Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday with a regrettable meat. Turkey is the sawdust of protein, a big bird with a bad breast-to-leg ratio, which means that you have to dry out the breast before you can fully cook the leg. (And yes, I’ve tried every foil trick in the book.)
But why is turkey so dry? No matter how much butter I stuff under the skin, and slather into the open cavity, and baste over the the breast, the meat ends up requiring generous servings of cranberry sauce and gravy just to become palatable. Like all scientifically-minded cooks, I directed these important questions to Harold McGee, author of the magisterial On Food and Cooking.
My turkey solution came in McGee’s section on seared steaks. Most people assume that we sear steaks in order to “seal in the juices”. This is completely false. Technically speaking, a steak cooked at high temperatures contains less of its own juice, as that alluring sizzling noise is actually the sound of the meat’s own liquid evaporating into thin air. (For maximum retention of natural juices, cook the steak slow and steady, and don’t salt until the end). Nevertheless, our intuitions aren’t compelety crazy: even if a well-seared steak is literally drier, it still tastes juicier. The disquieting explanation of this culinary illusion is that a well-seared steak – its Maillard crust crisp and crackling, its interior plush and bloody – makes us drool in anticipation. As a result, when we eat the more appetizing – yet less juicy – steak, the meat seems to be juicier. However, what we are actually sensing is our own saliva, which the brain induced our salivary glands to release. Our personal decision to drool warps our sensory experience of the steak.
Of course, turkey isn’t a red meat, and it’s a relatively lean bird. But another, and perhaps more important, reason turkey is so dry is that it doesn’t stimulate our salivary glands. It’s like an unseared steak. I believe there are two reasons for this.
Firstly, turkey is too much meat chasing not enough skin. What makes us drool isn’t that intimidating mound of mealy breast meat: it’s the crisp skin, fat in crackling form. So next thanksgiving, be sure to seduce the eyes of your guests with lots of skin. If they drool before they eat, the meat will be juicier.
The second reason turkey is dry is because it is almost never salty enough. Unless you brined your turkey in a bucket for days in advance, then there is no way to permeate the inner meat with salt. And if there isn’t enough salt, then there won’t be enough saliva, for salt stimulates our salivary glands.
I’ll stop now, because I’m sure everybody is very sick and tired of poultry. But rememeber these tips next year, and your bird won’t be quite as dry. The trick to juiciness isn’t juice, it’s drool. You have to tempt the eyes before you can please the tongue.
PS. And I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving, and is planning a wonderful holiday weekend.