The Food Lab: How to Cook Sous Vide Turkey Breast With Extra-Crisp Skin

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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Our sous vide turkey recipe produces tender and juicy meat with insanely crisp skin. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Sous vide is a fantastic method for cooking holiday roasts. It delivers reliably moist and tender results, frees up your oven for other tasks, requires almost no supervision during cooking, and makes it very easy to hold the roast hot and ready to serve until your guests are ready. That said, sous vide turkey comes with a few problems.

I remember the first time I tried to cook a turkey sous vide for Thanksgiving, way back in 2007. I bagged my bone-in, skin-on breast separately from a couple of turkey legs, threw some big hunks of pork fat in for good measure, then cooked the legs and the breast—at 165°F (74°C) and 145°F (63°C), respectively—all day and all night before removing them from the bags, searing it all off, and serving it the next day. It was an unqualified failure. Not only was the breast meat dry and the leg meat tough, but getting the skin to crisp properly involved creating a greasy, smoky haze in the kitchen, all while trying to chat with family members and drink my bourbon and beer. On top of that, the thing ended up tasting like, well, like pan-seared sous vide turkey, with none of the deep, roasty aromas you get from a typical holiday bird.

I've learned a lot since then, and I've been steadily tweaking my methods to produce better and better sous vide–style roast turkey. I think I've finally nailed it, and the timing couldn't be better, because with the rise of inexpensive home sous vide cookers it's easier than ever for home cooks to take a stab at what was once limited to the realm of restaurant kitchens.

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Why Sous Vide Turkey?

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Let's get one thing straight before we begin. Sous vide techniques are just that: techniques. They are another tool to add to your arsenal in the kitchen. Sous vide cooking is not better or worse than roasting, frying, or braising, per se—it's just different. The main advantage? It offers you very precise control over the finished product. While a hot oven ends up creating a large temperature gradient within a roasted turkey, a turkey cooked sous vide will be evenly cooked from edge to center.

One of the hard lessons I've learned over the years is that no matter what combination of time and temperature I try, and no matter what method of finishing them off post–sous vide, turkey legs cooked sous vide just aren't worth it. They're so darn forgiving that precise temperature control offers only the slightest of incremental improvements. I vastly prefer the flavor of more traditional preparations, like these Red Wine-Braised Turkey Legs or this turkey roasted in parts.

The breast meat is an entirely different story. White, lean meat is the area where a sous vide cooker can really shine, delivering insanely moist and tender results unlike anything you can achieve through more conventional methods.

By essentially pasteurizing meat, sous vide cooking also allows you to safely cook turkey to temperatures that are lower than what can be achieved in a standard oven, and lower temperatures make for moister meat. This opens up new worlds of possibility when it comes to the texture and flavor of your finished dish. Confused? Let me explain.

Temperature, Timing, and Safety

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It's easy to remember the "165°F = safe" and the "40 to 140°F = the danger zone" rules. So much so that it's tempting to think of pasteurization as something akin to dropping a bomb into a fortress full of bacteria, instantly killing them all. But if you take a look at the USDA's charts, the reality is actually quite a bit more complex. Pasteurizing a piece of meat to destroy harmful bacteria is really much more similar to a slow siege, letting the bacteria die off at a steady rate. That rate is affected by the temperature of the meat.

So, while at 165°F you reach a 7-log10 reduction in bacteria count (that is, for every 10 million bacteria you started with, only one will remain) in under 10 seconds, at 140°F (60°C), this process can take almost 10 minutes. That said, turkey cooked and held at 140°F for 30 minutes is just as safe as turkey cooked and held at 165°F for 10 seconds.

Knowing the safety guidelines for this kind of pasteurization is the key to making sure that your sous vide turkey is safe. Here's a brief overview of the USDA charts. You can find the full details here.

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Turkey Pasteurization Times

Pasteurization Temperature Time for 7-log10 Lethality in Salmonella*
136°F (57.8°C) 64 minutes
140°F (60°C) 28.1 minutes
145°F (62.8°C) 10.5 minutes
150°F (65.6°C) 3.8 minutes
155°F (68.3°C) 1.2 minutes
160°F (71.1°C) 25.6 seconds
165°F (73.9°C) Under 10 seconds

* Note that these times are specifically for salmonella. Because it's hardier than many other common bacteria, pasteurizing with respect to salmonella will render your meat relatively safe. If you are particularly nervous about food-borne illness, you might consider pasteurizing with respect to an even hardier bacterium, like Listeria. Simply extend holding times threefold.

In a standard oven, it's difficult to safely cook turkey to anything below around 145 to 150°F—you just can't hold its temperature in that range for a long enough period of time. With a sous vide cooker, we can cook as low as we'd like. So long as bacteria are actively being destroyed, it's just a matter of timing.

The important thing to bear in mind here is that these times start after the turkey hits the target pasteurization temperature. Even though water baths are an extremely efficient method of heat transfer, since turkey breasts are rather large, this can take an hour or more. The most precise method to ensure that your turkey is at its target final temperature is to cook it in a plastic zipper-lock bag, removing it after the first hour and every 15 minutes thereafter to monitor its internal temperature using an instant-read thermometer until it hits the right temperature.** You'll have to open and reseal the bag each time you check it using this method.

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** If you have a leave-in probe-style thermometer, you can monitor the turkey without removing it from the bag. Check out this video from Modernist Cuisine to see how it's done.

A much easier way to do it is to forget about taking internal temperature and just err on the side of caution. The great thing about sous vide is that, unlike roasting in an oven or deep-frying, in which 10 extra minutes of cooking makes the difference between moist, juicy meat and dusty cardboard, overcooking with sous vide is very difficult to do. An extra hour in the water bath isn't going to destroy that turkey of yours.

So What Time and Temperature Should I Use?

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Okay, so we know about safety. What about the more important factor? What actually tastes best?

Poke around the internet and you'll find a wide range of suggestions. This Modernist Cuisine recipe uses the lowest temperature, with the turkey not even hitting the 130°F (55°C) mark. Michael Voltaggio suggests 150°F. My own deep-fried turkey breast "porchetta" recipe calls for 140°F. So which one is best?

I started by cooking turkey at five-degree intervals for all temperatures between 130 and 160°F (55 and 71°C), then fine-tuned the most promising results. In each case, I set the target temperature of the sous vide cooker to a couple of degrees higher than the target temperature of the turkey—for relatively short cook times like this, it's more efficient to get the turkey up to its final temperature a little bit faster.

Here are some of the results:

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Based on those results, here are some suggestions. My personal favorite is 145°F for two and a half hours. At this temperature, the breast comes close to traditional roast turkey in texture, but has much moister, more tender meat.

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Sous Vide Turkey Temperature and Times

Final Result Bath Temp Core Temp Cook Time After Reaching Core Temp Approx. Total Cook Time
Very pink, soft, extra moist 132°F (56°C) 130°F (55°C) 2 hours 4 hours
Pale pink, soft, moist 138°F (59°C) 136°F (58°C) 1 hour 3 hours
White, tender, moist 145°F (63°C) 143°F (62°C) 16 minutes 2 1/2 hours
White, traditional roast texture 152°F (67°C) 150°F (66°C) 4 minutes 2 hours

Skin and Bones: Do I Leave Them on the Breast or Remove Them?

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I'd nailed down the temperature I wanted, but that's really only half the battle. Next question: Turkey breasts have skin and bones. Do those really make a difference in the end product?

I cooked a couple of turkey breast halves from the same turkey side by side, one with the skin and bones intact, the other with the skin and bones removed before cooking. Afterward, I removed the skin and bones from the first sample before slicing the two breast halves and tasting them side by side.

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When slices were taken from the thickest part of the breast, there was absolutely no discernible difference between the two. Where small differences did start to show up was near the thinner, tapered end of the breast. The turkey cooked without the skin and bones was slightly mealier and drier.

This isn't because any kind of magical properties that the skin and bones have. They aren't transferring flavor or juices, as I've seen suggested. All they're really doing is insulating the meat, acting as an energy buffer so that heat doesn't travel into the turkey quite as quickly. When the thinner end of the turkey is cooked with no skin and bones, it rapidly reaches its target temperature. By the time the thicker part of the turkey is finished, the thinner bit is ever-so-slightly overcooked.

Though it seemed that leaving the skin and bones on might be the way to go, I wondered if there was a better way to do it—a method that would allow me to use the skin and bones for better purposes.

Short answer: There definitely is, and it's very similar to the method I use in my Deep-Fried Sous Vide Turkey Porchetta recipe.

So What's the Best Way to Shape a Turkey Breast for Sous Vide?

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The goal is to get the turkey breast to cook evenly, right? To prevent the skinny end from cooking faster than the fat end, all you need to do is find a way to make sure that the turkey is of an even thickness throughout. How do you do that?

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Just remove two breasts and pack them together tops to tails, like a jigsaw puzzle. This will create a single large cylinder that is very close to even in radius throughout its whole width. Any minor differences can be evened out with a bit of butcher's twine tied at one-inch intervals.

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The other advantage to this method is that it allows you to season the interior of the breast roll as well. This is important not only for flavor, but for getting those turkey breast halves to stick together. As the salt works its way into the meat, it dissolves some of the muscle proteins, which in turn can cross-link with each other, binding the two turkey breast halves together into a single, solid piece of meat (even without the aid of fancy meat glues and such). It's the exact same process that helps a good sausage bind together.

What About That Extra-Crispy Skin?

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You might've noticed a couple of glaring omissions here thus far. Namely, what about that extra-crisp skin I promised, along with the roasted flavor?

When you're roasting a turkey conventionally, that roasted flavor really comes mostly from the skin, as it's the only part of the turkey that's actually getting exposed to the high heat of the oven. For the meat underneath, I couldn't really care less whether it was in an oven or in a water bath—the final temperature is the only thing that matters.

Now, with my turkey porchetta, I wrap the rolled breast in its own skin before cooking sous vide, then finishing in a deep fryer. This gives it crispness, all right, but deep-fried skin doesn't taste anything like roasted skin.

The simple solution? Just roast the darn skin on its own. This here is a little trick I learned back when I was working for Ken Oringer in Boston.

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By spreading the skin out flat on a sheet of parchment, seasoning it well, topping it with another sheet of parchment, then sandwiching it between two rimmed baking sheets, you can roast it in a conventional oven. What you end up with is a single flat sheet of perfectly crisp skin that can shatter into serving-sized shards.

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What's more, because this skin isn't wrapped around steaming-hot turkey meat, it will stay crisp for far longer than the skin on a traditionally roasted turkey, all while delivering on that promise of intense roasty flavor.

I mean, just look at that.

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With the skin and the perfectly cooked meat, along with a gravy made from the trimmed-out breastbone, you've got yourself a Thanksgiving turkey dinner about as close to perfection as I can think of.

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Here's the whole process, step by step.

Sous Vide Crisp-Skinned Turkey Breast, Step by Step

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Step 1: Remove Breasts

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Starting with a whole turkey breast, remove the skin in one large piece. Use a sharp boning knife to remove the breast halves from the breastbone. Save the breastbone for gravy.

Step 2: Season

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Season the breast halves generously with salt and pepper.

Step 3: Season the Other Side

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Season the bottoms of the breast halves as well.

Step 4: Align

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Align the two breast halves so that they are matched up like a jigsaw puzzle, with the fat end of one lined up with the skinny end of the other.

Step 5: Shape

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Gently press the turkey into an even cylindrical shape.

Step 6: Start Tying

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Tie the breasts at one-inch intervals using short lengths of kitchen twine. Start by tying both of the ends, then work your way to the center, alternating ties on each side.

Step 7: Adjust the Shape

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Adjust the shape of the turkey again to form a neat cylinder.

Step 8: Bag It

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You can use a vacuum sealer, but a heavy-duty zipper-lock bag will work just as well. Place the turkey inside a bag. At this stage, the turkey can be refrigerated for up to three days to dry-brine.

Step 9: Remove Air

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Slowly lower the bag into a pot of water, letting the pressure of the water press air out through the top of the bag.

Step 10: Seal

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Once most of the air is out of the bag, carefully seal the bag just above the waterline.

Step 11: Cook

Adjust your sous vide cooker to your desired target temperature (take a look at this table for some good bets), then drop in your turkey and set your timer. I personally like my turkey cooked at 145°F for two and a half hours.

Step 12: Spread the Skin

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While the turkey cooks, start working on the skin. Adjust the oven temperature to 400°F (204°C), then spread your turkey skin out in a single layer on a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet.

Step 13: Season the Skin

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Season the skin generously with salt and pepper.

Step 14: Cover

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Cover the skin with a second sheet of parchment.

Step 15: Squeeze

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Carefully squeeze out any air bubbles.

Step 16: Sandwich

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Place a second rimmed baking sheet on top of the first to keep the skin flat as it cooks.

Step 17: Roast

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Roast the skin in the oven until it is extremely crisp. This takes about half an hour to 45 minutes. The cooked skin can be left to cool at room temperature and stored in an open container for up to a day. Re-crisp it in the toaster oven before serving if it turns soft (though it probably won't).

Step 18: De-Bag the Turkey

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When the turkey is cooked, remove it from the bag and carefully untie all of the strings. The cooked turkey can also be chilled in an ice bath and stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. Reheat it in a 130°F (55°C) water bath for about an hour before serving.

Step 19: Slice

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Slice the turkey using a very sharp chef's knife and smooth, even strokes.

Step 20: Serve

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Arrange the slices in a fanned-out array on a cutting board or warmed serving platter and place the skin, broken into individual-portion-sized pieces, in a serving vessel. Add a little pitcher of Basic Gravy, made with chicken stock that you've fortified by simmering with the turkey breastbone.

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If you want to get extra fancy, you can plate up individual portions of turkey and skin for each guest. Maybe you can even get your mom to say what my mom's said to me on occasion:

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"This is so good, it almost looks like it was made by a professional!"

Er... Mom, what exactly is it that you think I've been doing with the last 15 years of my life, huh?