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The Food Lab: Turkey Stuffed Turkey

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Turkey Stuffed Turkey

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Like many things in life, the problem with turkey can be boiled down to two things: the government and breasts.

For some reason, years ago, turkey breeders got it in their heads that people like white meat. As a result, turkeys have been getting larger and larger breasts (that stick out further and further from their bodies). At the same time, the government got it in their heads that people don't want to kill themselves while cooking and subsequently started to recommend cooking turkey to that state beyond death known as "165°F."

And while it's true that the dark meat of a turkey needs to be taken to 165°F if you don't like having bloody streaks in your meat—particularly the meat right around the joints in the thighs and drumsticks—the breast meat shouldn't go much beyond 145°F if you don't want the life to be squeezed out of it.

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Couple this with the fact that breasts—which project far above the body of the turkey—cook much faster than the legs, and you find that by the time the legs are the requisite 165°F, sections of the breast are well above 180°F. The consequences are familiar to all of us: dry, withered white meat that only a boatload of gravy can rescue.

I was forced to search for an all-poultry solution.

For the past several years, I've made it my mission each Thanksgiving to discover a way to improve this sorry state of affairs. The most successful method so far was to replace the turkey with a suckling pig and feign ignorance when it arrived at the table all golden-brown and crackly. But my family caught on when my kid sister pointed out that turkeys don't have curly-cue tails, and I was forced to search for an all-poultry solution.

As we found out last week, brining can help mitigate some of this moisture loss, but only to an extent. Breasts cooked to 180°F are well beyond help. Some recipes recommend starting the bird breast-face-down in order to protect the more delicate meat from overcooking. This also helps a little, but not nearly enough. Besides, flipping a 20-pound bird halfway through cooking ain't exactly my idea of a good time.

Then, a few years ago, I had an epiphany: Just break it up.

Iteration 1: Bye Bye Rockwell

If the problem is that legs need to cook to 165°F, but breasts shouldn't go above 145°F, then why in the hell am I cooking them both together? I don't throw my peas in the same pot with my potatoes, so why should this be any different?

By breaking the turkey up into separate parts, I was able to take the breasts and legs to the right temperature without resorting to hot-oven acrobatics. Though a very easy solution that provided vastly superior results to the traditional bird, there was still a little problem.

While the bulk of the breast was perfectly moist from edge to center (thanks to brining), the tapered end of the breast still managed to overcook and dry out, meaning that at least one family member was going to get stuck with sub-par turkey (sorry, Granddad).

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Drastically lowering the oven temperature helped—rather than cooking at a normal 300 to 350°F range, I roasted my turkey at around 250°F, which promotes a more even cooking between the edge and center, and between the thick and thin parts—but it wasn't enough. What I needed was a way to even out the shape of my turkey breast.

While I'm confident there are bioengineers hard at work developing turkeys with perfectly cylindrical breasts, for the time being, I'd have to resort to some kitchen surgery.

Iteration 2: On a Roll

So how do you take an unevenly shaped turkey breast and turn it into a perfect cylinder? Simple. Remove the breasts from the carcass, put them together head-to-heels, then wrap the whole thing up with their own skin, tie them to secure, and roast it. The legs get roasted separately.

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Why?

  • Even cooking. Because of its symmetrical shape, the turkey heats through along its entire length at the same rate. Nobody gets stuck with a dry piece.
  • Better seasoning. By removing the breasts from the carcass, you expose more surface area, allowing the seasonings to reach the space between the breasts, hence reaching the center of the turkey roll. Similarly, brining is more effective (though with low temperature cooking and an even shape, brining is wholly unnecessary).
  • Crisper skin. While it's possible to get crisp skin on this beast by popping it back into a 500°F oven for a few minutes just before serving, an even better way to do it is to sear it in butter in a big skillet on the stovetop—an endeavor that's reasonably simple with the breast's reduced size and more convenient shape.
  • Easier carving. With no bones and an even shape, carving this turkey is as simple as slicing a tenderloin.
  • Better gravy. With the entire carcass of the bird at your disposal, it's easy to make a delicious, very turk-ey gravy. I make mine by chopping up the bones, browning them, making a stock with aromatics, enhancing with some marmite and soy sauce, then thickening. Delicious!
  • Your family will like you more. Unless you're a control-freak kitchen nazi (I am).

It all sounds great, right? And it is—but! After all the work I've done on improving those darn breasts, the legs are beginning to feel a little left out. Should they be content with their plain-old roasting? I think not!

Iteration 3: Turkey Stuffed Turkey

So what are the hallmarks of a great Thanksgiving turkey centerpiece? I'd propose the following four criteria:
  • Crisp, golden-brown skin.
  • Moist, tender, flavorful meat
  • Well-seasoned stuffing
  • Stunning presentation

Up until now, I'd been focussing on 1 and 2. This year, my goal is to deliver the whole package.

First things first. Stuffing is what goes inside the bird. Dressing is a seasoned savory bread casserole that is baked separately.

Dressing is easy and delicious to make (hint: save the fat skimmed off the stock you made with the turkey carcass, along with a couple cups of the stock to make you're dressing. It'll taste just as good as if it were baked inside the bird). Stuffing, on the other hand, presents a few problems, not the least of which is that my rolled turkey breasts don't present a cavity to stuff. Even if they did have a cavity, stuffing a bird is just about the worst thing you can do to it (just ask Alton Brown). It requires you to cook the bird well beyond the stage it should be cooked to, and a bready stuffing has a tendency to suck the meat around it dry.

After a few days of tinkering with turkeys, I finally came up with the solution. It relies on an old French technique called ballotine, in which a bird is boned, stuffed with a forcemeat (aka sausage), rolled, and then either poached or roasted. To stuff the breasts, you first have to butterfly them.

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I was expecting to put a great deal of effort and some precise knifework into the process, but happily, it turned out to be much easier than I thought. I simply laid the breast flat on its back, then used my fingers to lift up the tenderloin and open it up like a book. After that, I made a single incision with a sharp knife on the opposite side from the tenderloin, and opened that side out in the opposite direction, pressing the opened up turkey breast into an even, easy-to-roll, recatngular block.

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The forcemeat presented me with an easy solution to the lonely legs problem: grind them into sausage. After experimenting with a few different flavors, I decided to give a nod to traditional Thanksgiving stuffing by making a sausage flavored with sage, onions, celery, garlic, and a little pork fat.

N.B. Two legs makes more than enough sausage to stuff the turkey, and have enough leftover for breakfast the morning after.

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With sausage and butterflied breast in hand, finishing up the ballotines is a simple matter of seasoning the breast meat, spreading the meat on the breast, rolling it up like a log, wrapping it in the skin of the bird (which I'd carefully removed at the beginning and split into two large sheets—one for each breast), then tying them up to help them maintain an even shape while roasting.

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A few hours in a low oven later, and the breasts emerge, ready to be seared in a hot skillet to crisp up the skin.

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As the thing cooks, the flavor and moisture from the dark meat helps keep the white meat even moister. Without the connective tissue from around the joints of the thighs and drumsticks, the dark meat is fully cooked even at 145°F, so as long as you're armed with a good thermometer, there's no risk of dry meat here. The result is turkey in its most perfect form.

Moist meat? Check. Crisp skin? Check. Well-seasoned stuffing? Check. Presentation? Double-check. It may have Norman Rockwell spinning in his grave, but it has my family licking their plates (even Granddad), and isn't plate-licking what Thanksgiving should be all about?

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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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