Sous Vide Turkey Breast With Crispy Skin Recipe

Sous vide turkey breast, perfectly tender and juicy every time—with a side of crackling-crisp turkey skin.

Sliced sous vide turkey breast with crisp skin cracklings and gravy on a white plate.

Liz Clayman

Why It Works

  • Tying two breast halves into a cylinder makes for perfectly even cooking and gorgeous presentation.
  • Sous vide cooking offers a very high level of precise control over the results.
  • Cooking the skin separately in the oven delivers the roasty flavors and extra crispness that we love about great roast turkey.
  • Using the breastbone to fortify the stock produces rich, flavorful gravy.

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.

Sliced sous vide turkey breast on a wooden cutting board with herb garnish, gravy boat, and skin cracklings on the side.

J. Kenji López-Alt

Why Sous Vide Turkey?

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 sous vide 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

It's easy to remember the "165°F = safe" and the "40 to 140°F (4 to 60°C) = 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 website, 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.

"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."

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 about 28 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:

Turkey Pasteurization Times
Pasteurization Temperature Time for 7-log 10 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 (63 to 66°C)—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.

** 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.

"overcooking with sous vide is very difficult to do."

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?

Okay, so we know about safety. What method actually tastes best?

Poke around the internet and you'll find a wide range of suggestions. The Modernist Cuisine recipe  mentioned above 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:

Photo composite showing sous vide turkey breast cooked to 130F has a 1 to 2 percent moisture loss and a very soft, moist texture.

J. Kenji López-Alt

Photo composite showing sous vide turkey breast cooked to 140F has a 4 to 5 percent moisture loss and a soft and moist texture.

J. Kenji López-Alt

Photo composite showing sous vide turkey breast cooked to 150F has a 9 to 10 percent moisture loss and a traditional roast turkey texture.

J. Kenji López-Alt

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.

Sous Vide Turkey Temperatures 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?

Skin-on sous vide turkey breast on a wooden cutting board with knife in the background.

J. Kenji López-Alt

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.

Sous vide turkey breast with skin and bones removed.

J. Kenji López-Alt

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 that turkey porchetta recipe.

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

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?

Pressing two seasoned, raw turkey breast lobes together before cooking sous vide.

J. Kenji López-Alt

Just remove two breasts and pack them together top to tail, 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.

Hands holding two seasoned, raw turkey breast lobes tied together with butcher's twine.

J. Kenji López-Alt

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?

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 chef Ken Oringer in Boston.

Using hands to spread raw turkey breast skin on a parchment-lined baking sheet before roasting.

J. Kenji López-Alt

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.

Fingers holding crisp roasted turkey skin broken into a bite-sized shard.

J. Kenji López-Alt

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:

Container of crisp turkey skin shards next to herb garnish and gravy boat.

J. Kenji López-Alt

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.

Pouring gravy over sliced sous vide turkey breast with crispy skin on a white plate.

J. Kenji López-Alt

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:

"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?

Editor's Note: This guide was produced for Serious Eats as part of our partnership with Anova, the makers of the Anova Precision Cooker.

Recipe Facts

4.5

(14)

Active: 60 mins
Total: 4 hrs
Serves: 6 to 8 servings

Rate & Comment

Ingredients

For the Turkey:

  • 1 large whole skin-on, bone-in turkey breast (about 5 pounds; 2.2kg)

  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the Gravy:

  • 1 tablespoon (15ml) vegetable oil

  • 1 large onion, roughly chopped

  • 1 large carrot, peeled and roughly chopped

  • 2 ribs celery, roughly chopped

  • 1 1/2 quarts (1.4L) homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock

  • 2 bay leaves

  • 1 teaspoon (5ml) soy sauce

  • 3 tablespoons (45g) unsalted butter

  • 1/4 cup (40g) all-purpose flour

Directions

  1. Carefully remove turkey skin in a single piece and set aside. Using a sharp boning knife, remove breast meat from breastbone. Set breastbone aside. Season turkey generously with salt and pepper on all sides. Place 1 breast half, cut side facing up, on a work surface. Place second breast half facedown, so the fat end aligns with the skinny end of the first breast half. Gently form into an even cylinder.

    Seasoning turkey breast lobes with salt.

    Liz Clayman

  2. Tie turkey breast at 1-inch intervals using butcher's twine. Transfer to a zipper-lock bag. Turkey can be refrigerated for up to 5 days before proceeding.

    Photo collage showing tying up two turkey breast halves with butchers twine.

    Liz Clayman

  3. Heat a sous vide water bath to 145°F (63°C), or to desired temperature according to chart above and in the notes section. With bag open, slowly lower bagged turkey into water, letting water pressure squeeze air out of bag until just the seal remains above the waterline. Seal bag completely. Let turkey cook for 2 1/2 hours (or according to chart). Meanwhile, make the crispy skin and gravy.

    Cooking sous vide turkey breast using a sous vide immersion circulator.

    Liz Clayman

  4. For the Crispy Skin: Adjust oven rack to center position and preheat oven to 400°F (200°C). Spread skin evenly over a piece of parchment paper set in a rimmed baking sheet. Season generously with salt and pepper. Place a second sheet of parchment on top and carefully squeeze out any air bubbles using the side of your hand. Place a second rimmed baking sheet on top and transfer to oven.

    Seasoning turkey skin with salt and pepper on a parchment lined baking sheet.

    Liz Clayman

  5. Roast until skin is deep brown and crisp (it will crisp further on cooling), 30 to 45 minutes. Allow to cool and set aside at room temperature. Turkey skin can be roasted in advance, cooled completely, then stored, loosely covered, at room temperature for up to 3 days. To re-crisp, place in a hot oven for a few minutes just before serving.

    Crisp roasted turkey skin cooling on a wire rack.

    J. Kenji López-Alt

  6. For the Gravy: Using a cleaver, chop breastbone into 1-inch chunks. In a medium saucepan over high heat, heat oil until smoking. Add breastbone, onion, carrot, and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until well browned, about 10 minutes total. Add stock, bay leaves, and soy sauce. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 1 hour, then strain through a fine-mesh strainer. You should have a little over 1 quart (900ml) of fortified stock; if not, add water or more chicken stock to equal 1 quart. Discard solids and set stock aside.

    Simmering turkey breast bones in chicken stock for gravy.

    Liz Clayman

  7. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Whisking constantly, add fortified broth in a thin, steady stream. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until thickened and reduced to about 3 cups (720ml). Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm.

    Simmering fortified chicken stock with a roux to make gravy.

    Liz Clayman

  8. When turkey is cooked, remove from water bath and unseal bag. Carefully remove butcher's twine. Cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch slices for serving. Fan slices out on a warmed serving platter or cutting board. Break skin into serving-sized pieces and add to platter, along with a pitcher of gravy. Serve immediately.

    Slicing sous vide turkey breast on a wooden cutting board.

    J. Kenji López-Alt

Special equipment

Sous vide immersion circulator, 2 rimmed baking sheets, fine-mesh strainer, butcher's twine

Notes

Sous Vide Turkey Temperatures 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

Make-Ahead and Storage

The cooked turkey can 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.