Professionals agree that there are far better ways to roast a turkey than to stab a pop-up timer into the breast meat and hope for the best. But what are their preferred methods and tools? We solicited a few opinions.
All the experts we contacted suggest that home cooks invest in a good-quality meat thermometer, such as an instant-read digital probe or even a pocket dial thermometer, tools that range in price from a few dollars to more than $100. The key is to have a probe that can be inserted deep within the meat; infrared thermometers measure only surface temperatures, which run hotter than internal temperatures.
Another key: You need to take the temperature of your turkey in more than one place. Don’t just rely on the temperature in, say, the deepest part of the breast. Take the temperature in the turkey leg, taking care that the probe doesn’t touch a bone. Measure it in the innermost section of the thigh and wings, where temperatures often run the coolest.
The problem with whole turkeys, of course, is that they are irregular creatures. Some parts cook faster than others. Over the years, experts have adopted different approaches to try to even out the cooking experience of your turkey: roasting the bird in pieces, flattening it, and more.
J. Kenji López-Alt, the managing culinary director for Serious Eats, has two suggestions: The first is to spatchcock the turkey, laying the entire bird flat on a wire rack set into a rimmed baking sheet, something the Food section has recommended, too. The technique allows for more even cooking but scuttles the traditional presentation at the Thanksgiving table. The other approach is to preheat a pizza stone to 500 degrees for 45 minutes. Once the temperature is reached, place the turkey in a traditional roasting pan and set the pan atop the hot stone, dropping the oven heat to 300 degrees. The technique will “help the legs get a jump-start,” López-Alt says.
López-Alt likes to roast the legs to 170 degrees but the breast to only 150 degrees, which is 15 degrees shy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommended safe temperature. But, as López-Alt points out, the USDA confirms that if you hold the temperature at 150 degrees for approximately four minutes, it will kill the salmonella bacteria potentially present in the bird. You might even pull the bird right at 150 degrees, given that internal temperatures often rise after the turkey is lifted from the oven.
Carol Miller, supervisor for the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, has served as a holiday troubleshooter for more than 30 Thanksgivings. Armed with a degree in home economics science, Miller suggests roasting the breast to 165 degrees and the innermost thighs to 185 degrees. To achieve those varying temperatures, Miller coaches home cooks to monitor the bird until it’s about two-thirds of the way done, or at about 110 degrees in the breast. At that point, cooks should cover the breast meat with foil to reflect heat away.
Why does Miller recommend such high temperatures for the thigh section? “For most people, that is the most palatable way to eat it,” she says.
Harold McGee, the recognized authority on food chemistry, recommends placing the turkey in a roasting pan on the counter for about an hour or two before the bird goes into the oven. He fills resealable plastic bags with crushed ice and places the bags atop the breast, while the legs are exposed to the ambient room temperature. “When the turkey goes into the oven, it already has a 20-degree differential” between the breast and legs, McGee notes.
Like López-Alt, McGee prefers to keep the breast meat in the vicinity of 150 degrees while roasting the legs to 165. The ice-bag technique should help home cooks reach those temperatures. He recommends using an instant-read probe thermometer, such as a Thermapen, and checking temperatures in several locations, including the leg, the inner part of the thigh and the breast.