? Send your Labelingo contributions, along with your name and town, to Food 101, Food Section, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or to the e-mail address below.)
Robert L. Wolke is professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and the author, most recently, of "What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained" (W.W. Norton, $25.95). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org