Why It Works
- A temperature and time chart helps you pick the final texture you want (though we've indicated our preference as well).
- Our testing revealed no initial confit-style curing step is necessary before cooking sous vide, saving you time.
- This recipe allows you to serve the turkey legs right after they're done cooking, or prepare them in advance and keep them refrigerated until ready to serve for maximum convenience.
Sous vide cooking is, by certain measures, an old-school technique. The method has been swimming around in the popular cooking lexicon since the early 2000s, and existed as far back as 1974 in professional kitchens. Home cooks have been bathing meats, vegetables, and all kinds of foods in very warm water for the better part of 20 years. But it may still be news to a lot of home cooks that it's a great option for that meatiest of days—Thanksgiving.
Poring over the Serious Eats catalogue, we see that Daniel’s Sous Vide Duck Confit recipe is proof that you can get great results using an immersion circulator, with minimal effort and maximum convenience. So does the technique work for, say, turkey legs?
Of course it does! Look no further than Kenji's sous vide turkey breast and sous vide, deep fried turkey "porchetta" recipes, and you'll see that turkey is delicious when cooked sous vide. What didn't exist on Serious Eats was a sous vide turkey leg recipe.
Choosing a Time and Temp
Let’s be real for a second: I give you a time and a temperature to cook turkey legs sous vide, and you’re off to the races. Those are the key specs in a sous vide recipe, right?
The truth is, there are likely innumerable combinations of time and temperature that produce an “acceptable” result. Do you want fall-apart tender? Do you want plump and juicy? Do you want some combination of both qualities? I can give you approximate guidelines, as well as my own preferences, but at the end of the day, these parameters are all subjective. You'll ultimately have to settle on a time and a temperature that work for you.
Following Daniel’s testing for duck legs, I ran temperature tests ranging from 140°F to 170°F (60°-77°C), at time intervals from 8 hours to 36 hours. Here are my results, with my preference in bold:
|140°F (60°C)||24 to 36 hours||Firm, tender, and slightly pink at the bone across all cook times. Definitely a non-traditional turkey texture.|
|150°F (65.6°C)||24 to 36 hours||Moist, tender, zero pinkness at the bone. Meat still pulls off the bone, but the legs don’t fall apart during handling/searing. Best results at the 24 to 30 hour mark.|
|160°F (71.1°C)||20 to 36 hours||Very tender, meat falls off the bone. Legs are slightly more delicate.|
|170°F (76.7°C)||8 to 36 hours||Exceptionally tender, reminiscent of traditional roast turkey. At about 20 hours, the meat became dry and chalky. At 8 hours, the meat was more moist, but still drier than all other samples.|
My favorite texture came around the 150°F (65.6°C) mark for around 24 hours. Of course, you could tinker in smaller temperature intervals above or below this value (say 145°F and 155°F), but I suspect that the differences start to become less apparent—especially at the upper limit.
Skip the Cure
As Daniel pointed out in his duck recipe, curing (salting and letting the meat sit for a set amount of time before cooking) made little difference in the finished product. The differences in flavor and seasoning were minute, given such an extended cooking time. I tried a similar test, and found similar results. I really couldn’t tell the difference between the cured and uncured samples. If anything, the cured samples were slightly firmer, and marginally less tender. But, again, this is splitting hairs.
To Pre-Sear, or Not to Pre-Sear
Here’s a big one: many cooks recommend pre-searing meat before circulating. This step is believed to develop more flavor in the finished product. Kenji pooh-poohed pre-searing in his sous vide steak deep-dive. But does pre-searing work for turkey legs?
Even after all my tests, I can’t say for certain. As for flavor, the differences between pre-seared and un-seared samples were negligible. The crusts were similar, the amount of browning was similar, and the amount of fat rendered was comparable.
On the other hand, pre-searing had a noticeable effect on the smell of the turkey legs after their long bath. For those who cook sous vide often, sometimes meat cooked at low temperatures for long periods of time can smell sour, funky, or even reminiscent of stinky cheese. Why? The smell is believed to be a result of lactic acid bacteria (lactobacillus) that are active at warm temperatures. These are the same bacteria that make sauerkraut, kimchi, and sourdough so delicious. But don’t worry: even if unpleasant, that strange odor doesn’t mean your meat has gone bad. Pre-searing seemed to help diminish this smell right out of the bag (presumably by killing those surface microbes), but after both pre-seared and un-seared samples were browned a final time, the funky odor was gone in both cases.
So should you pre-sear? If you’re not interested in experiencing potentially funky (but non-toxic) smells, then have at it. But you don’t have to—those smells will go away no matter what.
Brown It Up
Nobody wants beige, wet, possibly lukewarm, possibly stinky turkey (at least I don’t). You’ve put in all this work to achieve an ethereal texture and flavor. But the finishing step is just as important. Depending on how you’ve stored your cooked turkey legs, you’ve got options. If you want to enjoy those legs straight out of the circulator, then a quick pat dry and sear in a ripping hot pan will do the trick. Just make sure to rotate the pan and carefully adjust the position of the leg as needed to brown all parts of the meat.
If you’ve stored your cooked turkey legs in the fridge for later in the week, then it’s best to fire up your oven to heat the meat through and brown the exterior. Whether you broil or bake at high temperature is up to you. But whatever you do, get some color on those bird legs. They deserve it.
- 4 to 4 1/2 pounds (1.8 to 2 kg) turkey legs, number will vary by size
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 6 sprigs fresh thyme
Set up an immersion circulator and preheat the water bath to 150°F (66°C).
Season turkey legs all over with salt and pepper. Set thyme sprigs on bottom sides of legs. Place turkey legs into two separate vacuum bags and seal according to vacuum-sealer manufacturer's instructions. Alternatively, seal turkey legs in two 1-gallon zipper-lock bags using the water displacement method.
Fully submerge turkey legs in water bath and cook for 24 to 30 hours. Make sure to cover top of container with plastic wrap or custom lid to prevent evaporation and to keep temperature consistent. If bags float, weigh them down by placing a wet kitchen towel on top or by using binder clip.
Remove turkey from water bath and transfer to refrigerator to chill. The turkey legs can be kept refrigerated within the sealed bag for up to 1 week. If using right away, remove turkey from bags and pat surface dry with paper towels; discard thyme.
To serve: If using immediately, heat 1 tablespoon oil in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Working with one turkey leg at a time, sear on all sides until skin is crispy and golden brown, about 6 minutes (gently turn or prop up turkey leg with a spoon or tongs to get even browning all over). If serving after refrigeration: Remove turkey from bag, wipe away any congealed fat or solids, and pat dry with paper towels; discard thyme. Cook turkey legs skin side up in a 450°F (230°C) oven or broil until the meat is heated through and the skin is browned and crispy, about 7 minutes.
Immersion circulator, vacuum sealer, vacuum bags or zipper-lock bags.
We do not recommend using pre-brined turkey; the resulting meat will be over-cured and excessively salty.
This recipe can easily be scaled up or down for any number of turkey legs you want to make.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Sous vide turkey legs can be refrigerated in their sealed bag for up to one week.