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Dear Science: What’s the best way to cook a turkey?

There is one scientifically superior method, if you dare say it. (Gillian Brockell,Sarah Kaplan/The Washington Post)

Dear Science,

I've been trying for years to find the ultimate Thanksgiving turkey recipe, but I've yet to find the best way to cook a holiday bird. After hours and hours of cooking, I end up with mostly dried-out meat and a center that barely cooks in time for dinner. What's the best way to keep a turkey juicy and flavorful? 

Here's what science has to say:

There's more than one way to cook a turkey, but one technique in particular has skyrocketed in popularity over the past couple of years. If you don't know what we're about to suggest, you're in for a real treat. Your life is about to change forever — and it's all thanks to physics. Reader, meet spatchcocking.

#spatchcock the second coming #food #cooking

A photo posted by Rachel Feltman (@rafeltman) on

Yes, that gloriously butterflied beast is the best bird you could possibly present to your Thanksgiving guests. Let's explain the science-y goodness behind the method first.

Turkeys are so plump and round that you can basically consider them spheres of raw (often slightly frozen) meat sitting in your oven. That's a pretty inefficient shape to cook with, because it means the heat must travel the longest journey from its source to the center of the meat. You're trying to coax that meat stuck in the center into being perfectly done, or at least not a potential source of salmonella, while willing the crispy skin of the bird not to burn in the meantime. Plus, you want to make sure all the meat that's closer to the oven's heat doesn't progress into chewy, dried-out overdone-ness.


(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

By changing the shape of your bird, you can change the thermodynamic equation. Spatchcocking starts with the tearing out of an avian spinal column and ends with a bird that's relatively thin and flat — a much better shape for efficient cooking than a big old sphere o' bird.

Food scientist J. Kenji López-Alt explained why the shape is so ideal in an article for Digg last year. “First, all of the skin is exposed to the full heat of the oven the whole time. There is no skin hiding underneath, no underbelly to worry about,” he wrote. “Second, there is ample room for the rendering fat to drip out from under the skin and into the pan below. This makes for skin that ends up thinner and crisper. Finally, all of that dripping fat distributes heat energy over the meat as it cooks, both helping it to cook more evenly and creating a temperature buffer, protecting the meat from drying out.”

We'll let the experts in the Washington Post's food section guide you through the process of pounding your poultry into submission, but don't let them intimidate you. We've accomplished the feat several times using nothing more than a pair of kitchen shears, a decent serrated knife, and sheer moxie (see video above). Rachel sometimes needs to jump up and down to get enough force behind her arm to break turkey bones, but then again, Rachel has delicate princess wrists. Sarah has even managed to spatchcock despite being a vegetarian. Trust us — if we can do it, anyone can.

Once the gruesome task is complete, the magic begins. If stuffing is your thing, just throw it under your mutilated bird. Then pop that flattened fowl into a 450 degree Fahrenheit oven and blast it for 80 minutes. Yes, 80 minutes.

In addition to super speedy cook time, the spatchcocking method will subject more of your bird's skin to the Maillard reaction — a delicious way that sugars and amino acids react with one another when conditions are hot and dry to create a savory flavor. A spatchcocked bird will have less of its surface area sitting in a puddle of drippings, which prevents the delicious chemical reaction from occurring. And by cooking the bird hot but fast — something that's only possible because of its slim profile — you get the benefits of the Maillard reaction without suffering dried, overcooked meat because of the high temperature of the oven.

Everyone wins! Except for the bird, which is admittedly badly battered in the process. But to be fair, it was already dead.

Check out more Thanksgiving food prep tips here.

Have a question for Dear Science? Ask it here.

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