How to cook a turkey that actually tastes good
Keep your bird from being sad and dry.
I’m here to tell you a secret about cooking turkey: You’re probably doing it wrong. Put away the deep fryer and throw out your roasting pans, people. It’s time to spatchcock. (Side note: If you absolutely insist upon deep frying a bird, here’s our guide to doing so without deep frying your hands and setting your house on fire.)
If you make a habit of surfing the world wide web, you’ve probably heard of spatchcocking already. In fact, you might be irritated by all the buzz. But it’s not hipster nonsense, friends. It’s science.
Your turkey roasting woes boil down to a few simple factors: Shape and muscle. When you pop a whole turkey into the oven, you’re essentially trying to cook an 18-pound sphere of meat (if the thought of a giant meat-sphere just turned you off of turkey forever, consider having an eco-friendly meal instead). The meat in the center of a sphere is going to take a much longer time to heat up than the meat on the outside. Even if every part of the turkey needed to reach the same exact temperature, you’d be screwed: By the time the inside is done, the outside is dried out at best and burnt at worst. That’s why turkey has a reputation for being such a dry, subpar poultry.
But it gets worse, because the muscle fibers of your fowl are working against you. Dark and light meat are actually made of entirely different kinds of muscle. The light breast meat is muscle powered by glycogen (a carbohydrate) while dark meat in the wings and such is designed to run on fat. The legs of a turkey are supposed to reach a higher temperature than the breast, because it takes longer for enough of the proteins to break down in order to make the meat tender. But if you heat meat for too long, the proteins coagulate and get dry and chewy. If you roast a turkey whole, the dark meat is stuck under the rest of the bird, doomed to heat up more slowly than the cursed white meat. So the meat that needs the most heat is getting the least heat, and by the time you get it up to snuff the breast is doomed.
Spatchcocking changes the thermodynamics of turkey roasting by turning that spheroid of frozen poultry into a (relatively) flat, rectangular surface. In doing so, you’ll cut cook time down to just over an hour (yes, really) and end up with a better bird to boot. And meanwhile, those pesky dark wings are taken out of hiding—they’re totally exposed to your oven’s heating element. They’ll cook up nice and fast, long before the breast starts complaining.
Food scientist J. Kenji López-Alt explained the logic of spatchcocking thusly in an article for Digg. “First, all of the skin is exposed to the full heat of the oven the whole time. There is no skin hiding underneath, no underbelly to worry about,” he wrote. “Second, there is ample room for the rendering fat to drip out from under the skin and into the pan below. This makes for skin that ends up thinner and crisper. Finally, all of that dripping fat distributes heat energy over the meat as it cooks, both helping it to cook more evenly and creating a temperature buffer, protecting the meat from drying out.”
So how is it done? You can follow this guide by López-Alt, but it’s even simpler than it looks. All you have to do is remove the turkey’s backbone and press it down flat, as shown in the image above.
You might have to jump up and down a little to get the force you need to crack the turkey’s ribs, but pretty much anyone can do it with a halfway decent pair of scissors and a little moxie. Bonus: It feels really, really badass to remove a turkey’s spinal column. And it makes for some excellent gravy. If you’re worried you’re missing some of the requisite cooking tools, we’ve got you covered with quick-shipping options.
American University chemist Matthew Hartings recommends starting with a dry-brine. Coating your turkey with a load of salt further interferes with pesky protein coagulation, so it keeps the inner meat juicy while helping to dry out and crisp up the skin. If you love in-bird stuffing, you’re in luck: It’s actually easier to cook stuffing safely and deliciously with a spatchcocked turkey. Just pile it onto the pan you’re using, put down some kind of rack or wire grate, and plop the flattened bird on top. You’ll get super fatty dressing without having to worry that the bird’s chest cavity is staying cool enough to foster dangerous bacteria growth.
When your bird is blissfully cooked—in half the time, no less—just carve it up before bringing it to the table. You might miss the showy presentation of a traditionally cooked turkey, but once you taste the results you’ll never go back.
With your spectacularly spatchcocked turkey and your fantastically flaky pie crusts, you’ll be stuck hosting Thanksgiving every year.