Science Helps You Cook the Perfect Turkey

Written by: admin

Let’s talk turkey, science lovers. We’ve already showed you how to incorporate science into Halloween but now it’s time to “science up” Thanksgiving. No, we are not suggesting something along the lines of Schrodinger’s Turkey. Instead, we’ve rounded up ideas on how to cook the big, tasty bird with the help of chemistry!

Whether you are a fan of dark meat or light meat, you have to agree that turkey is delicious – and not easy to cook. How many movies and TV episodes feature a turkey mishap? More than we can count. Think of the turkey burning to a crisp when the Friends gang accidentally locked themselves out of the apartment, or the shuffling of the turkey from oven to oven in 2003’s Pieces of April. The bird is the word, and you can’t have it run “afowl.”

But why are turkeys such difficult creatures to cook? It is all about the proteins – specifically, collagen. Collagen provides structure, and in turkeys, you will find varying levels of the protein throughout the meat. The breasts contain low levels of collagen. The thighs are load-bearing and need structure, which equals higher collagen levels. During the cooking process, proteins like collagen denature (aka, breakdown in structure). This causes the meat to shrink. But collagen takes longer to denature than other proteins. Turkey thighs need more time to cook and denature, while the low-collagen breast meat needs less time. The conundrum is how to cook the turkey so that the breast meat does not overly shrink, causing it to be tough and chewy, without undercooking the thighs. 

Enter science. Here are three chemistry-approved options for cooking the perfect Thanksgiving turkey:

1. Ice the breast

Some recommend filling the turkey with ice to cool down the temperature of the breast meat, which ensures it will cook at a lower temperature than the thighs. An alternative is to ice down the breast meat with an ice pack for 30-60 minutes prior to cooking. You can also cover the breast meat with foil to slow the cooking process.

2. Debone

This is for the adventurous cook. If you remove all the bones in the turkey, you can roll it into one big, even turkey log, ensuring that it cooks more evenly. But it is a messy process, so attempt at your own risk.

3. Sous-vide 

Probably our favorite suggestion by far, this strategy comes from Jeff Potter, author of Cooking for Geeks, and it involves a hacked slow cooker. Sous-vide is a cooking method involving low temperature poaching. In the case of the turkey, you poach the breast meat (sealed in plastic) in 140°F water, slowly warming the meat to the same temperature, which ensures it does not overcook. The legs, due to the high collagen, need to be cooked separately. Potter recommends cooking the legs confit-style by dropping them into a slow cooker with some salt water. Because a sous-vide appliance will cost you some big bucks, Potter included videos on how to hack a slow cooker for the same task.

After all this turkey, you are probably going to have a craving for pumpkin pie and thankfully, there is a science-approved method for “baking” pumpkin pie as well – with liquid nitrogen. It is a recipe for the brave (and science-obsessed). So, with that, we leave you to your cooking. Happy Thanksgiving!


Image credit: master phillips



The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.