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.
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 up another piece of turkey to 180°F is 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.
Solving The Poultry Paradox
Any approach to dealing with the Poultry Paradox requires slowing down the cooking of the breast meat so that the thigh meat can cook fully without the breast meat becoming overcooked.
Suggestions range from fashioning heat reflectors out of aluminum foil, thereby keeping the breast regions cool, to using ice packs to chill the breasts before roasting the turkey, thus giving the thigh meat a head start on cooking.
The problem with these solutions isn't that they won't work; they probably will — at least a little. The real trouble is that these remedies are nearly as inconvenient as the problems they are meant to solve.
One technique I've tried is to cook the turkey in two stages. First, I roast the bird until the breast is fully cooked, then take it out of the oven, carve the breasts off and return it to the oven again.
While the dark meat continues cooking, I serve the white meat. Then I take the bird out again and serve the dark meat when it's done. As you can see, still not terribly convenient. Plus, the effect of presenting the fully cooked turkey, sans breasts, definitely leaves something to be desired.
Here are some alternatives to roasting a conventional supermarket turkey:
- Debone The Turkey: If you want to simplify things, and get as close as possible to the hypothetical sphere of turkey meat we discussed earlier, you can debone the turkey before roasting it. Doing this allows you to truss the bird tightly — condensing it, basically — which shortens cooking time and reduces the temperature differential between the outer and inner regions.
- Roast A Whole Turkey Breast: If you're not up for the deboning, you can purchase a boneless turkey roast that essentially accomplishes the same thing. White-meat fans can also opt for roasting a whole turkey breast, which solves the Poultry Paradox by eliminating everything but the white meat from the equation. It may not be a perfect sphere, but it's the next best thing.
- Roast A Kosher Turkey: Kosher turkeys are known to be more flavorful than ordinary ones. Part of the koshering process involves covering the interior and exterior of the freshly slaughtered turkey carcass with kosher salt, followed by a thorough rinsing. This is done to remove every last bit of blood from the carcass, but it also has the effect of seasoning the meat and making it tastier.
- Grill A Turkey: Still another solution is to dispense with roasting altogether and cook your turkey on the grill instead. The only catch here is that grilling only works for smaller turkeys, with 12 pounds being the ideal weight.
- Try A Heritage Turkey: If you don't mind paying a bit more for slightly smaller turkey, a heritage turkey might be something to consider. Heritage turkeys are special breeds of turkey that are raised more slowly than Broad-Breasted Whites, have less breast meat and are generally better suited for longer, slower cooking — all of which translates into a more moist, flavorful turkey.
- Roast Two Chickens Instead: I'm not even kidding. Two 8-pound roasting chickens can feed 8 to 12 people. In many ways, this is the perfect solution to the Poultry Paradox. Chickens are great candidates for roasting, and unlike roasting a turkey breast or cooking your turkey on the grill, roasting a chicken still lets you make a classic pan gravy. Here's a basic tutorial on how to roast a chicken.
- Brine the Turkey and Roast it Slowly: So this is not really an alternative. But if you're going to roast a whole turkey — possibly a heritage or Kosher turkey as mentioned above — this is the way to do it. Brining the turkey adds flavor and moisture, and roasting it slowly ensures that it won't dry out. Check out this Roast Turkey Recipe.