The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

The Food Lab Thanksgiving Special: Turkey 101

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My Thanksgiving turkey usually involves some kind of acrobatics aimed at maximizing the juiciness and flavor of each individual part of the bird. Legs, breast, gravy, etc. And if that's what you want to do, we've got plenty of recipes to help you out. Check out our recipes for East Herb-Rubbed Turkey, Turkey in Parts, Turkey-stuffed Turkey, or Buffalo Stuffed Turkey if you want something a little more involved and unique.

But sometimes it's nice to have an easy, simple recipe that you toss in the oven with little-to-no advanced prep so you can spend more time with guests and less time butchering, right?

Here are some tips to make the most of your holiday bird with little-to-no effort.

Choose Your Bird

Turkeys come in all shapes, sizes, and pedigrees. Here's what you're likely to find:

Farm-raised heritage birds can vary depending on breed, but generally tend to have more distinct flavor, particularly in their dark meat. Their breasts are usually smaller, so more prone to overcooking.

"Natural" and organic birds are raised without antibiotics, which doesn't necessarily mean anything for their flavor. One thing you can be sure of is they won't contain any additives or injections as many other supermarket brands do.

"Enhanced" Birds are injected with a flavored brine intended to help them retain more moisture as they cook—and it works. My only problem with them is that the added liquid dilutes the natural flavor of turkey and can often give it a spongy quality. Many of the brands that offer "enhanced" birds like Butterball or Jenny-O also use relatively flavorless factory-farmed birds, which doesn't help. Personally, I avoid these birds. Look for fine print that says "enhanced," or check the ingredients list to make sure it doesn't contain anything besides turkey.

Kosher birds have been packed in salt and rinsed prior to packaging as part of the koshering process. This has a significant effect on the texture of the bird. It seasons it more deeply and allows it to retain more moisture as it cooks (see section on "dry-brining" below). Kosher birds are a fantastic option if you don't want to take the time to brine your own turkey.

What Size Turkey Do I Need?

Plan on about one pound of turkey per person, which translates to around half a pound of edible meat. That said, if you're feeding a big crowd and have the space, it's wiser to use two smaller birds than one large bird. Over 15 pounds or so, turkeys become more difficult to cook, take much longer, and are more prone to drying out.

I find the best birds are around 10 to 12 pounds.

Should I brine?

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Brining—the act of soaking a piece of meat in a salt water solution—works by partially dissolving meat proteins (read more about it in our brining guide here). The proteins open up a little wider and don't constrict as much when cooking, allowing them to retain more juices. Sound good right?

Well, there's a tradeoff. On the one hand, brined birds are juicier, particularly in the outer regions of the breast meat—exactly the areas that are most prone to drying out. On the other hand, brining dilutes flavor, as you are bulking up the turkey with what is essentially salty tap water. It also makes it difficult to use pan drippings for gravy, as they are quite salty. As an alternative, you might try...

Dry Brining

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Salting the turkey underneath its skin for a period of 24 to 48 hours has much the same effect as brining. At first, the salt draws liquid out of the meat through a process called osmosis. The salt then dissolves in this liquid forming a concentrated brine right on the surface of the bird which then goes to work at dissolving muscle fibers the same way as a regular brine. It's a bit more of a pain than regular brining (you have to separate the skin from the milk), but the advantage is that there is no dilution of flavor.

Buy a kosher bird and you'll get very similar results.

That's the Rub

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When treating the skin of your turkey, there are a few options:

Going naked is the easiest, and will give you the crispest skin, particularly if you let the turkey air-dry overnight in the fridge. The problem is that occasionally, the skin will dry out too much, ending up more leathery than crisp.

Dry rubs can add flavor to skin. For best results, apply them the day before and let the turkey air-dry in the fridge over night.

Oil rubbed onto the skin will get you a more even golden-brown color, as it helps distribute heat from air in the oven more evenly. It'll also prevent skin from drying out and turning leathery, though it'll also slightly decrease crispness.

Butter or herb-butter will add lots of flavor to your skin (don't expect it to soak into the meat much, even if you spread it underneath the skin), but it'll also greatly reduce its crispness. Butter is about 18% water. It cools down the skin as it evaporates off. Milk proteins present in butter also brown on their own, so turkey skin rubbed with butter will have a spottier appearance than one rubbed in oil. Some people prefer this appearance (as I do, on occasion).

Keys to Even Cooking?

The big problem with whole turkeys is that the legs need to cook to a higher temperature than the breast. So how do you achieve this?

It's tough without breaking down the bird, but here's a pretty easy way to get darn close: preheat a heavy roasting pan right on the floor of a 500°F oven for about 30 minutes. Have your turkey ready-to-cook on a V-rack and slide it directly into the roasting pan. Immediately turn the oven down to around 300° or so. The retained heat in the roasting pan will give the leg meat closer to it a head-start, and you'll find that your turkey will all come to the right temperatures at pretty much the same time. Easy, right?

You can get even more evenly cooked turkey if you fiddle with oven temperatures (really slow cooking followed by a rest then a blast at 500°F right before serving gets good results), but the set-it-and-forget-it method is far easier, and for most purposes, works just fine, particularly if you use the pre-heating the pan trick.

Let it Rest!

This is the biggest key to making your Thanksgiving easier and tastier. Resting allows time for your turkey's meat to relax and for internal juices to redistribute from the center towards the exteriors. When you slice it, your bird will be able to retain more moisture and more flavor. A 10- to 12-pound bird should rest for at least 30 minutes tented in foil before carving. Read up a bit more about the science here »

An added bonus: you've now got an extra half hour to do things like deglaze your pan drippings, heat up your casseroles, have a cocktail, and make whipped cream to cover up the fingerprints you've been leaving on the pumpkin pie.

For a super-easy, tasty, no-fuss recipe, follow the link up top.

Want to do it in Parts?

Some folks like cooking their turkey in parts so that the breast and leg meat can cook independently of each other. Here's how to butcher a turkey to get it ready to cook in parts.

[Photographs and Video: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt and Robyn Lee]

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