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We all know by this stage that spatchcocking is the fastest and easiest way to roast turkey. The only downside is that you don't get to deliver that grand, Norman Rockwell–style whole bird to the table. Personally, I'd take easy and delicious over slightly more picturesque any day, but I can understand the resistance some folks have.
And what if you come from one of those families with the old Auntie Emma who insists it's not Thanksgiving unless her turkey comes to the table with its back fully intact? Is there still a method that can get you great results? My goal was to find a method for roasting turkeys that requires minimal fussiness and produces a beautifully burnished, deep-brown bird with evenly cooked, juicy meat to boot.
Do a quick Google search for "roast turkey recipes," open up the first five that show up, and tell me what they all have in common.* Chances are, every single one of them calls for roasting your turkey in a rack set in a heavy roasting pan. It makes sense, right? You're roasting the turkey, so why wouldn't you use a roasting pan? Well, I'm here to set the record straight and to tell you that a roasting pan is the worst choice for roasting a turkey. If you like crisp skin and juicy meat, that is.
* The one exception I could find? Alton Brown's roast turkey. As is often the case, this man gets it.
Why do away with the pan? Let's recap what goes on when you're roasting that bird in order to understand.
If you've been following our Thanksgiving turkey coverage over the years, we may be covering familiar ground. But it's important, so bear with me.
Perfectly roasting a turkey is really about delivering two things: crisp, well-browned skin (and I'm talking all of the skin here—no flabby bits hidden underneath the bird, please) and moist meat from both the breast and the thighs.
Let's take a look at what's required to get there, one step at a time.
Getting Crisp Skin
Getting crisp skin is really a simple matter of cooking it long enough that collagen (one of the proteins that make it tough) has time to convert to gelatin and drain away, fat has time to render out, and the remaining proteins have time to dehydrate and brown. So, for crisper skin, your goal is to maximize air circulation, which not only brings hot air to the turkey more effectively (thus cooking the skin faster) but also removes excess moisture, allowing the skin to crisp better.
Other things that can affect how efficiently turkey skin browns include how dry it is to begin with and its pH. By rubbing the skin with a bit of baking powder and salt, then letting the turkey rest overnight, not only do you improve the turkey's juiciness (a process known as dry-brining), you also improve the skin's browning capacity.
Getting Moist Meat
Here's the real issue when it comes to roast turkey. Breast meat is composed mainly of what are known as fast-twitch muscles—muscles that are rarely used on a day-to-day basis, but are great for quick, powerful bursts of action. Fast-twitch muscle tends to be relatively light in color and low in connective tissue and fat. Leg meat, on the other hand, is mainly slow-twitch muscle. It's used day in and day out as the turkey walks around scratching for food. As a result, it's darker and packed with tough connective tissue.
Because the two muscle structures are so massively different, they must be cooked differently to achieve ideal results. Breast meat is best when cooked to no higher than about 150°F (66°C)—any higher and it dries out. On the other hand, the tough connective tissue in leg meat doesn't get tender until it gets to at least 165°F (74°C) or so.
Put all of this together and you can come up with a short list of two parameters that will dictate how we roast our turkey.
- Parameter 1: There must be excellent circulation for hot air to get to every surface of the skin.
- Parameter 2: The legs must cook faster than the breast.
Hit those two goals, and we should be golden.
Why Your Roasting Pan Sucks
Are you beginning to see why the roasting pan is so terrible for roasting a turkey?
First off, it inhibits convection currents from traveling around the underside of the turkey. You end up with crisp skin on top that slowly progresses to flabby, pale skin underneath. Second, those high, thick pan sides shield the turkey's thighs from radiation, meaning they actually cook slower than the exposed breast meat.
You couldn't design a worse vessel for roasting a turkey if you tried! (Okay, perhaps you could.)
Now, I know what some of you are going to say: Flip the turkey over so the breast is protected!
This is pretty sound advice and will indeed deliver on the promise of legs that cook faster than the breast. You'll even get juicy, evenly cooked dark and light meat. However, it doesn't solve the problem of crisp skin.** It's also attempting to solve a problem that you really created in the first place by choosing such a subpar cooking vessel.
** Flipping your turkey halfway through roasting can get you relatively crisp skin on both top and bottom, but it's fiddly, particularly with a larger bird.
Here's the first step on the road to better turkey: Take that expensive roasting pan out of the equation and swap it for a cheap, sturdy aluminum half sheet pan.
If you've ever worked in a restaurant, if you bake a lot, or if you like to roast vegetables, then you've probably already got a couple of these in your cabinet, most likely with a wire cooling rack to match. Now, you can roast your turkey directly on the cooling rack, and it's what I recommend if you're cooking a spatchcocked turkey, which doesn't require any circulation underneath.
With no tall metal sides to block radiation, your turkey's legs are fully exposed to the heat of the oven, which helps them to cook a little bit faster. However, with no circulation underneath, you still have the problem of flabby skin along the back.
Here's my current whole-turkey roasting setup of choice:
By using a V-rack set in a rimmed baking sheet, not only do you fully expose the legs, you also leave plenty of room for hot air to travel around the entire surface of the turkey, maximizing the amount of crisp skin you can get out of it.
Figuring this setup would solve all of my turkey woes, I seasoned a turkey up, placed it on a rack in a baking sheet, and tossed it in the oven to roast. It was far easier and better than any turkey I'd roasted in a roasting pan, but it still had the problem of breast meat that overcooked before the legs had a chance to finish. I could go back to the idea of flipping the bird a few times as it roasted, but I really didn't want to head down that difficult path.
What I really needed was some way to cook the turkey more rapidly from the bottom than from the top. Then it occurred to me: I already have a tool in my kitchen that is custom-built for storing massive amounts of heat energy and releasing it in a directed way.
You got it. The Baking Steel.
If you're unfamiliar with it, it's a quarter-inch slab of solid steel, designed to replace your baking stone for baking bread and pizza on. So how can a tool designed for baking pizza help your turkey cook evenly?
Simple. Just place the steel at the very bottom of your oven, on the lowest rack, or directly on the floor of your oven if the floor is flat and stable. Preheat the oven to as hot as it gets. Our goal here is to store up a massive amount of energy inside that solid sheet of steel, just like the capacitor in a camera flash.
After a solid 45 minutes or so of preheating, place your seasoned, dried, dry-brined turkey in its V-rack in a rimmed baking sheet directly on top of the baking steel.
Reduce the oven temperature to around 300°F (150°C), then walk away. As the turkey roasts, that baking steel is going to steadily release its stored-up energy, transferring it to the aluminum baking sheet under the turkey. That heat in turn gets carried via radiation and convection to the parts of the turkey that need it most: the legs and back.
Meanwhile, the breast meat gently cooks in the 300°F oven, arriving at its target final temperature of 150°F just as the legs finish tenderizing and the skin finishes crisping.
And there you go. A roast turkey that delivers on the promise of extra-crisp skin, perfectly evenly cooked juicy meat, and the absolute minimum of fuss.
So this year, if you're not walking down the spatchcock route, use your baking stone or baking steel to deliver the turkey of your dreams. Or, at the very least, Auntie Emma's dreams.