Even though today’s food-safe plastic wrap made for home use is free of the plasticizers, or phthalates, that could leach toxins, no manufacturers recommend using their product in the oven or having it come in contact with food during cooking.
However, the method of cooking Lisa King’s Thanksgiving turkey calls for just that: using the wrap in the oven, at a temperature that should melt it, under a protective layer of aluminum foil.
In fact, the wrap does not melt. The wrap comes in direct contact with a portion of the skin — the turkey cooks breast-down in a pan with a cup of salted water in the bottom — but the bird is carved and served without any skin. We asked chemistry professor and former Food 101 columnist Robert L. Wolke to explain:
“This is a pretty complicated setup. But it does work, and here’s how.
“The aluminum foil shields the roast from the convection of hot air in the oven and also from infrared radiation. But the foil is so thin and insubstantial that it cannot absorb and retain enough heat to get very hot; you could remove it with your bare hands, even from a 350-degree oven. It doesn’t even get hot enough to melt the plastic film beneath it.
“Meanwhile, the plastic film is preventing the escape of water vapor (steam) from the turkey, thus keeping it moist. As the turkey cooks, the wet plastic film itself cannot get any hotter than 212 degrees, the temperature at which its ‘wetness’ boils away. (Most home-use plastic wraps won’t melt until 220 to 250 degrees, anyway, depending on the manufacturer; call your wrap’s customer service line for information.) The plastic doesn’t let the turkey’s skin get hot enough to brown.”
We tested King’s method a total of four times: with home-use plastic wrap (twice), with restaurant-grade plastic wrap and with a turkey oven roasting bag. Each time, a 16-pound bird under foil and wrap cooked as much as 40 minutes quicker than a bird roasted uncovered.
The birds under foil and plastic wrap held together well and were easy to carve; the meat was evenly moist throughout. None of the wrap showed signs of melting, which surprised us — even the wrap that was tucked under the pan’s rim yet totally protected by foil. The heated wrap felt slightly thinner than it had before time spent in the oven and came off in one piece. The skin of the bird could be separated easily from the meat.
The bird that was cooked inside the bag (with salted water) was close to braised. Under foil, a portion of the bag did slightly adhere to the turkey skin, but it was easy to remove. The bones were loose enough to make a transfer to the cutting board a bit tricky. The skin was not as easy to remove. The meat was juicy and cooked through.