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We've all heard it before: you can't make a good roast turkey if you stuff it. Alton Brown's said it, and as far as recommendations go, that's pretty much the final word for me. Heck, even I've said it in the past.
See, here's the problem: turkey is a very fickle type of meat. Overcook pork, beef, or even chicken by a little bit and you aren't in deep trouble yet. They've all got enough fat in 'em to keep things relatively lubricated and moist. White meat turkey, on the other hand, is the absolute leanest of all meats. What this means for you is that there's no hiding an overcooked turkey breast. An entire boatload of gravy can't save it (though there's no reason to ever turn down extra gravy).
For turkey, the ideal temperature for perfectly moist breast meat is around 145°F or so. A bit higher and you're starting to enter drysville. Get it all the way up to 165°F as the USDA recommends in its utterly silly-for-the-average-intelligent-human-being safety recommendations*, and you might as well be chowing down on the roasted contents of your paper recycling bin.
*Check out the explanation here for more on cooking meat safely.
OK, fine, you're saying. So don't overcook my turkey. I get it. How does stuffing change that? Well, the thing is, when you fill the internal cavity of a turkey with porous, bready stuffing, the turkey's juices drip down into it as it's roasting. This is a good thing for your stuffing, which picks up the incomparable flavor of turkey drippings and comes out extra moist on tasty. On the other hand, it means that not only does the turkey need to be cooked to 145°F, but your raw-turkey-juice-infused stuffing must also be cooked to this temperature and rested in order to be safe for consumption.
See the problem yet? That's right. By the time the stuffing in the very center of the bird reaches 145°F, the breast meat will be hopelessly overcooked (remember, foods cook from the outside in, right?). Compounding this problem is the fact that legs and thighs, with all their connective tissue, need to be cooked to a much higher temperature—around 165°F at least—in order to be palatable.
This latter problem can be solved with a baking stone: placing the bird in a roasting pan on top of a preheated baking stone in a 500°F oven and immediately dropping the temperature down to 300°F ensures that the legs and thighs cook faster from the radiative heat given off by the stone while the breast cooks slower in the upper oven, but the stuffing problem is tougher.
I tried cooking a stuffed turkey using my standard Easy Herb-Rubbed Turkey method and baked it until the stuffing reached the requisite 145°F before pulling the whole thing out and allowing it to rest. By this stage, the breast meat of the turkey was at around 155°F near its center, and all the way up at 180°F on its exterior layers. Needless to say, it was dry as bones.
So what's the solution?
It's actually quite simple, and even Alton himself has gone back and recommended a similar method since his earlier disdain for stuffing: Just heat the stuffing before you put it in the turkey.
By preheating the stuffing, you give it a jumpstart on the cooking process. That way, as long as it never cools down to a dangerous temperature range during the cooking process, you're completely in the clear.
To stuff a bird with hot stuffing is not an easy task. Believe me, I have the burnt fingertips to prove it. Much easier is to line the turkey with cheesecloth, place the cooled stuffing into the cheesecloth, tie it up into a pouch, then pull out that whole pouch to par-cook.
You can, if you'd like, roast it in the oven, but the microwave is much faster and actually delivers a better end product—less time spent heating up means less time for excess moisture loss. Unless you're a pacemaker or a suburban frog, you really have no reason to fear microwaves.
I tried par-ccoking the stuffing bag to various internal temperatures ranging from 140°F up to 200°F, monitoring them inside their respective turkeys as they roasted. Here's what I found:
Turns out that every bag loses a great deal of heat during the first couple hours of roasting because its surround by fridge-cold turkey. Eventually, around the 2 to 2 1/2 hour mark (depending on the staring temperature), it begins to climb back up again.
In order to be safe, we want to make sure that even if the stuffing dips down into dangerous territory, that it climbs back up into the safer 140°F+ range and stays there long enough to kill off any baddies (about half an hour is plenty of time). Clearly, a 140°F start is too low—the stuffing barely comes back up above 130° by the time the turkey is done roasted. 160°F is the way to go, delivering perfectly cooked breasts, legs, and stuffing, all in one pretty darn presentable package, if I do say so myself.
What's that you say? You really like the crispy bits of stuffing that form on the surface?
Simple: just cut off the end of the cheese cloth pouch for the last hour of baking. Your stuffing will crisp up just fine. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have an entire tray of stuffing (or dressing, if you will) baked off on the side. If your family is anything like mine, you're going to need it.
Actually, if your family is anything like mine, you're going to have one tray of delicious sausage stuffing, one tray of stuffing-hold-the-salt-add-dried-cranberries-and-chestnuts for your mom, one tray of all-sausage-hold-the-bread stuffing for your carb-free dad, one tray of nothing for your I-don't-eat-stuffing-little-sister, and one tray of crusty-bread-with-weird-fruits-whole-grains-and-probably-a-handful-of-quinoa-and-squash-shoved-in-for-good-measure stuffing for your hippie older sister.*
*In case you deny your hippie-hood, remember that you live in the woods, listen to the Dead and eat whole grains, sis.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor 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.