Thanksgiving Turkey
science

Motivation

In the Bunsen household Thanksgiving is a big event. In 2008, after a few years of ruining a turkey or three, I decided to attack the problem of how best to prepare, cook, and serve a bird with science. After a few years of putting theory into practice I'm now satisfied with the final product. This post is for posterity and for those interested in my findings about how to cook the best turkey.

Day -7:

Seven days prior to Thanksgiving is when to start the turkey prep work. The first step is to select a turkey. Frozen turkeys are vastly superior to fresh turkeys. Fresh turkeys are chilled to around the freezing point.1 At this temperature, microscopic ice crystals form then melt repeatedly. According to Steponkus and colleagues freeze-thaw cycles create holes in cellular membranes and alter plasma membrane fluidity through lyotropic phase transitions. A fresh turkey yields a dry and bland product resulting from moisture and flavor literally leaking from muscle cell lesions during cooking due to excessive freeze/thaw cycles. A frozen turkey circumvents these problems and helps to preserve the meat from cellular degradation.

Despite the superiority of frozen turkey, all frozen birds are not created equal. Special attention must be taken to select a turkey that is unadulterated—avoid injected, pre-basted, pre-brined, or kosher turkeys. Prolonged treatment with these agents can cause osmotic and other cellular damage. The procedure outline here utilizes a brining step and if a pre-treated turkey is brined, the end product is undesireable (I speak from experience). Finding a turkey devoid of fillers and treatments is not always easy. I usually have the best luck at local butchers or organic grocery stores.

A week before Thanksgiving is also the time to acquire supplied needed for some of the downstream steps. Some of these materials go fast around Thanksgiving, so it's best to stock up now. In addition to the turkey, make sure to have the following supplies:

  • Butcher twine
  • Aluminum foil
  • Cooking thermometer
  • A clean 5-10 gallon trash can (something like this)
  • Kosher salt (i.e., non-iodized salt)
  • Light Brown sugar
  • Chicken Stock 3
  • Black peppercorns
  • Allspice berries
  • Candied ginger
  • Butter
  • Fresh tarragon
  • Fresh thyme
  • Fresh rosemary
  • Fresh sage

Day -3:

Remove the turkey from the freezer and place it into the refrigerator. Take special care to make sure the refrigerator has good thermo-regulation to avoid freeze/thaw cycles. Aim for an internal refrigerator temperature of about 38°F.

Day -1:

On Wednesday evening, it's time to make a brining solution. Brining is an ancient technique that is used to enhance flavor by incubating food in a saline solution. Brining achieves three things with respect to turkey—it allows moisture and flavor to be imparted into the bird and it tenderizes the meat. The precise mechanism of how brining actually enhances flavor is a contentious subject. Turkey brining probably works mainly through protein denaturation and secondarily by osmosis. Groups of muscle fibers are surrounded by fascia composed of tough connective tissue. Cooking a non-brined turkey causes the fascia to constrict around muscle fibers; this leads to dry turkey because the moisture is squeezed out of the muscle fibers as the turkey cooks. Brining solutions unfold fascia proteins. Denaturing the fascia provides muscle fibers room to swell, which preventing moisture loss and allows additional moisture to enter muscle fibers from the brine through osmosis.

To create the brining solution, add these ingredients to a large stockpot, bring the brine to a simmer for 10 minutes, then let the solution cool.

  • 4L chicken stock
  • 4L ice water
  • 110g kosher salt 3
  • 55g light brown sugar
  • 20g candied ginger
  • 8g whole black peppercorns
  • 10 whole allspice berries

While the brining solution cools, rinse the turkey off, remove the giblets and neck, then rinse out the cavity of the bird. Place the cleaned turkey in the trash can and then pour the brining solution over the turkey so that the turkey is completely submerged. Ideally, the turkey should brine at about 38°F for 8-12 hours. I've always lived above the 41st parallel, so I do my brining in a trash can outside or in my garage depending on the nighttime temperature. Plan accordingly for your climate.

Thanksgiving Day

Remove the turkey from the brine, rinse it with water, pat dry, and truss the bird. Preheat the oven to 475°F. While the oven is coming to temperature, make an aromatic solution for the cavity and herb butter for the skin. To make the aromatic solution, microwave one sticks of butter, half an onion, a cinnamon stick, and 110 mL water. Add this mixture to the turkey cavity with 5 sprigs thyme and 10 sage leaves. These items contain a rich mixture of aromatic compounds like cinnamaldehyde that infuse the turkey meat with rich flavor as the bird cooks.

I shamelessly stole the herb butter recipe from Tom Colicchio. To make the herb butter, mix ½ cup room-temperature butter with minced sage, thyme, tarragon, and rosemary. Apply the herb butter liberally over the entire bird and between the turkey skin and the meat (this is key). The herb butter improves the flavor of the turkey in several ways. Butter is an effective solvent that extracts hydrophobic aromatic compounds from the herbs and from the turkey meat. These compounds become modified during cooking to make complex secondary aldehydes, ketone, and other organics that bath the turkey in complex flavors.

Humans have an ancient genetic affinity for the taste of butter. In addition to being a calorie rich food source, butter/fat is addictive. Butter consumption probably triggers MuOpioid receptor stimulation, Dopamine D2 receptor dysregulation, and other pleasurable and addictive responses within the brain.

Once the oven has come to temperature, start the turkey cooking at 475°F for thirty minutes then reduce the temperature to 350°F for the remainder of the cooking time. The turkey starts out in the oven at a high temperature to elicit a Maillard reaction between the brown sugar leftover from the brine and the turkey amino acids. The Maillard reaction produces a bevy of flavorful secondary compounds primarily though production of a Schiff base with an amine group, typically on an amino acids from the turkey.

After 30 minutes of cooking, drop the oven temperature to 350°F for the remainder of cooking time. The central crux with cooking a whole turkey is achieving proper cooking between the different regions of the bird. After the Maillard reaction, cover the turkey breast with aluminum foil to slow-down the cooking of the breast meat and positioning the turkey legs toward the back of the oven.

After about 45 minutes of cooking at 350°F it is time for the first of three bastes. Basting helps to crisp the turkey skin and provides an opportunity to reapply butter, aromatics, turkey and brine juice, and oven-catalyzed secondary compounds back onto and into the turkey. During cooking, the drippings concentrate in the roasting pan from evaporation and add even greater flavor to the turkey. Repeat the basting approximately every 45 minutes until the turkey is cooked.

When the internal temperature of the turkey reaches 160°F, remove the turkey from the oven and let the turkey sit to cool for at least 10 minutes before serving. While the turkey cools, reduce the pan dripping and make a gravy. I'll leave it up to you to choose a recipe.

Day +1

Make turkey soup and enjoy the art and science of the Thanksgiving turkey!


  1. Federal regulations actually require fresh turkeys to be quick-chilled to no less than 26°F. ↩

  2. Do not buy chicken stock. Home-made stock is far better. I've always liked The Barefoot Contessa’s recipe. ↩

  3. Do not add more salt than this. In my experience, less is more. ↩