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Why Turkey Is So Awful, and How You Can Make It Better

Each year we seem to arm ourselves with a sort of collective willful amnesia and forget a basic culinary truth: Turkey, at Thanksgiving or any other time, is the absolute fucking worst.
November 24, 2015, 5:00am

Every year at Thanksgiving, Americans gather with their families, say prayers of gratitude, and fill their face holes with homemade, carb-rich comfort. Mashed potatoes, mac 'n cheese, yams: That's all pretty good stuff, right there. Then there's the turkey, which is both the centerpiece of the table and almost unquestionably the worst thing on it. Each year we seem to arm ourselves with a sort of collective willful amnesia and forget a basic culinary truth: Turkey, at Thanksgiving or any other time, is the absolute fucking worst.

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Deep down, we know this, but bury it beneath happy memories of Thanksgivings past. It is, almost without fail, a dried-out, depressing hunk of sun-baked papier-mâché—a jaw-tiringly chewy, unsatisfying, and depressingly bland workout. It can be made palatable through cranberries or gravy or other condiments, but any meat that requires that much assistance is a piss-poor entree option.

But why is turkey normally so bad? And what can be done to make sure that your turkey isn't as bad this year as it was the years before?

The truth is, not much. If you're reading this and don't have your turkey already soaking in some type of brine (more on that in a bit), you've most likely lost the battle of the bird this year anyway. This isn't because you're not a fabulous cook. You very well may be. It's because it's almost impossible to roast a whole turkey (or 20-pound-plus anything) without overcooking it to the point of its being inedible. They're just too damn big. And as a big-ass whole turkey cooks, the moisture inside it escapes. Since you have no choice but to cook it through, everything that helps make the turkey consumable disappears like so many promises the white man made the Native Americans, and what you're left with is a pile of protein-packed cardboard.

"You can't just cook a turkey casually. It's so much work, not the type of thing you can throw in the oven and then go suck down a beer in front of the football game and forget about."
—Chef Jason Kerr

Don't take my word for it—ask Joe Mac Regenstein, a professor in the Department of Food Science at Cornell University and the only person I've ever talked to who has a master's in dairy chemistry. (He also holds a PhD in biophysics, but who doesn't?)

"The issue is lack of uniform heating across something as big as a turkey," says Regenstien. "The heat comes in from the surface—so the closer to the surface the more 'total heat' the product will receive. We see that clearly on large beef roasts—but the difference is that the different cooking amounts in beef are all acceptable eating. With turkey, relatively low in fat, we lose more moisture and succulence so it dries out, but unless the 'center' is cooked, we can't eat it, because less-cooked poultry is not acceptable. So there is the problem."

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That problem is why some companies will inject their turkeys with phosphates and other water- and fat-retention compounds, so that the "overcooked" parts are more juicy, Regenstein says. But even the miracles of modern science can't help when a turkey is blasted with heat for hours on end and roasted to near-coal.

"A Thanksgiving turkey sets you up to fail," says Jason Kerr, a one-time chef at several Houston hot spots who now works for a specialty food distributor that supplies most of that city's top-shelf restaurants with seafood and produce. "They're so labor-intensive. You can't just cook a turkey casually. It's so much work, not the type of thing you can throw in the oven and then go suck down a beer in front of the football game and forget about."

Most amateur home cooks are content to follow the directions on the Butterball wrapper, which will tell them to cook the turkey at 350 degrees for roughly 20 to 30 minutes per pound (pretty wide discrepancy, that). They'll throw it in the oven first thing in the morning, baste it a couple times over the course of the day, and just lay around Americanishly until the completely useless built-in thermometer most commercial turkeys have in them pops up, indicating that the center is up to the temp it needs to be.

Undercooked poultry is, to Regenstein's point, "not acceptable" for reasons that are obvious to anyone unlucky enough to have ever bitten into a undercooked bird. For one, it's gross. Not only that, it carries a much higher "microbial load" than other dead animals, as Dr. Chad Carr, a meat extension specialist and associate professor at the University of Florida's Department of Animal Sciences, tells me. That load is made up of bacteria, most typically salmonella, and is the reason your turkey must be cooked well-done, to an internal temp of at least 165-degrees to be precise. Otherwise you'll likely get sick. As a result, "it's inevitable that portions of that carcass are going to be cook past ideal," Carr says.

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In order to prevent this, Kerr advises, you must (sorry about this quote) "bukkake the turkey all day with butter and stock." Since the heat of the oven is actively pulling moisture out of the bird all days, you must be ever vigilant about putting the moisture back in, dousing it "a few times every hour" according to Kerr. It's great to mix butter in with the stock and the natural juices leaking into your roasting pan and baste the turkey with that, in addition to the room-temperature butter you've already rubbed under and on top of the pre-roasted turkey skin, which also helps in retaining moisture by creating a crust.

Stuffing is also important. If you stuff a turkey with traditional bread-based stuffing, it helps catch and reabsorb some of the water lost in the cooking process. It's important, though, to stuff loosely, thus allowing it to expand. A better idea still may be to stuff the turkey with water-rich vegetables like onions and carrots. Maybe even some wet fruit, like lemons. That way all the moisture they contain is released back into the turkey.

That above advice is something every chef will tell you, and increasingly tips like these are becoming common knowledge. As usual, the internet is working to disseminate wisdom far and wide. With food sites like VICE's own Munchies teaching home cooks basic techniques, amateurs are armed with more information than ever. These people are willing to put in time to roast a turkey well because hey, who doesn't want to show up their entire families with culinary knowhow?

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One popular option is to skip the over altogether and deep-fry a whole turkey. The frying, of course, makes for more uniform cooking. It's also a wet heat, which helps trap some of the moisture in. But if you're cooking a Thanksgiving turkey this way 1) You're cheating (anything fried is good, where's the challenge?) and 2) You're risking your life because deep-frying a whole turkey is incredibly dangerous. There are countless YouTube fried turkey fail compilations that prove this—check it out if you want to see dads dropping meaty birds into friers only to run away a second later as the whole operation becomes a deck-consuming fireball. You don't need to risk your life (or at least a call to the fire department) to make turkey taste good.

"Of course it's possible to make a phenomenal Thanksgiving turkey," chef Scott Schroeder tells me. "It's just incredibly difficult and most people don't know how." Schroeder is the executive chef of two renowned Philly restaurants, South Philadelphia Tap Room and American Sardine Bar, which was just named the best bar in the city by Philadelphia Magazine. Soon he'll open up a restaurant of his own, the much anticipated Hungry Pigeon.

"Use a fucking brine and people are going to think you're a genius. It's so easy, but no one thinks of it."
—Chef Scott Schroeder

Schroeder, like other chefs worth their salt (ha), will tell you that a brine is key if you're going to make a run at anything resembling a delicious whole roasted turkey. Submerge the turkey in a salt water and sugar solution. Keep that in your fridge for at least three days, he says. Over those 72 hours, the turkey is taking on that water, and the likelihood that it'll lose it all over the course of its being cooked is reduced. "In general, [brines are] the best trick a home cook can use to impress those he's cooking for," Schroeder says. "Use a fucking brine and people are going to think you're a genius. It's so easy, but no one thinks of it."

Another thing you can do in order to increase the odds your turkey won't be a complete disaster is shirk tradition and debone the bird, says Carr, the meat specialist. Once that's done you can roast the breasts in a pan, and braise the legs and the rest in a pot. "Of course, that changes the presentation we've come to expect on Thanksgiving, but it makes for much better-tasting turkey," he says. "You may have to trade one for the other."

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When I mention that presentation may be more important than taste on Thanksgiving, and that the holiday is perhaps nothing without its symbolism, Carr says, "Well, you've certainly got a point there."

So chances are more likely you'll stick with what you've done before: Roast the whole bird to hell and fake a smile at your drunk uncle after he says he agrees with Mike Huckabee about something. Your turkey will suck, but that's not the point anyway. It's mostly about spending time with family and wondering how the hell you ever got out alive.

"That's why we all drink so much on Thanksgiving," Kerr says. "To help us forget how miserable the fucking turkey is and to tolerate family."

Best of luck. And pass the gravy.

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