The Food Lab: Deep-Fried Sous Vide Turkey Porchetta (You Want This on Your Thanksgiving Table)

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

[Photographs and video: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Things that I did this past Monday:

  • Take a bath that was unreasonably long for a Monday.
  • Claim that making a turkey porchetta (a.k.a. turchetta) is the absolute best way to serve and eat turkey.
  • Curse myself for not putting on real shoes before taking the dogs out for a walk on a November morning.
  • Spill two quarts of boiling broth all over the kitchen floor, making it my biggest kitchen disaster since the great olive salad spill of '09.
  • Lie.

One guess as to what I lied about.

Turkey porchetta—deboned turkey breast cured with garlic, fennel, sage, and red pepper and wrapped in its own skin before roasting—might be the best way to cook turkey using a conventional oven, but if you want to really break out the big guns, cooking it sous vide—followed by a stint in a hot oil bath, Peking duck–style—is the way to go.

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There are several advantages to cooking meat—particularly lean, delicate meat, like turkey, that's prone to drying out—using sous vide methods. First off, it lets you cook the meat perfectly evenly from edge to center. A regular oven cooks at an ambient temperature that's higher than the final target temperature, which means that there's a temperature gradient inevitably built into the meat. A sous vide cooker, on the other hand, cooks at the exact final temperature you want the meat to reach.

Moreover, because sous vide cookers are so precise, you can actually hold your meat at a relatively low temperature long enough to pasteurize it, for juicier, more tender meat that's still 100% safe to eat. How's that work?

Under a microscope, turkey muscles (and all muscles, for that matter) resemble huge bundles of coaxial cable, all tightly grouped in parallel. Each one of these cables contains meaty juices. As the turkey cooks, proteins contract, and the bundles get squeezed—like a tube of toothpaste—causing their juices to spill out. The higher the final temperature of the turkey, the more tightly the bundles get squeezed, and the drier the turkey gets.

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In a normal oven, by the time the very center of a turkey roast gets to around 145 to 150°F (63 to 66°C), the outer layers will have reached well over 170°F (77°C) or so. Your meat won't be bone-dry, but it won't be as moist as possible, either. With sous vide cooking, you can get the entire bird to come to the same temperature, minimizing the amount of juices lost. What's more, bacteria are in fact actively destroyed at temperatures far lower than what's recommended for traditional cooking methods. Even at 140°F (60°C), bacteria will be killed; so long as you let a turkey rest at that temperature for a sufficient amount of time (about 30 minutes), it's just as safe as if you'd cooked it all the way up to 165°F (74°C) using conventional methods.

So, not only is it possible with sous vide to cook more evenly, it's also possible to cook to a lower final temperature. Both of these facts make for a juicier bird.

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Doesn't that look appetizing? No? Well, yes, I suppose you're right. While a fresh-out-of-the-bag sous vide turkey can make for great sandwiches, for a hot table centerpiece, we need to give it some more color and textural contrast. You could do that by searing it in a cast iron skillet or blasting it in a hot oven, but a cast iron sear is never perfectly even, while using a hot oven can result in some overcooked meat.

Much better is to do what any gentleman would do when he finds himself in a bit of trouble: pull out the deep fryer.

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Okay, technically, it's a wok, but it is the best tool for deep-frying in a home kitchen, due to its large volume and wide shape, which helps prevent spillovers and splatters.

And believe me, there will be splatters. Perhaps not as many as you'd get when deep-frying a real porchetta, but enough that you'll want to gently deposit the bird into the hot oil—350°F (177°C) peanut oil works best—cover it, and wait a few minutes for it to stop spitting before you open 'er back up.

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Like everything that comes out of a deep fryer, it should be seasoned with salt immediately so that the salt can stick to the still-wet-with-fat surface and stay in place. And, because it was cooked sous vide, there will be a very minimal temperature gradient inside (caused by the deep-frying phase), which means that it can be sliced and served almost immediately after leaving the fryer, maximizing the amount of crisp crust you get.

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Can you imagine the looks on your family's faces when this crackling, golden-brown, perfectly symmetrical roast emerges from the kitchen to grace the Thanksgiving table? If they didn't have anything to be thankful about before, they sure do now.

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Because it's completely boneless, carving couldn't be easier, and nobody has to fight over who gets the most skin or who gets stuck with the dried-out ends of the skinny part of the breast. The only thing worth fighting about here is who gets to eat the extra-crispy end bits, and in my family, it's not even really a fight. My kid sister and my wife somehow manage to sneak the crispy bits off the cutting board right under everyone else's noses, every year.

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Pretty, right? If you either have great foresight or are good at taking directions, you'll make at least one more of these than is strictly necessary for dinner: They make fantastic next-day sandwiches.