Last Minute Tips for a Better Turkey

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When Georgia Tech’s campus executive chef Jonathan Elwell and physics professor Dr. Peter Yunker got together to talk Thanksgiving turkey, things quickly turned scientific.

After all, cooking is essentially just one big experiment ­– and sometimes you’re lucky enough to get the methodology right.

But when it comes to the cooking that turkey, you can apply some science to help make a better bird.  So we asked for some tips from our leading chef and an award-winning physicist that would help even if you are down to the wire to get Thanksgiving dinner done.

Tip 1: Don’t forget to thaw your turkey 

“Nothing’s worse than getting up Thanksgiving morning and realizing you won’t get your turkey cooked in time,” says Chef Elwell.

The chef says he has taken dozens of desperate last-minute calls over his career of people trying to buy a whole turkey because they forgot to thaw their turkey.

If you have a fresh bird, you’ll have no worries on this front. However, most turkeys purchased over the holiday are frozen, so you’ll need to take at list a few hours of thaw time into consideration. Otherwise, your results will be less than desired.

“The problem if your turkey is frozen. The outside of the bird will be contacting warmer air, but by the time the frozen core is thawed the outside of the turkey is done,” explains Dr. Yunker.

Tip 2: Brine your turkey

“Even if you only have a little bit of time, brining your turkey imparts flavor and moisture that you won’t achieve any other way,” explains Chef Elwell.

As for what to use in a brine, he says kosher salt and water are they key components. Additionally, fall flavors like apple cider, cinnamon sticks, and star anise are great additions.

“Over time it the brine solution diffuses into the turkey until there’s just as much salt and moisture inside as there is outside,” says Dr. Yunker.

That also means flavor.  Chef Elwell typically brines turkeys for three or four days, then dries the out before cooking. He says even a few hours will make a better turkey. He also says to allot time for the turkey to rest a little while after it has brined before cooking. That will allow the flavorful brine to redistribute evenly through the meat after it has been soaked up during brining.

Tip 3: Coat the outside of your turkey

For this, Chef Elwell uses something unconventional: mayonnaise.

“We mix in hearty herbs like rosemary, thyme, and sage with mayonnaise and a little bit of olive oil. As it roasts, it’s also basting that turkey,” He explains. 

The other advantage to mayonnaise: it helps create that crispy crust on the outside of the turkey.

But don’t forget about the inside. It’s another opportunity to impart flavor according to Chef Elwell. He stuffs the cavity with sprigs of thyme, rosemary, and lemons.

“Anything aromatic,” he says.

Tip 4: Heat your oven a little hotter than the suggested temperature

“Cooking is really about heat transfer,” says Dr. Yunker. “You have something either frozen or refrigerated that you need to get to a temperature that not only tastes good but kills bacteria that may be inside.”

If you set your oven to 350 degrees, and then place a 40-degree turkey inside, it immediately sucks out the heat energy to a much lower temperature.

“We set the oven to about 385,” explains Chef Elwell. “Then after the turkey is in we put the heat back to 350.”

That helps compensate for the loss of heat and energy you experience from simply putting a cold turkey in the oven.

Because most ovens are cooking with radiant energy in the form of light, Yunker also suggests using a roasting pan or even a sheet pan with lower sides.

“When you place your turkey in an oven pan with high sides, you’re blocking the much of the bird from the energy needed to bring it up to temperature.” he says.

Tip 5:  Chill your wine faster in ice water

White wine is a natural pair for turkey, and you deserve a glass after making the main course.

To get a much quicker chill on a bottle of wine, place it in ice water.

“Water is a much better conductor than air,” explains Yunker.  “That’s why sticking the bottle in the fridge takes a longer time to cool down.”

It takes water much less time to change temperature. That’s why sticking a bottle of wine in cold water will chill it off in a matter of minutes. 




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    Steven Norris
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