This Year, Tip the Turkey

Every Thanksgiving, cooks await their family’s verdict, albeit often in hushed tones, as to whether the turkey breast was dry. Turkey legs and thighs take longer to cook than the breasts. Therefore, traditional Thanksgiving turkeys either have overcooked breasts or undercooked legs and thighs. Here’s what I propose:

The line-cooks solution. Flip the bird on its side and pre-cook the legs and thighs. A good line-cook, ultimately a simple creature with little time to waste, focuses on results and simple solutions to often overwhelming amounts of work. If the legs and thighs need more cooking than the breasts do, the simplest solution, and the best way to keep the white meat moist, is to cook the legs and thighs more than the breasts.

First, in order to handle and turn the otherwise unwieldy and soon to be partially cooked turkey, tie it up, using some basic trussing techniques*.  If you are new to trussing, check out this video from master explainer, Alton Brown:


Next, sauté the back of the turkey in a heavy-bottomed roasting pan using medium-low heat and a mixture of butter and vegetable oil. The mixture of fats raises the smoking point of the butter, which alone would burn too easily. The heat needs to be low enough to allow for about 15 minutes of cooking without burning the skin.

Now, carefully lift the bird and turn it onto its side, and sauté the leg and thigh, as described above. Take care to insure the leg and thigh are making good contact with the pan.

Lastly, flip the bird onto the other leg and thigh and sauté, leaving the breast still raw.

When sauting the turkey, use the side of the roasting pan to balance it. The turkey should be centered over the burner (meaning the pan won’t be).

After that, roast the turkey per normal procedures, making sure to take it out of the oven when the juices run clear. A thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh should read 160 degrees. Let the roast rest before carving, during which time the temperature will rise slightly and “carry-over cook,” bringing the final temperature up to the 165 degrees recommended for poultry. 

Some other turkey cooking techniques and their shortcomings:

• Deep-frying whole turkeys—a dubious option in a Minnesota November, risking snow, wind, and possible fiery death; not to mention, as my wife Julie said, “hasn’t everybody done that?” Also, frying does not address the issue of overcooking the breast meat.

• Icing the breasts before roasting—this option might lower the temperature of the breasts and help with overcooking, but as Ruth Bourdain said this week, “Some say ice down the breasts so they don’t cook before the thighs, but be careful around the nipples.” More seriously, roasting is a dry-cooking technique and added moisture makes browning the skin difficult.

• Butter pushed under the skin, around the white meat—otherwise known as “barding.” This classic French technique adds a little fat, but does not correct for overcooking.

• Brining the turkey—this techique adds seasoning throughout the bird and helps retain moisture, but is not as effective as cooking the turkey parts to their correct temperatures. Also, like the iced breasts technique, brining adds moisture, which hinders browning, and therefore flavor.

• Braising—cutting the turkey into parts, browning those parts, then cooking them in moist heat, eventually producing a stew, actually results in a great tasting, smartly prepared feast. If turkey stew will satisfy your crowd, then braising might be the best bet. For many though—including myself—the ritual presentation and subsequent animalistic devouring of a bird in its entirety satisfies Thanksgiving rituals in ways that a stew cannot.

More important than the turkey, remember to stay in the kitchen, it’s safer in there.

*Trussing also tightens and forms a more compact roast, ensuring even cooking, and eventually a better groomed and proper-looking finished result. For those who choose to stuff their turkey, trussing also helps keep the stuffing inside, where it belongs. Remove the string prior to serving (despite Alton’s video urgings to the contrary).

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