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Make this year better than ever with the online Cook's Illustrated Thanksgiving Guide. We’ll help you plan, shop, and cook.
Thanksgiving comes but once a year, but the stakes couldn't be higher for making the pièce de résistance - a perfectly bronzed and juicy turkey. Don't take chances by making guesses on how to prepare the bird - we'll show you exactly how to cook it for the best Thanksgiving ever.
Happy Thanksgiving from America's Test Kitchen to your kitchen.
Most of us purchase a whole turkey just a few times a year, but typically it’s for a special occasion so its key to shop wisely.
Modern commercial turkeys don’t contain much fat, yet, as we all know, fat is what provides meat with juiciness and flavor. To make up for it, some birds are “pre-basted” (injected with a solution), but our tasters found that these birds can have a “wet” texture.
Pasture-raised, organic turkeys promise a flavor improvement because of their diverse diet, but we didn’t find that to be the case, plus the meat was slightly stringier and tougher (you will need to brine these birds if you buy them).
Heritage turkeys are directly descended from wild turkeys, and they nearly disappeared in the mid-20th century as commercial Broad-Breasted Whites were bred by the poultry industry. We have certainly found favor with the heritage turkeys that we’ve tried over the years, but given the range of taster opinion about flavor, from “outstanding” to “funky,” we aren’t sure the high price tag and effort it takes to track one down are worth it.
We like turkeys that have been koshered (covered in kosher salt, then rinsed multiple times). Koshering works to season the meat, improve its texture, and help it retain moisture—if you buy a kosher turkey there’s no need to brine or salt it. However, kosher turkeys aren’t always easy to find, so we typically call for “all-natural” turkeys. These turkeys have been fed a vegetarian diet and are free to roam. These turkeys tend to contain less fat, which translates to a drier bird, so we always recommend brining these turkeys.
Suggested Cook's Illustrated recipe: Roast Salted Turkey
- Bone-In Breasts
Most supermarkets regularly offer two slightly different styles of whole bone-in turkey breast: regular (aka true cut) and hotel (a.k.a. country-style). regular-cut turkey breast includes the whole bone-in breast with ribs, a portion of the wing meat, and a portion of the back and neck skin. The hotel-cut turkey breast is essentially the same cut, though it comes with its wings, neck, and giblets, all important material if you intend to make a gravy or sauce to accompany the cooked meat. These tend to cost a little more and are almost always sold fresh, not frozen.
Whichever style you find and purchase, try to avoid turkey breasts that have been injected with a saline solution (a brine of sorts) - these are often called “self-basters.” We found the solution masks the natural flavor of the turkey. (If the only bird you can find is a self-baster, do not brine it, as the meat will already be quite salty.)
Also, ignore the pop-up timer that comes with some turkey breasts; the meat will be long overcooked before the popper pops. If your turkey has a pop-up timer, leave it in and gauge doneness according to an instant-read thermometer. Don’t remove the timer until the meat is done; otherwise it will leave a gaping hole from which juices will flow.
Suggested Cook's Illustrated recipe: Easy Roast Turkey Breast
Four Principles of Cooking a Bird
1. Brine or salt to increase juiciness
2. Cook white meat less than dark meat
White meat should be cooked only to an internal temperature of 160 degrees, while dark meat should be cooked to 175 degrees. Having a good instant-read thermometer is essential.
3. Crisp the skin or lose the skin
4. Let it rest
Salting versus Brining
Salting poultry in advance is one way to season the meat and keep it juicy. When salt is applied to raw poultry, juices inside are drawn to the surface. The salt then dissolves in the exuded liquid, forming a brine that is eventually reabsorbed by the poultry. The salt changes the structure of the muscle proteins, allowing them to hold on to more of their own natural juices.
Salting requires time, but it won’t thwart the goal of crispy skin. We prefer to use kosher salt for salting because it’s easier to distribute the salt evenly. We use Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt; if using Morton Kosher Salt, reduce the amount listed by 33 percent (e.g. use 2/3 teaspoon Morton Kosher Salt or 1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal).
For salting a whole turkey: Apply 1 teaspoon salt per pound evenly inside cavity and under skin of breasts and legs, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and let rest in refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours.
Brining works in much the same way as salting. Salt in the brine seasons the poultry and promotes a change in its protein structure, reducing its overall toughness and creating gaps that fill up with water and keep the meat juicy and flavorful. Brining works faster than salting and can also result in juicier lean cuts since it adds, versus merely retains, moisture. But note that brining inhibits browning, and it requires fitting a brining container in fridge. We prefer to use table salt for brining since it dissolves quickly in the water.
- 1 whole turkey (12 to 17 pounds): Brine in 2 gallons cold water and 1 cup table salt for 6 to 12 hours
- 1 whole turkey (18 to 24 pounds): Brine in 3 gallons of cold water and 1 1/2 cups table salt for 6 to 12 hours
- 1 bone-in turkey breast (6 to 8 pounds): Brine in 1 gallon of cold water and 1/2 cup table salt for 3 to 6 hours
Our turkey-cooking wisdom is distilled from over 20 years' worth of recipe development; the information above is adapted from our newest book, The Cooking School Cookbook, a comprehensive reference for every home cook.
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