Physics talks turkey this Thanksgiving

November 18, 1999

Whether you like dark or white meat, cooks can look to physics for some tips for making sure that Thanksgiving turkey is quickly gobbled up. Harold McGee, a writer on food science, has come up with some scientifically-based, and very effective, tips for making sure your turkey rules the roost next Thursday.

After years of experience cooking turkeys, "and having them turn out badly," McGee decided there had to be a better way. So he turned to science. McGee has written two books on the science of cooking, and is co-author of an article in this month's Physics Today on the science of cooking meats.

McGee says there is one main problem that can keep turkeys from turning out finger-licking-good. Temperature. "You want to get the center of the meat up to a certain temperature, without overcooking the outside." This is a problem in turkey, McGee adds, because the breast and leg meat differs in both structure and chemistry. They need to be different temperatures in order to taste their best.

"You should aim for 155 degrees [Fahrenheit] in the breast," advises McGee, "and no more than 160 degrees, or else it will come out too dry." On the other hand, in the dark meat, "you want a temperature of 180 degrees and above in the leg." McGee says that when the leg meat is under 180 degrees, it is unpleasantly chewy and has a metallic taste to it. Plus, breast meat cooks faster than leg meat, which means the white meat is done well before the dark meat ever reaches the right temperature.

McGee has two solutions to the this troublesome turkey problem. The first is a trusty meat thermometer. "There's no substitute for checking the temperature of the bird often." The second is a good supply of ice.

Here's what McGee suggests:
  1. Make sure the bird is fully thawed
    McGee recommends thawing in the refrigerator or in a cold water bath.

  2. Don't stuff the turkey
    This may seem very untraditional, but McGee says that by the time the stuffing reaches a safe temperature to eat, the meat will be overdone.

  3. Cover the breasts with ice packs, while the rest of the bird comes up to room temperature
    The turkey should not sit out for more than three hours. At this point, McGee says, "the breast will be 40 degrees, and the rest of the bird about 60 degrees."

  4. Put the bird in the oven and cook as normal

  5. Remember to check the meat temperature often
    McGee recommends that the breast meat reach between 155 and 160 degrees, and the dark meat around 180 degrees.

Icing the turkey breasts works, McGee says, because the leg meat gets a head start in cooking. "You are creating a temperature difference between the breast meat and the rest of your turkey even before you start to cook it. And you come out with a good-looking bird."
For tips on turkey preparation safety, check out the following websites:

Harold McGee
Science of Cooking Author

American Institute of Physics

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