Turkey Cooking Techniques
There are literally hundreds of ways to cook a turkey and each year new recipes and techniques are created based on trendy regional ingredients and creative cooking methods. Some are good, some are bad, and some are downright unsafe. All are designed to tantalize the senses and produce the perfect turkey - moist breast meat, tender legs and thighs, golden brown skin and memorable flavor.
The greatest challenge for new and experienced cooks alike is to avoid the dreaded "dry turkey," which is usually in reference to the white meat of the turkey breast. Because the flavor of turkey marries well with a host of ingredients, turkey can be successfully braised, roasted, grilled, fried, boiled, broiled, barbecued and so on.
Believe it or not, cooking a turkey is not that difficult. Which turkey cooking method chosen is up to the cook, just make sure it is a safe method.
WASH HANDS, UTENSILS, SINK AND EVERYTHING THAT HAS BEEN IN CONTACT WITH RAW TURKEY. Sanitize the counter, sinks and any containers or trays that have been used. Use a solution of 1 teaspoon of unscented chlorine bleach in 1 quart of water, and let dry completely.
Oven Cooking Bag Method
This technique requires a large, heat tempered plastic cooking bag specially designed for oven temperatures. This can be a safe and delicious alternative to the "usual" cooking methods. You can purchase bags in the paper goods section of most grocery stores. Instructions for use are printed on the box.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. To prevent bursting, shake a tablespoon of flour around inside the empty bag. Slits will be made to allow steam to escape during cooking. Make sure the pan that will hold the turkey is large enough to hold the entire turkey with no over-hang, and enough space to allow the bag to expand during cooking. Also make sure the bag does not touch the sides of the oven as the bag will melt.
This method produces a moist-heat cooking environment. Use a meat thermometer inserted right through the plastic into the innermost part of the thigh. A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. For reasons of personal preference, you may choose to cook the turkey to higher temperatures.
Aluminum Foil Wrapped Method
Wrapping and cooking the entire turkey in aluminum foil requires increased oven temperature to ensure safety. Preheat the oven to 450°F. This method actually steams the turkey in its own juices. It produces a moist bird with a light golden, non-crisp skin. The cooking time is reduced due to higher temperatures and the trapped steam inside the foil.
Brush the turkey with melted butter, vegetable oil or margarine. Tear off a piece of 18 inch wide heavy-duty aluminum foil that is 3 times longer than the turkey. Place the turkey lengthwise in the middle of the foil, breast side up. Bring the foil ends up overlapping the turkey. Insert the meat thermometer through the foil into the thickest part of the thigh.
Place turkey in a shallow roasting pan and bring sides of foil up around turkey. Do not make an airtight seal. To brown turkey: open foil during last 30 minutes of cooking.
Roast until meat thermometer inserted in the innermost part of the thigh reads 165°F. Check the temperature in the thickest part of the breast and the wing as well. Temperature in all areas should be 165°F or higher. Broth may accumulate in the foil during cooking. Reserve this flavorful broth for moistening stuffing or for making giblet gravy. Cooking time can be reduced by as much as 30 minutes to an hour compared to traditional roasting timetable.
Microwave Oven Method
Cooking a whole, stuffed turkey in the microwave oven is not recommended. Full size microwave (650 to 700 watts) ovens can usually accommodate a small turkey (8 to 10 pounds), turkey breast or boneless turkey roll. Make sure the turkey is fully thawed as microwave thawing followed by microwave cooking crates uneven cooking.
A whole turkey takes 7 to 9 minutes per pound at 50 percent power and rotating the dish every 15 minutes. Consider using an oven-cooking bag to ensure even cooking. A turkey roll or boneless turkey breast can be cooked using the microwave probe. Follow manual directions for monitoring temperature with a probe.
Since metal thermometers cannot be used during microwave cooking; check doneness when cooking is finished by inserting an instant read thermometer in several different areas of the turkey. The whole turkey is done when the temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and thickest part of the breast reaches 165°F.
Braised Method - Covered Roasting Pan
Braising is cooking the turkey in a small amount of water or stock in a covered roasting pan in a 325° to 350° oven. The roasting pan needs to be large enough to accommodate the turkey and the lid must fit snugly on the pan. Braising is a moist-heat method similar to the oven cooking bag method. The cavity of the turkey can be filled with onions, celery and other vegetables or with your favorite stuffing.
Insert a meat thermometer in the innermost part of the thigh and cook to 165°F or higher. Check the temperature in the thickest part of the breast and the wing as well. Temperature in all areas should be 165°F or higher. Pour off the wonderfully flavorful cooking liquid that accumulates in the bottom of the pan and use it for a side dish of dressing. The turkey will brown lightly during braising and this method creates a moist tender turkey.
New Orleans Fried Turkey
New Orleans fried turkey is just what the name implies, a whole deep fried turkey. This method is used with chicken or with small turkeys. An 8 to 10 pound turkey is stuffed with garlic, onions, peppers and various seasonings and the entire bird is lowered into a huge vat of hot oil and fried until crispy and golden brown.
Turkey on the Grill
Grilled turkey can be a wonderful variation from oven roasted turkey. Grilling a whole turkey or turkey breast requires indirect heat and a drip pan. Start by washing and seasoning a fully thawed bird. The covered kettle-style grill and medium hot coals are recommended for grilling. Arrange hot coals on either side of the drip pan and position the turkey, breast side down, on an oiled V-rack directly over the drip pan. Use a small 8 to 14 pound unstuffed turkey.
About midway through the cooking process, turn the bird breast up. Place about 10 briquettes on each pile of hot coals every 45 to 50 minutes to maintain medium heat. For good smoky flavor, dampened wood chips and/or chunks may be added as well.
Cover the wing tips with aluminum foil and tuck them underneath the bird to prevent burning. Insert a thermometer in the thickest innermost part of the thigh. A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the wing and the thickest part of the breast too. For reasons of personal preference, you may choose to cook the turkey to higher temperatures.
If the temperature under the hood is hot enough (325°F to 350°F), grilling a 12 to 14 pound turkey should take approximately 4 hours. If your grill does not have a thermometer, an oven thermometer can be used. Cooking time may vary depending on temperature of the fire, wind and outdoor air temperature.
Marinating is a soaking technique, which enhances the flavor and tenderness of meat. Since commercial turkeys are young (4 to 6 months) and tender, the mission of this marinade is to spread flavor throughout the bird. Marinating liquid may contain herbs, spices, pepper, garlic, oil, salt and almost always an acid such as lemon juice, wine or vinegar.
Use glazed ceramic, glass and plastic as a holding vessel. A large stockpot or canning kettle lined with a turkey-sized oven-cooking bag can also be used. Add the turkey, breast end first, to the kettle and cover with prepared marinade. Always refrigerate the turkey during the marinating process and do not serve the leftover marinade unless it is cooked first.
Brining is a pretreatment in which the whole turkey to placed in a salt and water solution known as brine. This pretreatment produces a wonderfully moist and well-seasoned bird. Brining should be done in the refrigerator or in a cooler with 5 to 6 ice packs to keep the turkey and brine at 40 degrees or below during the entire brining process. Brining is more manageable with a rather small turkey from 12 to 14 pounds.
Table salt or kosher salt can be used to make the brine. Crystal kosher salt is recommended since table salt contains additives such as anti-caking ingredients, iodine and other additives. Table salt is also very finely ground and more is required to produce good results.
1. Start the brining method the day before you plan to cook the turkey. Start with a fresh or completely thawed turkey. Wash the bird inside and out and remove the giblet bag and neck.
2. In a large stockpot, plastic tub or cooler dissolve 4 cups kosher salt or 2 cups table salt in 2 gallons cold water. Add 1 cup sugar. Stir until the salt and sugar are completely dissolved. Water will look clear, not cloudy.
3. Herbs and spices may be added to brine to enhance the flavor. Add several crushed bay leaves, several sprigs of dried thyme, or other dried herbs, if desired.
4. Place the turkey in the brine solution, breast down. Cover and chill for 6 to 8 hours. Or use the overnight method by reducing the salt and sugar amounts by 1/2 so the turkey does not retain too much salt.
5. Remove the turkey from brine, rinse inside and out under cold running water. Pat dry with paper towels. Place on a shallow pan and refrigerate overnight. This allows the skin to dry out so it becomes crisp during roasting. This step may be omitted if desired.
6. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place turkey on shallow roasting pan. Tie legs together and tuck wings underneath the bird. Coat the skin with butter or olive oil. Cover the breast loosely with aluminum foil. Add 1 cup water to bottom of pan.
7. Cooking time will vary depending on the size of the turkey. Check the wrapper to see how much the turkey weighs and determine the approximate cooking time (see chart). Roast the turkey until temperature in the innermost thickest part of the thigh reaches 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the wing and the thickest part of the breast as well. The temperature in all parts should read 165 °F or higher. The thigh juices should run clear when pierced with a fork. For reasons of personal preference, you may choose to cook the turkey to higher temperatures.
8. During the last 1 to 1 1/2 hours of cooking time remove the aluminum foil from the breast and baste with pan juices to encourage browning. Add more water to the pan if necessary.
9. Cover the skin with softened butter or olive oil. Add 1-cup water to bottom of pan and place turkey in hot oven. Cooking time will vary depending on the size of the turkey. Check the wrapper and cook according to weight. Cooking time will vary. Roast turkey until temperature in the thickest innermost part of the thigh reaches 165 °F or higher as measured with a food thermometer. Check the temperature in the thickest part of the breast and the wing. The internal temperature in all part should read 165 °F or higher. The thigh juices will run clear when pricked with a long tined fork or leg wiggles freely in the joint. A 12-pound turkey will take about 3 hours and 15 minutes to roast. Add 15 minutes for each additional pound.
Spiced Apple Cider Brined Turkey
- 4 cups water
- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 3 whole cloves
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, cracked
- 2 bay leaves, broken into pieces
- 4 slices fresh ginger
- 1 teaspoon whole allspice, crushed
- 1/2 gallon unsweetened apple cider, chilled (8 cups)
- Turkey, 12 to 14 pounds, fresh or completely thawed
(With no injections or pre-basting)
- 2 turkey size oven-cooking bags or large plastic tub
1. Use a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to crush whole peppercorns and allspice. Do not grind to a powder; large pieces should remain. In a 4-quart saucepan combine water, kosher salt, sugar, cloves, peppercorns, bay leaves and ginger. Stir as you bring the mixture to a boil over medium high heat. Boil gently for 2 minutes. Remove from heat.
2. Add chilled apple cider. Stir to combine. Refrigerate brine while preparing the turkey.
3. Remove turkey from wrapper. Remove giblets and neck from body cavity and neck area. Refrigerate these parts for stock for making gravy, later.
4. Rinse turkey inside and out under cold running water. Twist wing tips and tuck behind turkey. Place two plastic oven cooking, one inside the other. Set the bags in a large stockpot or roasting pan. Or use a large plastic tub, bags not needed. Roll top of bags over for ease in handling. Place the turkey, breast first, inside the double thickness of bags. Do not use trash bags or any bag that is not food-safe (chemicals from bag will leach into turkey).
5. Pour chilled brine into turkey cavity and around outside of turkey. Pour an additional two cups cold water around turkey. Secure bag with twist tie. If using a roasting pan, turn turkey breast down. Rotate turkey four times during brining so brine reaches all parts. If using a stockpot the brine should cover the turkey, rotation is not needed. Refrigerate turkey for 12-14 hours.
- 1 cup each chopped, celery, onions, carrots
- Zest of one lemon or orange
- Olive oil or butter
6. Remove turkey from brine. Rinse under cold running water. Rinse well inside and out. Pat skin dry with towels.
7. Place turkey on a platter and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. This will allow the skin to dry. The skin will be very crisp with this drying step, however this step can be omitted. Turkey skin will still brown, but it will be less crispy.
8. Preheat oven to 350°F. Transfer turkey to a heavy roasting pan. Stuff the bird with chopped vegetables and zest. Position meat thermometer in thickest part of thigh. Tie legs together and tuck wings underneath the bird.
9. Cover the skin with softened butter or olive oil. Add 1-cup water to bottom of pan and place turkey in hot oven. Cooking time will vary depending on the size of the turkey. Check the wrapper and cook according to weight. Roast turkey until temperature in the innermost part of the thigh reaches 165°F or higher. A 12-pound turkey will take about 3 hours and 15 minutes to roast. Add 15 minutes for each additional pound.
11. The turkey is done when the thermometer reaches 165°F or higher. Using an instant read thermometer, check the temperature in the thickest part of the breast and the wing. The internal temperature for all areas should be 165°F or higher. Use of an instant read thermometer is the best method to check for doneness in all three areas of the turkey.
Other methods of testing: The thigh juices will run clear when pricked with a long tined fork and/or leg wiggles freely in the joint. You may want to cook your turkey to 170 or 180°F; personal preference, if you prefer a more tender texture. Poultry is safe to eat at 165°F. Allow the bird to rest 20 to 30 minutes before carving. This will allow the juices to redistribute evenly through the meat. Reserve pan juices for use in gravy, dressing, etc. Store leftover turkey in the refrigerator or freezer promptly after the meal.
Brown Paper Bag Method
This method involves placing the turkey in a large brown paper bag, the type used in grocery stores, and cooking the bird at a very low temperature. Experts agree that brown paper bags were never intended for use as cooking utensils. The glue, ink, chemicals and other materials used in recycling grocery bags are unsanitary and some bags may even contain tiny metal shavings.
Make It Safe - To make this method safe, replace the brown bag with a turkey-size oven-cooking bag. Cooking turkey at temperatures below 325°F is unsafe, so increase the oven temperature to 350°F. Use a food thermometer. A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. For reasons of personal preference, you may choose to cook the turkey to higher temperatures. The temperature in all parts should read 165 °F or higher. (See Oven Cooking Bag Method above).
Trash Bag Method
This method is also known as the "Mississippi Trash Bag Method." A whole turkey is placed in a large trash bag and marinated in salt brine, herbs and spices for several hours at room temperature. The unsafe part of the method is the use of a trash bag and no refrigeration during marinating. Never use non-food grade materials as holding vessels for food. Chemicals and non-food colors may leach into the food.
Make It Safe - To make this method safe, replace the trash bag with a large oven-cooking bag. Refrigerate the turkey during the marinating process, and the results will be safe and just as good.
Slow-Cooking Overnight Method
This method is dangerous and involves cooking the turkey at 190 to 200°F overnight or for 12 to 13 hours. There are many versions of the slow-cooking method around and all of them put you and your dinner guests at risk of foodborne illness (food poisoning). A low oven temperature means the turkey will take longer to heat, increasing the risk of harmful bacteria growth and the production of toxins that may not be destroyed with further cooking.
Make It Safe - The USDA recommends temperatures no lower than 325°F for cooking meat and poultry.
A turducken is a partially boned turkey layered with a boned duck, then with a boned chicken and spread with layers of stuffing between each bird. The entire mass is rolled, tied and roasted at 190°F for 12 to 13 hours. According to the USDA Meat and Poultry hotline, this recipe has been circulating for a number of years.
Make It Safe - USDA Hotline representatives recommend keeping the birds chilled until ready to assemble. While boning each bird, keep the others refrigerated. After all three birds have been boned and the stuffing has been prepared, assemble the Turducken ingredients and quickly get it into a pre-heated 325°F oven. Use a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the bundle and cook the turducken to an internal temperature of 180°F or more. Check the temperature in several locations.
- Soak hardwood chips in water for 1-2 hours.
- Start with completely thawed turkey for even, safe cooking.
- Remove giblets and neck; drain juices.
- DO NOT STUFF.
- DO NOT USE STRING LIFTER.
- Insert oven-safe meat thermometer into deepest part of the thigh, not touching bone.
- Brush skin lightly with vegetable oil.
- Plug in electric smoker or ignite charcoal about 30 minutes before cooking.
- Position foil-lined water pan in smoker according to manufacturer's directions; fill pan with water.
- Check temperature of grill at grate. Be sure temperature is between 200 to 250° F.
- Place turkey on grill. Cover and adjust vents according to manufacturer's directions.
- Maintain 200 to 250° F temperature throughout cooking. If using charcoal smoker, add additional briquettes every 1 to 1-1/2 hours.
- Replenish water and soaked hardwood chips as needed.
- Cook turkey to internal temperature of 165° F in breast and innermost part of thigh. Turkey may take up to 12 hours.
Safety Notes for Smoking Turkey:
- Always follow equipment manufacturer's guidelines.
- Cooking times will vary depending on wind, weather, altitude and type of equipment.
- For safety, turkey must reach 140° F in four hours or less. Check after 3-1/2 hours, if temperature is low, finish cooking in oven.
- Always use thermometers to monitor turkey smoker and temperatures.
- Total cooking time will be increased 10 minutes or more each time lid is lifted.
- Smoking has no preservative effect. Smoked turkey must be refrigerated.
Deep Fat Fried Whole Turkey:
Some people enjoy fried whole turkey. This method of preparation requires special equipment and extra expense. The equipment needed includes a 40- or 60-quart pot with basket, burner and propane gas tank; a candy thermometer to measure oil temperature; and a meat thermometer to determine if the turkey is done. For added safety, have a fire extinguisher and pot holders nearby. Never leave the hot oil unattended, nor allow children or pets near it. Never fry a turkey indoors or in a garage or other structure. Avoid frying on wood decks, which could catch fire, and concrete, which can be stained by the oil.
To Safely Fry a Whole Turkey, Follow These Steps:
- Start with a completely thawed turkey. Do not stuff the turkey to deep fry.
- Use a pot large enough to hold the turkey and enough oil to cover it. This could be as much as five gallons of oil. Set up your turkey fryer on level dirt or a grassy area.
- Determine the correct amount of oil by covering the turkey in the pot with water to a level 1 to 2 inches above the turkey. Remove the turkey and measure the distance from the top of the pot to the surface of the water. Pour out the water and dry the pot thoroughly. Be sure to measure for oil before breading or marinating the turkey.
- Heat the oil to 350° F. Depending on the amount of oil used, this takes between 45 minutes to an hour. Most people prefer peanut oil. Carefully put turkey in the oil.
- Cook for 3 minutes per pound. Skin will be black and wings will be burned.
- Use a meat thermometer to check for doneness. Turkey is done when the thermometer registers an internal temperature of 165° F.
- Carefully remove the turkey from the oil and serve.
- Allow the oil to cool before disposing or storing it. To store oil, strain through cheese cloth or a coffee filter and refrigerate. Do not store oil that has been heated to the smoking point, has turned dark or has an off-odor. Reuse the oil within a month and discard if it foams when reheated.
- USDA/FSIS (2006, July). Let’s Talk Turkey—A Consumer Guide to Safely Roasting a Turkey. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Lets_Talk_Turkey/index.asp
- Butterball® Turkey Home Page, Butterball’s Top Ten. and Smoke-Cooking Butterball® Turkey. http://www.butterball.com
- National Turkey Federation (2004). A Deep Fried Delicacy: The How-To on Deep Frying Turkey. http://www.turkeyfed.org/consumer/cookinfo/fryturk.html
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