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1st Thanksgiving turkey: Forensics of what went wrong?

post #1 of 17
Thread Starter 

For some insane reason, I offered to host Thanksgiving dinner this year. All things considered it went well, but I did have a problem with the turkey.

 

I followed Alton Brown's method of brining,  starting with a 500F oven for 30 minutes, covering the breast with the foil "turkey triangle" then taking it down to 350F until the heart of the breast meat reaches 161F. I let the breast get to 165F before taking it out.  The color was perfect and breast meat, wings, legs, etc. were cooked wonderfully, but to my horror, the lower portions of the bird were undercooked. Luckily we had plenty of breast meat sliced before getting down into the bird, so there was no contamination issue and we had plenty of meat to serve.

 

I shoved the bird back in the oven with a foil tent as soon as we completed carving to finish the cook and then made turkey soup with the remaining carcass today. FWIW, I followed proper sanitation rules with my workspace, cutting boards, utensils, etc., using bleach water spray between steps.

 

The bird thawed in the fridge for four days and brined an additional 24 hrs., also in the fridge.

 

The question is, "what happened"? Yes, I deviated from the recipe in the following ways:

 

1) I used my own brine recipe (different spices)

2) I dispensed with his single preheated apple and onion in the cavity and instead used "traditional" onions, carrots and celery.

3) I used a high sided disposable foil roaster and V rack I already had instead of a sheet pan and flat rack Alton uses.

4) I dispensed with the ice chest and ice water brine bath and went with straight cold liquid in a 5 gallon bucket in the fridge.

 

My theories are:

 

1) The veggies acted as a heat sink, preventing the bird from cooking properly.

2) The bottom rack location in my oven was too cool.

3) The bird wasn't completely thawed (seems unlikely, though it was 18 lbs).

 

The turkey, sides, etc were big hits, but I'd like to nail down what went wrong before abandoning the method and maybe switching to a "breast down" roast. No matter what I do next time, brining is the key.

 

 

Thanks,

 

Doug

 

 

 

 

post #2 of 17

What you have experienced is the problem everybody has with the understanding of how a turkey cooks.

Sure the BREAST was perfectly cooked but it is the dark meat of the bird that dictates when it's done.

The 165 you seek must come from the dark meat....(thigh area where it meets the drumstick.)

It could have been that your bird wasn't completely thawed yet but my money is with you procedures.

post #3 of 17

I recall that America's Test Kitchen dealt with this issue in a very clever manner.  After the bird was completely thawed they placed the turkey breast-side down into a bowl of ice so that the breast would get very very cold and thus would survive the longer cooking time required for the dark meat.

"You are what you eat, so don't be fast, cheap, easy, or fake."

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"You are what you eat, so don't be fast, cheap, easy, or fake."

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post #4 of 17

Next time, temp the breast, thigh (at the thickest part, next to the body but not touching the bone) AND stuffing before removing.  Stuffing should be over 140F for safety.

 

If the turkey is properly trussed, thighs and breasts cook at a similar rate in an even oven.  Trussing aside, most likely your oven is not even. 

 

One solution -- other than buying a new oven -- is to is to cook the turkey without stuffing and to rotate it during the cook.  Start with your bird back up, and don't turn breast up until the last hour or so.  This will make for a juicier turkey.   If you're super ambitious, you can do the full rotation. One side, the other, back and breast; I used to do that in my previous smoker, but my new one is much better tuned and doesn't require all the movement.  

 

If you've got room for a water pan in your oven (most of us don't for Thanksgiving), the humidity will help even out the heat and make your oven more efficient as well. 

 

Alton Brown is... well...

 

BDL

post #5 of 17
Thread Starter 

Thanks for the information.  I think I'll grab a pair of thermometers and flesh out the temperature gradient in my oven. I've never had issues with it before knowing it runs about 10F on the hot side, but this is the first time I've used the bottom rack position and cooked anything quite so voluminous in it.

 

Perhaps cooking inverted also helps since it puts the breast lower in the oven. I could also raise the rack a few notches as well.

 

I did poke the bird in various places and got 165 or better (the drumsticks were 175) , but I didn't poke between the thigh and drumstick, which was of course the problem area. Am I to believe that claims the breast will be a parched desert if I cook the bird based on dark meat temp are somewhat overblown? Especially if one goes through the trouble of brining? My understanding is/was that in a perfect world, the breast / white meat should cook to appox. 165 and dark meat to around 175-180.

 

EDITED TO ADD:  Thinking back when I was rinsing the turkey, the cavity did seem very cold; at least more so than the outer flesh. Chalk it up to my quasi-defective brain for not remembering this. I wonder if  compounding factors were causing my troubles.  [End Edit]

 

I saw Harold McGee mention somewhere he places ice packs on the breast before starting the cooking cycle; this seems a bit more manageable than hefting the bird into a bowl of ice water.

 

Shame on me for eschewing my normal behavior of researching the snot out of a recipe or technique before trying something new. Is it fair to say the basic premise of starting at 500F for 30 min then reducing to 350F is sound?

 

Though I'm thoroughly sick of my house smelling like turkey, I feel compelled to buy another one and try again to get it right.

 

Many thanks,

 

Doug

 


P.S.  BDL.  I had originally planned on flipping the bird during the roast, but the gloves I procured for handling hot foodstuffs turned out to be wholly unsuitable. Again, instead of my normal behavior of going to the local restaurant supply, I ordered a pair from Amazon. I'm unimpressed with "celebrity" endorsements, but never the less, what arrived bore "Steven Raichlen's" name. The gloves stunk of plasticisers so intensely that even after several thorough washes, I had to set them outside. They made my hands smell like plastic! I certainly wouldn't handle food with them and intend to send them back.

 


Edited by Phreon - 11/27/11 at 9:27am
post #6 of 17

If you're not required to present the roasted turkey as a grandiose display -- or if you have a reasonably deft hand with a knife -- you can go a long way toward solving your problem by cutting the knee in advance. Lay the bird on its back or side and feel for the knee joint from the inside. Insert the point of your knife into the middle of that joint, not penetrating all the way to the other side. Cut down until it partly releases, then reverse your knife and cut up. It's done when you can feel that the drumstick and thigh are not actually connected to one another by anything but skin and meat. Heat will penetrate much more quickly if you do this, which incidentally works very well with pretty much any roasted bird. If you're rather loosey-goosey (loosey-turkey?) with a knife, however, the final result will look a bit weird when presented, so this is not a good solution if you have to put the whole roasted turkey on the dinner table for everyone to pretend to admire.

post #7 of 17
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by ChrisLehrer View Post

If you're not required to present the roasted turkey as a grandiose display -- or if you have a reasonably deft hand with a knife -- you can go a long way toward solving your problem by cutting the knee in advance. Lay the bird on its back or side and feel for the knee joint from the inside. Insert the point of your knife into the middle of that joint, not penetrating all the way to the other side. Cut down until it partly releases, then reverse your knife and cut up. It's done when you can feel that the drumstick and thigh are not actually connected to one another by anything but skin and meat. Heat will penetrate much more quickly if you do this, which incidentally works very well with pretty much any roasted bird. If you're rather loosey-goosey (loosey-turkey?) with a knife, however, the final result will look a bit weird when presented, so this is not a good solution if you have to put the whole roasted turkey on the dinner table for everyone to pretend to admire.

 

Honestly, the leg and outer thigh were cooked just fine. The problem spot was the deep thigh area; would your technique help this? It seems counterintuitive based on my incomplete poultry knowledge. My knife skills are reasonable, but carving poultry is not my strong suit.

 

This also begs the question, "If the deep thigh area is slow to bring to temperature, isn't trussing the legs counterproductive"?

 

Bear in mind I avoided working with whole poultry for a long time and am quite the neophyte working with it. Cooking an 18 lb. turkey for Thanksgiving was ambitious on my part. Live and learn. At least I was able to salvage the the rest of the turkey and yielded 17 quarts of turkey soup.

 

Thanks,

 

Doug

 

post #8 of 17

I used to hit the back of the turkey on the edge of the sink and separate the leg/thigh from the breast as they are done at different times. Then roast the birds in high oven for about 20 minutes and turn it down to finish. If your basting use clarified butter because you don't want to steam it. That was production cooking and takes the fun out of stuffing it in a family setting. I saw someone do the breast down thing on the food channel and it looked like it came out great. Turkey's are a mess. I'm glad it's only once a year.

 

post #9 of 17

It's hard to figure out exactly what went wrong with your turkey, so I'm not going to try for a definitive solution.  

 

I've never heard of Chris's trick, never tried it, don't know anyone who has, Googled it and couldn't find it, and can't think of why it would work.  But that doesn't necessarily mean anything.  Quien sabe?  

 

The reason to truss the thighs close to the breast is to protect the thinner part of the breast, make a more compact and stable package, and generally even things out.  Regarding your experience, since the thighs are exposed, it shouldn't change their cook time by much one way or the other.  While it wouldn't hurt, it wouldn't help either. 

 

If you're going to continue to use the same oven, your best practices are to make sure the bird is thoroughly defrosted and to rotate it during the cook so each of the four sides is on top at least part of the time.  This is typical "French" technique, not that it's always done that way.  I'd used it for all kinds of birds, but never realized how well worked turkey until smoking multiple large turkeys in a very uneven smoker.  If you plan on trussing and rotating, let me know and I'll explain the specifics.

 

When rotating, the best technique is breast-up last, and for the least amount of time.  This not only protects the breast but uses gravity to help keep it juicier.

 

I don't like edwards's suggestion to partly carve before the bird is completely done, because when you cut hot you lose so much juice.  You might as well completely remove the leg quarters before cooking.  But again, my ways are not the only good ways. 

 

Carving used to be considered one of those skills which were hallmarks of gentlemen, but no matter how gentle, not many people are very good at it.  Carving the bird at the table, slicing the breast while the turkey is in one piece, is sometimes called "presentation carving." Breaking the bird, removing the breast, and carving it flat on the board is very popular right now, and sometimes called "the kitchen method."  I've used the kitchen method for years and consider it the fastest and easiest way, even for a fairly expert.  Besides we platter the meat for our buffet. 

 

BDL

post #10 of 17

Before the use of internal thermometers we used to stick the bird with an ice pick or skewer under where the leg bone starts to go into dark section. If the liquid that ran out were clear in most cases bird was done if slightly bloody, pink, or not clear it was not done.  Today with the fast breeding of all poultry, the bones do not have sufficient time to develop and regardless of what you do you will see a reddish hue. This does not mean bird is not cooked. Check with a thrmo if unsure putting it right next to this area and you will see 165: To cook more just assures drying up of bird. Many people I know have the bird ,and roast in 2 pieces.

Chef EdB
Over 50 years in food service business 35 as Ex Chef. Specializing in Volume upscale Catering both on and off premise .(former Exec. Chef in the largest on premise caterer in US  with 17 Million Dollars per year annual volume). 
      Well versed in all facets of Continental Cuisine...

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Chef EdB
Over 50 years in food service business 35 as Ex Chef. Specializing in Volume upscale Catering both on and off premise .(former Exec. Chef in the largest on premise caterer in US  with 17 Million Dollars per year annual volume). 
      Well versed in all facets of Continental Cuisine...

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post #11 of 17

It hardly seems fair to cook a whole turkey in two parts, not to stuff the bird, or to carve it in the kitchen.  Then what's the point?  Just get a couple of big thighs, which are really the only tasty and juicy part of them and cook those and bring carved to the table. 

I make a ton of things at my xmas party, many of them quite complex, but the thing people most ooh and aah at is the fact that i make a WHOLE turkey!  go figure, but it does have its appeal.  Look at the presentations in medieval manuscripts, where the bird, whatever it was, was presented cooked, but with all the feathers put back in place. Sometimes presentation is more than taste. 

"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
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"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
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post #12 of 17

Turkey's are a mess. I'm glad it's only once a year.

 

How sad that your feel that way. Turkey is an amazingly versitile protein. I look forward to this time of year precisely because the price bottoms out, and I can put two or three of them in the freezer to use during the year.

 

They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #13 of 17

My guess:

 

A deep pan as opposed to the shallow pan Alton specified in the technique. In the deeper pan, the turkey sits down inside the pan. This shields it from the heat, particularly as juices build up in the bottom of the pan. Those juices steam leaving a temp of maybe 250 around the bottom of the turkey. The shallower pan lets that lower temp area disperse and mix better as well as allowing hotter air in under the turkey.

 

I agree you may have overpacked the cavity compared to what Alton used. Hard to say without seeing both amounts.

 

How big was your turkey? I'm guessing you also used a larger turkey than Alton used?

Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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post #14 of 17

Maybe the best way to do it, is to give the turkey a victory lap around the house before carving and making the platter.  We leave ours (or at least one of them) on display on the side board until about 5 minutes before we're ready to serve.

 

The reason to "kitchen carve" is results.  Most people can't "presentation carve" without hacking the bird to death.  A nicely arranged and garnished platter of carved turkey is as attractive as a whole bird, and keeps the buffet line moving to boot.  Not only do few people even have sharp knives (by ordinary and not exalted standards), most folks wouldn't know what to do with them if they did; they need all of the help they can get.  Your house, your family, may be different... but I doubt it.

 

I agree that a whole bird makes a better presentation; and -- except in the case of really huge Turkeys.  I also think a whole bird cooks better than pieces, if you know how to do it. 

 

I'm not a big fan of Alton Brown (jealous maybe?), and admit to a certain amount of schadenfreude when and if one of his recipes goes awry.  On the other hand, I'm a big fan of everyone else and don't like it at all when a dish -- especially something as important as Thanksgiving turkey -- doesn't work. 

 

Since the usual problem is keeping the breast from cooking faster than the thighs, using a deep roaster instead of a shallow roaster with a rack would be counter-productive if it worked the way Phatch described.  Does anyone really still use them?  One thing in their favor is that they limit the size of the turkey, and the mid-sized birds seem to be easier to cook than the huge. 

 

As with so many other things, there are a lot of right ways to do this, and no need to reinvent the wheel. 

 

BDL

post #15 of 17

I used a deep roasting pan for a 21 pound bird this year. You have to turn the bird to get it to cook evenly.  Mirepoix and herbs in the cavity as well as in the pan bottom with some stock/water. 3 hours breast side down at 250. After those three hours, the turkey back should be medium golden to golden brown. Flip it breast up. Another hour at 250, then up to 400 and watch closely as breast should hit 160 about the same time the skin is perfect. Sometimes you need some tenting of the breast on the big birds as the breast extends nearer the top of oven where it;s hottest. Thighs will be 170 in the deepest point.

 

This technique and timing is only for large unstuffed birds, 18 pounds plus.

 

 

Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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post #16 of 17

I am talking commerscial application, not carving in front of the family in their dining room. We do not ever stuff turkeys

    Home however there is my wife and I . so no sense cooking whole bird. I run it down the bandsaw frozen then thaw in fridge then cook the half no waste  no 4 days of leftovers. I cook 1/2 Thanksgiving and other 1/2 some other time.  I have also seen turkeys split steamed and then browned and they are very juicy done this way. There are many ways to cook many things to each his own.

Chef EdB
Over 50 years in food service business 35 as Ex Chef. Specializing in Volume upscale Catering both on and off premise .(former Exec. Chef in the largest on premise caterer in US  with 17 Million Dollars per year annual volume). 
      Well versed in all facets of Continental Cuisine...

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Chef EdB
Over 50 years in food service business 35 as Ex Chef. Specializing in Volume upscale Catering both on and off premise .(former Exec. Chef in the largest on premise caterer in US  with 17 Million Dollars per year annual volume). 
      Well versed in all facets of Continental Cuisine...

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post #17 of 17
Thread Starter 

Wow, great information!

 

BDL,

 

I'll never exactly know what went wrong, but it seems like there were a few strong culprits. I don't blame Alton or his method since I deviated from it at my own peril. Regarding the specifics of trussing and rotating, I'll never turn down an offer of knowledge.

 

Siduri,

 

Honestly, in my family, presenting the bird was never really emphasized. It was always more about getting together and sharing good food. I suppose I could have just roasted cuts, but it's still a tradition for us to make a whole bird. Besides, it was a chance to try something new. A bit overly ambitious perhaps.

 

Phatch,

 

Yes, i probably deviated from Alton's method too much. The turkey was 18 lbs., I likely overloaded the cavity with mirepoix (and herbs), I used a deep roaster...  Plus, this was the first time I made anything sufficiently large to suffer the effects of uneveness in my oven.  I've never had issues before, but it's just a mid-range Maytag and I wouldn't argue it's likely not the most even oven around.

 

Et al.

 

Roasting a whole 18 lb. turkey as a first attempt was ambitious, let alone committing to preparing a complete dinner from scratch. Luckily, the partially undercooked turkey was the worst problem and wasn't a show stopper given how much breast meat we had. I'm pretty proud everything else went off without a hitch. Honestly, the cooking went like clockwork leaving only hosting duties a bit neglected. I had to eject family from my kitchen a few times, mainly because being built in 1915, it's small. I have to rely on rolling carts to supplement my counter space for big jobs and having things laid out for maximum efficiency is a must.  I have to say its a great feeling hearing people truly enjoy the fruits of my labor, even if I was exhausted by the end of the evening. And there's no better moment then when someone asks where you got a recipe and the answer is, "I made it up myself".

 

 

Thanks for the great advice, I'll practice on chickens before trying another Turkey. With leftovers and 17 qts. of soup, it'll take a while for turkey to stop coming out of my pores.

 

Doug

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