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5 Ways to Keep Your Turkey Moist and Flavorful

5 Ways to Keep Your Turkey Moist and Flavorful
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BY STEVE NUBIE

It Takes Longer to Cook the Dark Meat and the White Meat Always Dries Out… Unless You Know These Secrets.

Thanksgiving is always a challenging time for the host.  You think you know how many people are showing up, but nieces and nephews always seem to show up with a girlfriend or boyfriend and some people forget to bring the dish they promised.  Somehow we always get through it, but the ultimate test for any of us hosting Thanksgiving is the quality of the turkey.  If you mess up the turkey it doesn’t matter how many people you have or how good the side-dishes might be.

I’ve hosted Thanksgiving get togethers with up to 50 people.  I’ve had turkeys in the oven, on the Weber Grill, in the smoker and even cooked some ahead of time for leftovers all on the same day.  Regardless of how you cook them, the measure of a great turkey is the ability to deliver a cooked bird that’s juicy and tender.  Here’s the cheats to make that happen.

I should mention that I’m a chef and have cooked close to 400 turkeys.  I guess you can say I’ve learned the hard way how to make the bird the right way.

Here’s the big telegram that we’ll explore a bit more later in this article:  Cook the bird upside down.  I think it was Norman Rockwell who motivated us to cook a turkey -breast side up.  Everyone remembers the iconic picture of Grandma bringing a perfectly browned turkey to the table on a platter breast side up.  We all try to recreate that although most of us carve the turkey in the kitchen in isolation or with a relative who asks what they can do to help while not helping.

Every restaurant and professional chef cooks their turkey breast side down.  That’s something you never see.  The reason has to do with the chemistry and physics of cooking and the nature of the meat on any turkey.  The dark meat takes longer to cook because it is leaner and has denser muscle tissue, while the white meat cooks faster.  That is where the fundamental problem occurs.  The top of any oven will be hotter and the bird resting upright will always cause the white meat to be done sooner than the dark.

The test for doneness on all poultry including turkey is a temperature of 165° Fahrenheit when a thermometer is inserted into the thigh and not touching the bone.  What we fail to realize is that the temperature in the breast may be beyond 170° and that the lack of direct moisture from the pan is just drying out the breast even further.  This gets to our first solution:

  1. Roast the bird upside down with the breast in close proximity to the pan juices and the dark meat at the top. When the thermometer reads 165° in the thigh you can rest assured the breast is not only cooked, but moist.
  2. This is actually something you would do before roasting the bird.  We’re listing this second because some birds are already brined when purchased, and some folks just don’t have the time.  It’s worth it if you can but you have to do it the night before.  To do this you’ll need a cup of salt and enough water to cover the bird in a large plastic garbage bag.  I use two bags and refrigerate the bird overnight.  I might turn it once before going to bed.  On Thanksgiving remove the bird an hour before putting it in the oven and let it air dry at room temperature.  This will help you get a crispy crust before you roast it upside down.
  3. The cheesecloth solution. If you can’t stand the idea of roasting your turkey upside down you can always layer four or five folds of cheesecloth over the breast and saturate it with a blend of butter and chicken broth.  Baste this hourly with the butter/broth mixture.  Remove the cheesecloth for the last hour to let the breast brown and get crisp.  This should help you preserve moist breast meat while waiting for the dark meat to finish.
  4. Bacon! Yes, America’s favorite condiment can help keep your turkey breast moist if you want to cook it breast side up.  It also adds a smoky bacon flavor to the breast meat.  Insert a half pound of bacon slices under the skin over the breast and then layer another half pound over the top of the skin of the breast.  I’ll sometimes tent this with a bit of tin foil as well.  Remove the foil during the last hour and let the bacon brown.
  5. Give it a rest. Allowing your turkey to rest for 15 to 20 minutes while totally covered with foil will allow the juices to absorb into the meat.  This also gives you time to use the pan juices to make your gravy and get some dishes set out before you begin carving.

One other suggestion is to carve the dark meat first.  This contradicts most carving advice, but the dark meat will retain its moisture better and it’s usually the most challenging part of the bird to carve.  This leaves the easier to carve breast for last and it should be the last thing you do before you say, “Foods on!”

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