Why Is Turkey So Dry?

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.

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I agree with L_W_F that Alton Brown's recipe is the best for moist, salty turkey. Breasts are often dry because they are at the highest point in the oven and get more heat, overcooking before the rest is done. Al foil helps, but I once tried a recipe that called for cooking the turkey upside down for the first hour, then flipping it so the breast skin would be crisp and brown. It worked like a charm, but is a lot of extra work.

By Tom Kimmerer (not verified) on 24 Nov 2006 #permalink

Yes, brining is good, although I find that the meat is a little spongy. Russ Parsons had a good-looking recipe in the LA Times recently which called for a three day salt rub, rather than a wet brine. I didn't try it, but I imagine the effect was the same: to get salt into the center of the bird. And yes, flipping is good, but it's such a pain in the ass.

I also endorse the flipping method, roasting at a steady 325 degrees F. I also maintain that a previously frozen bird will always turn out drier than one which is purchased fresh and never frozen.

Of course, another way of getting a good juicy bird is smoke roasting in the type of smoker that has a separate firebox at the side. Keeping the fire low will result in a lusciously moist and flavorful turkey, although the skin will not be crispy enough to eat. However, that smoky skin, together with the turkey carcass, will make a wonderful, smoky soup stock for your leftovers.

Flipping a turkey is quite easy if you take the bold and direct route. Forget about using forks of big tongs. It does help to have someone stand at the side and hold down the pan and rack with a spatula, while you simply use two clean, folded dish towels to firmly grasp the bird at each end, lift, and flip it with a twist of your wrists.

Smoking sounds good. Has anyone ever deep-fried a turkey? You get no drippings or gravy, and you can't stuff the carcass, but the surfeit of crispy skin is almost compensation. (Plus, lots of moist meat.) If you want to sound fancy, just tell your guests it's turkey confit. I got my deep fryer at Home Depot. You just have to be careful, and find a way to dispose of 5 gallons worth of peanut oil.

Jumping in with no new answers, as my brine suggestion has already, and quite deftly, been given. I would like to mention, in the interest of safety, one tip about deep frying the turkey. Put the turkey into the fryer before filling with oil, then remove the turkey to heat the oil, otherwise, you may find that as your turkey hits the hot grease you will overflow the vessel and cause a fire. Nothing burns quite like fat.

A good way to rid oneself of extra cooking oil is to find someone who will turn it into fuel. Many people have modified their cars to run on a fuel made from used cooking oil. If that isn't possible, one may be able to talk a local restaurant into accepting it with their own used oil.

I've deep fried turkeys twice, only once for thanksgiving. At Thanksgiving, the lack of gravy and stuffing were vocally protested by several folks. The turkey comes out nicely - and the meat isn't dried out if you previously inject it with a flavored basting solution. The biggest problem to overcome, as far as I'm concerned, is that the oil winds up costing as much or more than the bird.

If you filter the oil after frying the turkey, you can store it, covered tightly, in a cool dark place, and then reuse it for other deep fried delights on later occasions.

I'm more likely to deep fry a turkey for an early summer party, when everyone can be outdoors and enjoy watching the bubbling pot while having a beer and some appetizers. Later, when the good local vegetables are ready, I like to throw a deep fried fresh veggie feast -- tempura zucchini, carrots, onions, sweet peppers, etc., plus breaded deep fried eggplant and green tomato slices.

I have to add my vote for Alton Brown's method. I've used it for three years straight, having never cooked any kind of whole bird before, and my wife and I both agree it's the juiciest turkey we've ever tasted. It also helps to get them fresh and unfrozen. My wife's office gives out free birds to its employees each year, freshly killed and prepared from a local farm. Having had fresh venison as well (from a friend) I think that has a huge part to play in the juiciness. But the Good Eats recipe should help no matter what.

Just chiming in to say that it *is* possible to have gravy and stuffing with a deep fried bird. Do the stuffing separately in a casserole. As for gravy, take the giblets and neck of the turkey and use it to make turkey broth ahead of time. When it is time to make gravy, take about 4 tablespoons of butter and melt it in a heavy 2 qt saucepan over medium heat. Once melted, whisk in about 4 tablespoons of flour and cook it, whisking the whole time, for about 2 to 3 minutes or until the roux starts to take on a nice brownish look and a nutty scent. Then whisk in the turkey broth, along with some salt, pepper and thyme. Cook on medium-medium high heat until it has the thickness you want.