How to Cook a Turkey
It’s a conundrum as old as Thanksgiving itself. How can you cook lean, white meat while also cooking fatty, dark meat in the same oven? There are plenty of turkey cooking methods that supposedly solve this quandary, yet every year, we find ourselves on Google asking the same question: What’s the best way to cook a whole turkey?
Your search results won’t give one resounding answer. Smoke your turkey, fry your turkey, cook your turkey in a bag, cook it upside down on a piece of focaccia bread...what? There are so many methods, how could you possibly choose the best one? Well, science. It’s all about the temperatures.
We’ve done all the exploring and experimenting for you. Need quick answers to some difficult questions? You’re in the right place. Discover critical turkey temperatures, the best cooking and thawing methods, and the scientific reasoning behind every piece of advice.
Critical Pull Temperatures
Best Cooking Method: Spatchcock Turkey
Spatchcocking a turkey requires cutting out the spine with kitchen shears, and laying the turkey flat on a baking sheet for roasting. Why is spatchcocking the best method? When you roast a turkey the usual way, you have limbs covering limbs, white meat exposed to high heat, and hidden dark meat. It’s almost certain to cook unevenly. By flattening the turkey, you redistribute access to the heat source, yielding a more even cook, and crispier skin. Plus, it’s a much faster cook and you’ll have more room in your oven for cooking sides. Win, win, and win.
Set on spatchcocking this year? We’ll be there with you every step of the way in our blog post. Check it out.
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Best Roasting Methods: Icing Breasts
The science behind icing the breasts before roasting is simple. The goal is for your light and dark meat to cook at a similar pace. So, by cooling down the breast meat with ice while giving your dark meat time to warm up, you’re creating a good 20-25℉ temperature differential between the two, enough so that your dark meat will finish cooking before your breast meat overcooks. The perfect balance.
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Roasting Methods: Pizza Stone
A pizza stone is another tool you can use to help achieve both juicy white meat and soft dark meat without spatchcocking. Place the pizza stone in the oven before preheating and allow a little extra time for it to come up to temperature. When you put your turkey in the oven, the dark meat will absorb the extra heat radiating from the pizza stone, while the chilled breasts are as far as they can be from the heat source. This will allow your dark meat to cook faster, up to 175°F or higher, while your breast meat reaches that perfect 157℉.
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“Cooking equations factor in time and weight, but leave out the most important factor...shape. The best way to know what’s going on in your meat is to take its temperature.”
- Alton Brown
You Need: Thermapen Mk4
You’ll not only use your Thermapen Mk4 to verify your pull temp, and then check moments later after carryover cooking has taken place. You’ll want to use the digital instant-read to verify your turkey is completely thawed (37℉) before prepping to cook.
SHOP THERMAPEN MK4
You Need: ChefAlarm
ChefAlarm allows you to set a high alarm so that you'll be alerted when your turkey hits the exact pull temperature. For your turkey's white meat, that's 157℉. We mention our Smoke BBQ Alarm Thermometer as an alternative because of its two channels. Smoke allows two probes for viewing two cooks at once. So, if you also want to set a high alarm for your dark meat (175℉), you’ll be able to do so and monitor both at once.
Best Thawing Method: Fridge Method
Allow at least 24 hours for every 5-6 pounds of frozen turkey. A 20-pound turkey will take 4 full days to thaw in a refrigerator. This method is the least labor-intensive but requires the most time.
“Turkey must be kept at a safe temperature during ‘the big thaw.’ While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely. However, as soon as it begins to thaw, any bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to grow again.” - Turkey Basics: Safe Thawing, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service
Learn all about the fridge method here…
Fastest Thawing Method: Water Bath
With higher risk of contamination and higher possibility of entering the “temperature danger zone,” the water bath method takes constant supervision. However, if you need a speedier thawing method and are willing to put in the extra effort, this can be done safely.
Allow 30 minutes per pound (per .45 kg), so it will still take some time. A 20-pound turkey will take 10 hours to thaw in a water bath.
Get info on all our thawing methods here…
Probe Placement: Reaching the Thermal Center
Insert the probe laterally, from near the neck cavity, parallel to the cutting board or pan.
The probe’s tip should be about 1/2 to 1 inch (1.3 to 2.5 cm) from the internal cavity of the bird to avoid touching the bone.
LEARN MORE ABOUT PROBE PLACEMENT
“If you really love stuffing, wait until the turkey comes out of the oven, add some of the pan drippings to the stuffing, and bake it in a dish. That's called dressing, and that's not evil - stuffing is, though.”
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Rated #1 by leading Cook's Magazine. Accurate to ±0.7°F in 2-3 seconds. Waterproof + advanced features.
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Professional, 2-Channel wireless alarm thermometer, includes probes and receiver. Uses Pro-Series probes that last longer. For the BBQ lover on your list.
Commercial quality temperature probes engineered in Utah by ThermoWorks and designed to work with the Signals, ChefAlarm, DOT, BlueDOT, Smoke and Smoke X thermometers.
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