Before the two of us waste too much time on the subject, I ask J. Kenji López-Alt, the respected managing culinary director for the Web site Serious Eats, how much experience he has with pop-up timers. He says he has plenty: He rips them from uncooked turkeys all the time.
The only service this meat-based jack-in-the-box can provide is to “inform you when your turkey is beyond edibleness,” López-Alt says. “If I had my way, the world would be rid of it.”
Pity the poor pop-up timer. The instrument was designed in the 1960s, back when home cooks often relied on unreliable time-per-pound recommendations, to prevent folks from roasting their turkeys into dehydrated meat sacks. A half-century later, professionals actively steer amateurs away from the timers to avoid that very fate: arid, overcooked birds bound for the nearest dog bowl. From Martha Stewart to Consumer Reports to Cook’s Illustrated, the pros all express little faith in the gadget.
Even Butterball, the brand probably most familiar to home cooks, doesn’t endorse the pop-up timer. The company’s birds have “never, never, never” had timers in them, says Carol Miller, supervisor for the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line. “And they’ve been around for 60 years.”
When it comes to determining the doneness of a Thanksgiving turkey, the gap between the pros and home cooks could hardly be wider. Despite kitchen gurus who promote the use of digital probes, Thermapens and other tools to accurately gauge the temperature of a bird, millions of Americans continue to rely on those slender, often disposable timers drilled directly into their turkeys. Volk Enterprises, the big daddy of pop-up timers in the United States, estimates it sells about 30 million units around the Thanksgiving holiday, mostly to processors that insert the timers into birds before they’re shipped to supermarkets.
That number represents about a third of Volk’s annual pop-up timer sales, says company president Ed Gustafson. (Volk, alas, doesn’t keep stats on how many consumers rip out the thermometers once home.)
The unrelenting criticism leveled at pop-up timers, in short, hasn’t undermined the market for them, and manufacturers know why. Thanksgiving is the one holiday when even the I-can’t-boil-water crowd will try to roast a 14-pound turkey. So although a timer might not produce the kind of bird that passes inspection at López-Alt’s house, it carries an implied promise that’s perhaps more important to many Americans: The device will cook all parts of the turkey to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit, the minimum temperature the U.S Department of Agriculture recommends to kill potential pathogens. The timer, in other words, will prevent rookie cooks from sending family members to the hospital.
The pop-up timer: savior of Thanksgiving dinners. The pop-up timer: destroyer of Thanksgiving turkeys. Could the instrument’s utility be that black and white? I set out to find out.
On Oct. 25, 1966, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted a patent for a “thermally responsive signaling device,” or what would eventually become known as the Dun-Rite pop-up turkey timer. The patent was actually an improvement on an earlier one filed by the same man, George G. Kliewer.
Better known as “Goldie” among his peers, Kliewer never struck Leo Pearlstein as the genius-inventor type. Pearlstein, a 95-year-old public relations legend who was part of the original California team that brainstormed the pop-up timer, didn’t even know Kliewer was credited as its inventor until I told him. Goldie was “just a normal turkey grower,” Pearlstein remembers. “A nice man.”
But Kliewer was involved with the “Inventors Club,” which Pearlstein and others had founded and seeded with cash in order to develop marketable concepts. Numerous club members were connected to the turkey industry and/or the California Turkey Advisory Board, including Pearlstein, who handled the board’s publicity; Barney McClure, who coordinated its advertising; and Eugene Beals, the board’s marketing manager. The trio sometimes referred to themselves as McBealstein, Pearlstein recalls.
“The three of us were the ones who kept the turkey industry moving,” he adds.
At that time, the team was focused on two objectives: How to expand the turkey market beyond seasonal Thanksgiving sales and how to prevent home cooks from roasting their birds into wizened carcasses. “Frankly,” says Pearlstein from Los Angeles, “our job was originally to get people to eat turkeys year-round.”
During a meeting of the Inventors Club in Fresno, Calif., Kliewer began pondering the properties of the water sprinklers overhead. When flames rise around a ceiling sprinkler, he apparently told his colleagues, the heat melts an alloy, which then drops down a valve and unleashes a small geyser. Kliewer wondered: Why couldn’t a similar approach be adopted for a turkey timer?
After hearing and reading that sprinkler account multiple times, I couldn’t help but wonder: Was Kliewer just a “normal turkey grower”?
Turns out, Goldie Kliewer did raise turkeys on the grounds of an abandoned airfield near Fresno, but he was also a pilot and a restless tinkerer with a workshop in an old hangar. “Dad was the engineer” of the timer, says Steve Kliewer, 64, who often worked by his Dad’s side during those early pop-up tests. “He hired some machinist and other people to help him, but he was the engineer.”
Kliewer’s sprinkler revelation started the team on a long, painful quest to create the pop-up timer. As best as Steve Kliewer and Pearlstein can remember, Beals, Goldie Kliewer and John Roberts, merchandising director for the turkey board, were the prime movers behind developing the timer. The rest were mostly investors. Pearlstein recalls working with home economists to determine the temperature at which the timer should pop. Initially, the team machined the timers right inside the Kliewer family’s hangar.
“Turkeys are like humans,” Pearlstein says. “They’re not all the same, but we found that 180 degrees is a pretty good spot.”
The group’s first patent was filed in 1961. Two years later, the timer brain trust, including Pearlstein, Beals, Kliewer, Roberts and McClure, had formed a company, Commodity Marketers, and went into production. It was a hard sell at first, perhaps because, as the later patent pointed out, the first prototype would pop at an “excessive” range of temperatures and had a habit of popping out of the turkey altogether.
“A lot of food editors were skeptical,” Pearlstein recalls. “Some of [the editors] did not cooperate, and some of them did.”
Commodity Marketers eventually spun off a pop-up timer subsidiary named the Dun-Rite Co., which in the early 1970s was gobbled up by Minnesota-based 3M. The creators of the pop-up timer received no cash for their efforts, just 3M stock. The terms of the deal required the Dun-Rite team to hold the stock for several years. Pearlstein still has his. It’s worth about $100,000 now, he says. Steve Kliewer says his father’s mental health deteriorated before he could sell the stock.
Volk Enterprises entered the pop-up timer market around the same time that 3M did. Except Volk’s Vue-Temp timer didn’t pop up, like the ones already on the market. It did the opposite: The stem started out fully extended and slowly retracted back into the casing as the turkey roasted. Once the stem started the retreat, it would take about 20 minutes for it to be flush with the skin. “It would allow the consumer time to get prepared,” explains Gustafson, the Volk president.
Some cooks, however, were stumped about how to use the Vue-Temp, which sent Volk back to the drawing board. The company eventually designed a pop-up timer of its own and went toe-to-toe with 3M, which soon learned Volk would be a formidable competitor. In the early 1980s, Volk struck a deal with Perdue to place pop-up timers in approximately 20 million roaster chickens, says Steve Volk, vice president of manufacturing. Other poultry producers soon followed Perdue’s lead.
In 1982, 3M followed with a lawsuit. The Minnesota company sued Volk for patent infringement. The two sides ultimately agreed to cross-license each other’s patents so both could continue manufacturing timers, but by the early 1990s, 3M had had enough. It sold its pop-up timer business to Volk.
As the leader of the pop-up timer market, Volk has heard all the digs about its gadget. Professionals “view a product like the pop-up as beneath them — they don’t need it,” says Gustafson. “The truth is, most consumers do need the help.”
The beauty of the device is its simplicity. The basic red-tipped timer — not the cutesy turkey-shaped gadget, a more recent product whose legs signal “touchdown” when a bird is ready — has only four parts: a barrel, or casing; a red stem, or plunger; a spring; and a small lump of food-grade wax at the bottom of the barrel, which melts at a predetermined temperature to release the spring and plunger.
Food-grade waxes can be manufactured to melt at ranges from 125 to 200 degrees, but the most common timer is designed to pop at 180 degrees, just as the original was, Gustafson says. The chosen number is based on repeated tests, both inside and outside Volk Enterprises, showing that when the temperature deep within the breast, in a section just left of the wishbone, reaches 180 degrees, the rest of the bird should be safe to eat, too. The breast section also happens to be the easiest place for processors, such as Cargill, to insert the timers, far easier than the innermost part of the thigh and wing, where some recommend a meat thermometer should be placed.
The pop-up timer is “really kind of foolproof,” says Fred Cecala, vice president of marketing and product development for Columbian Home Products, which sells the Heuck brand timer.
“It is or it isn’t the right temperature,” Cecala adds. And by “right temperature,” he means 180 degrees, a number that is not, by any stretch of the imagination, universally accepted.
As Harold McGee, the go-to authority on food chemistry, points out, a turkey is not a homogeneous mass that cooks evenly once placed in the oven. The bird is composed of thin wings, muscular legs and thighs, and a thick, tender breast. It has a hollow cavity, unless of course it doesn’t; then it’s packed with stuffing. No two sections of the fowl will cook the same.
Cooking such a bird “is tricky at best,” McGee says. “Clearly, the rational thing to do is break it apart in like pieces.”
To complicate matters more, no two ovens are the same, either. Yours might have a hot spot in the back, which could cause one part of the turkey to cook faster than another unless you rotate the bird during the roasting. Even the type of roasting pan you use can affect how your bird cooks. Those cheap, high-sided aluminum pans sold at grocery stores? They conduct heat so effectively that they’ll cook the legs faster than the breast meat, in direct contradiction of standard turkey-roasting logic.
The pop-up timer is, by design, oblivious to every other section of the turkey save for the meat where it’s inserted. All sorts of havoc can happen right under a timer’s nose, as I learned while testing nine turkeys, all purchased from Wegmans and each weighing around 14 pounds. In an attempt to factor out oven variation, we roasted the first six turkeys simultaneously at CulinAerie, the recreational cooking school on 14th Street NW. I inserted probe thermometers near the timers to monitor temperatures during the roasting process.
I started out testing four pop-ups: the reusable turkey-shaped timer from Norpro; another reusable Norpro product designed to indicate both “medium” and “well done” temperatures (it never worked, and I soon abandoned it on later tests); and two basic disposable timers from Heuck and Regency (both manufactured by Volk, I later learned).
The takeaway of the initial test was obvious: Never roast six turkeys at the same time. It’s impossible to monitor all the timers as they start to pop, let alone take readings of each bird (and second readings with another meat thermometer) to determine the temperatures at which every single timer pops. The only other takeaway was that the “touchdown” turkey timers, manufactured in China for Norpro, consistently popped earlier than the cheap, disposable timers. Turkey-shaped timers placed in the breast gave us the legs-up signal, on average, at 183 degrees, well above the 150-to-165-degree range the pros prefer. I can’t begin to tell you the average of the disposable timers. It was futile to track them all. A small number never popped.
I learned about the problems of cheap, aluminum roasting pans when I tested more birds at home. Disposable Heuck-brand timers inserted into the legs popped first. The temperature of both legs hovered in the low 190s, well above the 165-to-185-degree range the pros suggest. When the leg timers popped, the breast meat temperature measured in the high 160s. A reusable turkey timer in the breast signaled touchdown at 177 degrees (the leg meat measured around 200 at that point). The first Heuck timer in the breast popped at 194 degrees; the temperature in the legs hovered around the mid-200s.
A second bird seemed to confirm the aluminum roasting pan theory: The leg timers again popped first, although at lower temperatures, around 176 on average. Three disposable timers placed in the breast popped, on average, at 192 degrees. But here’s the thing: When I immediately inserted a meat probe into the innermost part of the thigh and wing, the thermometer read 170 degrees, just five degrees above the USDA’s minimum temperature. This was a safe bird to eat, from top to bottom.
“I haven’t heard that people are getting [temperatures] in the 190 to 200 range,” says Columbian Home Product’s Cecala. “I’m not doubting you. I’m wondering what’s driving that.”
What’s driving that may be user error. The location of the pop-up timer appears to be of paramount importance. What’s more, the way you take a bird’s temperature is equally important: A digital meat thermometer should be injected deep into the muscle, so it’s monitoring heat at the same depth as the timer is; surface temperatures often run much hotter.
So for a final test, I bought a turkey with a pop-up timer already inserted, presumably at the spot where the manufacturer wants it and at the proper 90-degree angle. It popped at almost exactly 180 degrees when I measured the breast meat with a digital probe inserted deep into the muscle. The inner thigh temperature read 164 (which will rise slightly when you pull the bird from the oven). The leg temperature, however, hovered at 190, even though I hadn’t used an aluminum roasting pan. I used a rimmed baking sheet, as López-Alt recommended.
You might be surprised to learn that all three home-cooked birds were mostly moist and edible, for one important reason: The Wegmans birds had been injected with a solution of broth, salt and spices, which clearly saved the turkeys from turning into leather goods. Each also sported deep holes in the breast meat, sort of like small-caliber bullet wounds.
Despite improvements to pop-up timer technology over the years, the device essentially performs the same job it did back in the 1960s: It tells you when the breast meat hits 180 degrees, a temperature that’s supposed to ensure that all other parts of the turkey have reached a food-safe temperature. That basic, one-size-fits-all approach clearly can produce at turkey that’s semi-moist and edible, despite what López-Alt says.
What it can’t do is keep up with evolving tastes. As their reprimands indicate, chefs and other pros want more than a safe bird to eat. They want succulence. They want crisp skin. They want a turkey that turns heads more than one that won’t turn their stomachs. Which is why they don’t use and don’t recommend pop-up timers. They’ll stick with their instant-read thermometers.
“One thing I’d say in defense of the idea of cooking timers is that because it’s based on temperature rather than time, it at least pushes the cook in the right direction,” says McGee, the food chemistry authority. “Timing is always unpredictable.”
In that sense, the legacy of Goldie Kliewer and the Inventors Club is still alive: A pop-up timer may be the first baby step toward teaching the timid and the fearful how good a turkey can be when not overcooked.