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Before You Roast That Turkey...

The Poultry Paradox: Why Roasted Turkey Will Always Be Dry

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Don't Roast That Turkey - Turkey Cooking Tips - How To Cook a Turkey
Photo © Ernesto Andrade

The Trouble with Turkey

The perfectly roasted turkey is a myth — it's the Sasquatch of the culinary world. The reasons for this have to do with the realities of turkey anatomy as well as the laws of physics, both of which combine to create what I call the Poultry Paradox.

The Anatomy of a Turkey

First, the anatomy part. Mass-market turkeys basically consist of one species, the Broad-Breasted White. This type of turkey is bred to have massive breasts (i.e. lots of white meat) and to reach its full weight at the youngest possible age.

White meat is low in fat, which means it is both drier and less flavorful than dark. And younger birds have less fat overall than older ones. In general, then, the turkeys you buy at the supermarket have been engineered to be as dry and as flavorless as a turkey can be.

This wouldn't be so bad, though, if turkeys were uniformly dry and flavorless. We could correct for that without too much trouble. What makes it tricky is that the average turkey is about 70 percent white meat and 30 percent dark. And the best way of cooking dark meat isn't necessarily the best way of cooking white meat.

Cooking Methods

That's why we use a dry-heat method like grilling to cook a steak while using a moist-heat method like braising to cook a piece of brisket. But when we roast a turkey, we're cooking the whole bird the same way.

Things get even more complicated, though, because of the turkey's large size. Like other dry-heat methods, roasting is fine for cooking foods relatively quickly, but it's a terrible way to cook something for a long time. And cooking a 20-pound turkey takes a long time — five hours, give or take. (Compare this with the 1½ hours it takes to roast a 4-pound chicken.)

Roasting Cooks From the Outside In

For the sake of simplicity, let's imagine roasting a hypothetical 20-pound sphere of perfectly homogenous white-meat turkey. Roasting cooks food from the outside in, so by the time the center of that sphere was fully cooked (which for white meat means it's been heated to 160°F), the outer portions would be much hotter — by definition, overcooked.

It gets worse, though, because a turkey isn't a sphere and it isn't perfectly homogenous. It's lumpy and filled with all kinds of bones and cartilage and other connective tissues — as well as 30 percent dark meat. And dark meat (i.e. legs and thighs) needs to be cooked to about 180°F, not 160°F as with white meat. The reason? Dark meat is full of tough connective tissues that only break down when heated to 180°F.

Finally, here's the kicker: Dark meat is found deeper within the turkey's carcass, so it takes longer to get hot than the breast, which is the outermost part of the bird.

Turkey Cooking Turkey

When we roast a turkey, the heat is conducted to the bird via the hot air inside the oven. But this hot air never touches the inner parts of the bird. These inner parts are actually cooked by the heat from the outer parts of the bird that got hot first. So the inner parts of the turkey are actually being cooked by the outer, hotter parts of itself.

Now, the only way one piece of turkey can heat another piece of turkey to 180°F is for the first piece of turkey to be much hotter than 180°F. There is simply no way for the thigh meat, deep inside the turkey, to reach 180°F without the breast meat, located right on the outside of the turkey, getting hotter than that.

How much hotter? It doesn't matter! For breast meat, anything over 160°F is already overcooked. So even if it's just 190°F, we're still talking incinerated — dry, flavorless, totally inedible. Seriously, if not for gravy, no one would ever eat a roasted turkey.

The Poultry Paradox

Therein lies the Poultry Paradox: Overcook the white meat and it comes out tough and inedible. Undercook the dark meat and it comes out tough and inedible. Avoiding one problem merely invites the other.

See part two of the article for a few solutions to the Poultry Paradox as well as six alternatives to roasting a supermarket turkey.
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