posted by Dave Arnold
Here is a recap of what we know about cooking turkeys:
- The breast meat should be cooked to 64 or 65 degrees C.
- The leg meat should be cooked no lower than 65 degrees C.
- The longer you cook turkey meat, the worse it gets.
- The turkey should be served whole. We Americans want our turkeys to look like turkey. No tube shaped birds (sorry Nils). No carved up pieces.
- Don’t vacuum the whole turkey because the bones will make the meat unappetizingly pink.
For the full story see our post here.
My turkey this year will be low-temperature cooked, cooled, and brought to my in-laws’ house for finishing off. I divided the problem into two parts — cooking and finishing–and tried to find the best solution to each.
Problem 1: Cooking the Turkey
We needed to figure out a way to cook the whole turkey in 2-3 hours. Since turkeys are big, expensive and in short supply at the FCI, I ran feasibility tests on chickens.
Idea 1: Flay the bird, cook it flat, and reassemble it around a skeleton.
The bird cooked quickly and properly but the reassembly idea didn’t work at all. It looked bad, and I got burned.
Idea 2: Two-part cooking –the double-dippin’ chicken.
The inside of the thighs are the hardest part of a bird to cook. The bird is thickest there, so it takes the longest to heat. Even worse, that part of the bird needs to cook to a higher temperature than the breast does. We investigated a two-temperature, two-time cooking technique. We set a circulator full of oil to 65 .5 degrees C and suspended a chicken in the oil so that just the legs would be cooked. After 1 hour we lowered the temperature of the oil to 64C and submerged the whole bird. The legs would be cooked longer than is ideal with this technique ( for a turkey the legs would cook for 3-4 hours) , but the texture of dark meat is less affected by long cooking times than the breast.
Surprisingly, when we cut the bird open the thigh meat was still pink. WTF? My guess is that the meat around the thigh doesn’t look right if it is cooked too slowly. Myoglobin is the pigment that makes meat pink. Myogloblin keeps its red color if it is heated slowly. Low and gentle is good for texture, but not for color. We needed a more sophisticated technique that would cook the meat inside the thigh quickly.
Idea 3: The bionic chicken.
Concept: cook the bird from the inside-out. Bone the bird, replace the leg bones with aluminum tubes, stuff the carcass with aluminum foil (heats quickly, maintains structure), and pump hot oil through the tubes to cook the inside of the thigh quickly.
The test: first, bone the bird. We used a technique that avoids cutting the skin: Starting at the butt end of the bird you carefully remove the bones by slowly turning the bird inside out. Then you carefully remove the leg bones; the wing bones are left in. It was our intern Ed’s last day (he graduated today) so we gave him the honor of performing the boning.
Next, cut pieces of aluminum tubing to the same length as the leg and thigh bones. We cut slits all along the tubes so they would act like sprinklers. We made the knee joint by joining the tubes with rubber tubing. We attached these bionic leg bones to the pump output of an immersion circulator. Witness the legs being tested with water:
We stuffed the inside of the chicken with aluminum foil and threaded the aluminim tubes into the legs. Then we trussed the bird — no one would suspect a thing. We put the bird on a cooling rack over a lexan full of oil heated to 65 C with an immersion circulator. We hooked up a second circulator and used it to pump hot oil through the leg tubes. The extra oil poured out of the bird and back into the lexan. After 20 minutes we lowered the temperature to 64C and dropped the bird into the oil. 40 minutes later we pulled it.
The bird held its shape even when we removed the foil. It looked like a whole, untouched bird. The meat was perfect all the way through.
We had our technique.
Problem 2 Finishing the Turkey:
Clearly, flash frying would be the best way to finish the turkey — but the turkey I have is too big to fry whole. It won’t fit in a standard turkey fryer, and I don’t want a reputation for ruining Thanksgiving at both my in laws’ house AND my mom’s house. So how about a torch?
The Problem with Torches:
Nils and I don’t like to finish meats with a torch. They don’t taste right. Two theories for this. 1: You can taste the fuel and 2: the heat from a torch is too high. I figured out a solution to the first problem.
Torches don’t burn 100% of their propane. Some years ago I did an art piece where I battled a mechanical fire-breathing dragon (don’t ask). The dragon was a large, kerosene powered flame-thrower of my creation. I tested the flame several times, and I thought I could handle it, no problem. But when I actually stood in front of the flame, something interesting happened. All of the kerosene that was moving too fast to be burned efficiently hit my shield, slowed down, and caught on fire, creating a huge fireball. I got burned pretty badly.
That was the last time my wife trusted me when I said xy or z idea if mine was “no problem.” But that experience gave me an idea about the torch. What if we put a piece of wire mesh between the torch and the bird? Maybe we could catch and combust the excess propane?
It worked! Propane taste gone. I was so happy I ordered a square of super high-temp nichrome wire mesh and a 500,000 btu roofing torch.
Propane taste isn’t the only problem with torches. The finish is spotty and, as my intern Fabulous pointed out, “The skin isn’t crispy.” I opened my mouth to give a counter-argument and he just repeated “not crispy.” Point taken. Plus, I don’t think the family would have appreciated the roofing torch.
Winning Technique: Pourover Frying:
Ladling hot oil over the skin for several minutes worked great. That’s what I’ll do. Simple.
We boned out the turkey and created the bionic leg bones.
We salted the inside of the bird,stuffed it with herbs and aluminum foil, and installed the bionic legs.
We filled a pot with duck fat and butter and heated it up to 66 degrees C. We put the bird on a cooling rack over the pot, hooked up the legs, and turned on the pump.
The bird was too big so grease went everywhere. We MacGyvered it up.
After an hour we lowered the circulators to 65 and dropped the bird into the oil for 1.5 hours.
Then I threw the bird in the blast chiller for half an hour, packed it in ice, put it in a gym bag and caught a train to Connecticut. I’ll tell you how it turned out after the big day.