Sunday, November 22, 2009


Why do we cook turkeys whole? Because they look good, right? It's tradition bringing that beautiful bird to the table (I can see that Norman Rockwell painting now.) Our Dads carving up that giant turkey and handing out the pieces. Only one problem: they were usually dry pieces. Until my early twenties I just thought all turkeys were dry, especially the breast. Sure, sometimes I had a reasonably moist piece of white meat, only to find that the thigh and leg were dangerously undercooked. As I got older, and started cooking on my own, I also fell into the trappings of ritual. Turkeys get cooked whole. Period. I remember waiting for that little button to pop up. Wow, that made for a terrible meal. Then I found out how to use a real thermometer. It was better, not great. A few years later I read that cooking the bird breast side down was the way to go. It was not. Low and slow in my smoker made for a dry (but beautiful looking) bird. Icing down the breast, trussing, not trussing, putting slices in the skin near the legs, cooking in an oven bag, stuffing, no stuffing, the list goes on and on.

The bottom line is this. The breast meat is perfect at 155 degrees, and the dark meat much better at 175-180. I know the turkey is safe to eat around 160, but taking the dark meat to 180 is the way to go. It's moist, comes clean off the bone, and no one will be asking 'is this done?' The best way to achieve this is to part the bird. Separate the breast section (hotel style) from the leg quarters before cooking. This way everything gets cooked to the right temp, and you'll also knock a few hours off the cook time. 'What about the stuffing?' True, you can't stuff the turkey if you part it. But I don't believe in stuffing anyway. Cramming a bunch of croutons in the cavity of a bird just dries it out. Sure, it makes great stuffing, but the turkey suffers.

So, how can you have it all? You want that slice of Americana, you want moist white meat, safe to eat dark meat, and great tasting stuffing. How about two smaller turkeys. One you can part and cook the pieces separately. The other bird you can stuff, cook whole, and bring it to the table as the centerpiece. That turkey can be used for the soup on the next day. I don't cook Thanksgiving, but if I did, I think that's the way I would do it. But, for now, I'll be at my folks house enjoying the turkey of my youth. Please pass the gravy.


Mister Piglets said...

I agree with everything you said and that's how I feel about whole hogs. It makes for great presentation and great theater, but there are always compromises that could be improved upon my cooking the parts separately.

Lakeside Smoker said...

So true about the whole hog. I think pork tenderloin and pork belly deserve two different preparations.