I have a kitchen confession: I don’t make turkey on Thanksgiving.

This is not due to dietary restrictions, although I try to limit meat consumption. Rather, it is a matter of emotional disappointment. Many years ago, my family and I decided that we would no longer serve turkey on Thanksgiving because it kept turning dry and tasteless.

What’s the point of getting up very early and spending hours at work and stress in the kitchen if you’re just about to end up with a soft bird?

I don’t need such a festive heartache.

And I am not alone in my contempt for Turkey. “It’s one of the saddest and tasteless pieces of meat,” says cookbook author Nick Sharma. “And I think that’s probably why he fights this bird every year.”

But bad turkeys are a problem that science can solve. That’s why this year I decided to take up the turkey tradition again – this time with the help of two cookbook authors known for their demystification of the science of good food: Sharma, a trained molecular biologist and author The fragrance equationand Kenji Lopez-Alt, New York Times food columnist and author Nutrition Laboratory.

As Lopez-Alt explains, the main problems with turkeys are rooted in its anatomy. You have two different types of meat that should reach two different internal temperatures: white breast meat that should reach 150 degrees Fahrenheit, and dark leg and thigh meat that should heat at least 165 degrees – and ideally 175 or about that. But by the time your legs reach the right temperature, your breasts will be overcooked.

It all makes sense when you think about how turkeys use their bodies when they are alive. White meat consists of rapidly contractile muscles – they are not used often, but are activated by short bursts. “These muscle types usually have little connective tissue, little fat and are very strong. This means that they are relatively easy to digest, ”says Lopez-Alt.

Meanwhile, dark meat is made up of slow muscle fibers that the turkey constantly uses when walking or standing, so it has a lot of connective tissue, so you need to cook them at a higher temperature to break them down.

So how do you solve this problem, which is rooted in bird biology? Science to the rescue! Read on.

Understand the geometry of your meat and give up the roaster

“It would be difficult to create a worse turkey roasting tool than a frying pan because you take a problem that already exists and make it worse,” Lopez-Alt says.

In the pan, the high sides protect the bottom of the turkey – legs and thighs – from the heat, which means that they take longer to prepare for the temperature. Meanwhile the breast sticks out over the top of the man, which means she gets most of the heat and dries harder.

So, one simple trick for roasting whole birds is to choose a different type of pan – a low-rim pan, and the bird is standing on a v-shaped grid. It is even better to put a plate on a heated stone for pizza. The heat will radiate upward through the bottom of the sheet tray and helps the hips and calves cook faster. (Here’s a as a guide.)

To really solve this dilemma, bring bird scissors.

Sharma and Lopez-Alt agree that the best way to fix this problem with the temperature of white and dark meat is to abandon the idea of ​​feeding a whole turkey and chop the bird instead. Although it may sound sacrilegious to those who cling to Fr. Norman Rockwell is a Thanksgiving visionin fact it is the key to a better bird.

There are several ways to do this: if you have the skills and tools, you can cut the turkey yourself using a technique called netchokking – that’s where you remove the ridge to keep the bird lying flat. (Here are helpful instructions from Lopez-Alt.)

Or, if you want to skip the hassle, just ask the butcher to kill the bird for you when you buy it. Sharma notes that you can also just buy a turkey cut into pieces.

The whole goal, in fact, is to make all parts of the turkey lie flat so that the breasts as well as the legs and thighs of the turkey receive the same amount of heat at the same time. The hips and legs are relatively thin compared to the bulky breast, so they will cook faster. This is what you want because this dark meat will reach 175 degrees or so as the breasts rise to 150 degrees. “So it works great,” Lopez-Alt says.

Hack temperature rules for more succulent birds

For food safety, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends cooking turkey to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. But at this temperature, says Lopez-Alt, the breast dries. “Food safety actually depends on temperature and time, ”he explains. While you instantly kill a bunch of bacteria if you cook a turkey up to 165 degrees, you can kill the equivalent amount of bacteria a little slower at 150 degrees – as long as your turkey breast remains at this temperature for at least 3.7 minutes.

Just be sure to give the bird a rest before serving. And don’t forget to use a food thermometer – don’t just rely on the minute-per-pound chart, Lopez-Alt says.

Wet or dry, give time to brine

We focused on tips for the best roasting, but of course you want your bird to be in brine for maximum tenderness and flavor that you’ve probably heard many times. “Salt is the most important thing in brine, because it adds flavor. This is what helps, helps to build up moisture inside, ”says Sharma.

Sharma explains that usually during cooking some proteins in meat fibers are compressed so that they eventually squeeze the juice out of the turkey – like water is squeezed out of a sponge. But when you add salt, it loosens the meat proteins so they hold more moisture, so your bird stays juicier.

Traditional brines are wet – they involve soaking your meat in a salt water bath. But Lopez-Alt says it could lead to a bird that, though more juicy, is also watery, which can spoil the taste. He prefers dry brine, where you rub the bird with kosher salt and possibly greens and spices and leave it in the fridge for a night or two before cooking.

Laziness brine? Buy kosher turkey – they are pre-salted, so they are, in fact, already salted.

Even better try sour milk brine

If you really want to give your turkey a scientifically sound boost this year, Sharma says based on his kitchen experiments, all controlled by one brine: fermented milk. Think of plain yogurt, buttermilk or kefir.

The key here is lactic acid in these foods. Sharma notes that the muscles of animals regularly synthesize lactic acid, so their cells have developed mechanisms to regulate the amount of this acid in their content. He believes that is why marinating in lactic acid tends to have a milder effect on meat – leaving it tender but not mushy. What’s more, dairy products are also rich in phosphates, and Sharma says they are even better than table salt, helping to bind water in meat.

Sharma, who moved to America from Mumbai, India, notes that milk-based marinades are common in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. “I think it’s interesting historically,” he says. “You see this wisdom without the scientific knowledge available today.”

Want to try? Sharma recommends this recipe for cooking turkey in oil from the author of the cookbook Samin Nosrat. “It’s pretty fantastic,” he says.

Bonus: if you cut your bird, it’s much easier to salt, soak or dry it because you can just put the meat in plastic bags in the fridge, instead of cleaning the whole shelf for a big, whole bird.

Remember, it’s not about the turkey

If your turkey still turns a little lower, that’s fine. Really. As Kenji Lopez-Alt told me, cooking for a holiday can be very stressful, don’t lose sight of what’s important:

“As long as the turkey keeps people at the table, it does its job, no matter how dry it is.”

Derek Campanila from Dad and sir added a photo for this report. Find his full description of how he cooks turkey here.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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