Notes on Cooking Turkey and Other Poultry by Kimber Herron

There are numerous ways and methods of cooking poultry.  Frying, baking, boiling, grilling, smoking, roasting, stewing, and fricassee are just a few of the obvious methods.  For Thanksgiving most Americans cook their turkeys in the oven.  Although often referred to as ‘roasting’, oven cooking is actually a type of baking.  True roasting involves cooking the bird in front of an open flame or over hot coals, or gas burner.  This set of notes will cover the problems and compromises of cooking whole poultry in the typical oven.  If time permits, we may discuss some techniques of true roasting, which requires a fair amount of skill and experience to successfully  employ.

The cooking of a whole bird involves making some compromises in the outcome of the quality of the finished meat.  On a present-day, hybridized turkey or chicken, one has a very large and tender breast of white muscle adjoining a large pair of legs, consisting of chewy connective tissue and dark muscle.  The breast meat is best cooked to around +160oF; the leg meat needs to be finished around 165oF*.  Most of us have the experience of knowing that when the legs are ‘done’, that is, when they move freely, and the ‘juices run clear’, we almost always have an overcooked breast.  This is often true even in industrially produced birds that have had a brine solution injected into the breasts.  A purist’s solution would be to separate the breast from the carcass, and cook the breast to the desired perfection under lower heat and for shorter duration.  Unfortunately, this would destroy our romantic associations and imagery of whole stuffed birds at Thanksgiving.  By using a few well-chosen techniques, we can cook a whole bird towards that goal of perfection–tender, flavorful breast meat with well-cooked and tender leg and thigh meat.

*Temperature ranges for cooking.
The USDA’s suggestions for doneness of poultry range up to 1800F.  Poultry is most certainly overcooked at this temperature.  The USDA’s  sole motivation is to prevent liability  with a too large margin of error.   ≳160oF is sufficiently high to destroy disease causing bacteria.  You also need to know the source of your bird, and you need to be aware of proper handling instructions.  The USDA’s recommendations have nothing to do with proper cooking technique nor proper culinary needs, that is, taste.


BARDING and ICE CHILLING –  Techniques for preventing overcooked breast meat on whole poultry.

Barding with bacon or thin pieces of fatback, and ice chilling the breast, are techniques used to retard overcooking and drying of breast meat during the period required to fully cook leg meat for whole poultry.  Barding can be kept on the breast during the entire cooking period.  Ice chilling involves placing an ice pack on the poultry breast for about 30 minutes, or more, prior to cooking.   Basting is used as an evaporative method of protecting the breast, but does not provide a physical barrier between the hot oven air and the breast skin.  During previous historical periods,  oil-soaked paper and fat-soaked heavy cloth(something like unbleached muslin) were used as barding for poultry breasts.

At what temperature should I set my oven for poultry?

Low Temperatures.  ~250oF  Low temperatures imply long cooking times.  You have no surface browning,  but do have uniform doneness.  This is good for tough cuts of meat in order to dissolve collagen into gelatin.

High Temperatures.  ≳400oF   High temperatures produce browning(Maillard) reactions, short cooking times, and high moisture loss.  Good for thin cuts of meat in order to obtain nice crusty flavors on exterior, with interior cooked to desired doneness.

Best Compromise for Whole Poultry  Two-stage cooking process.

I.) Initial high temperature for browning(Maillard) reactions.  400oF – 450oF.
Time required?  Until the browning meets your requirements.  Probably no more than 45 minutes.

II.)  Turn down oven to the 325oF – 350oF range for the remainder of the cooking period.  There will be some browning during this period as well.

How long do I cook my stuffed poultry?

There is no closed mathematical method for predicting doneness.  There are the usual rules of thumb for estimating the process:  15-20 minutes/pound for birds over 6 pounds.  20-25 minutes /pound for birds under 6 pounds.  Add 5 minutes/pound if the poultry is stuffed.  As you close in on finish time you’ll need to use a thermometer to monitor temperature rise at center of meat(legs or breast or stuffing).  In general, 20 minutes/pound ,plus the 5 minutes/pound with stuffing, is a fairly good approximation with which to estimate cooking times for poultry.

Example:  12 pound Turkey with Stuffing.
12 pounds x 20 minutes/pound = 12 x 20 = 240 minutes or 4 hours for the estimation @ 325oF – 350oF, including the initial high-temperature browning period.     Add the 5 minutes/pound for the stuffing:  5 x 12 = 60 minutes.   This will give a total time of about 5 hours.  Insert the digital thermometer at 3 1/2 to 4 hours, and monitor until correct temperature is achieved(1600F for breast, 1650F for stuffing and  1650F – 1700F for center of leg).

Note:  If you are cooking a heritage breed or wild foul, the smaller breasts of those birds will have to be treated with even more care than those of the commercial breeds.  Shorter cooking times and thicker barding may be in order.

Preparation of bird prior to setting in oven.
*Rinse bird with clean water inside and out.
* Salt cavity if you wish.  Not all cooks/chefs agree on this point.
*Bard breast with cold bacon or thin pork fat sheets.
*Allow bird to sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes in covered pan with ice packs on barding(which is attached to the breast).
*Fill cavities with stuffing and truss bird at the end of 30 minutes.
*Stuffing should always be added just prior to cooking!!!
*Place bird in pan–not covered–and then into high temperature oven.
Turn oven down to moderate heat after 30 or 40 minutes, depending upon heat retention capabilities of your oven.  Highly insulated ovens need to be turned down sooner. Trial your oven temperature drop before the day of your meal.
Use the high temperature browning period as part of your time calculation.

Reference: McGee, H.  On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.  New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004

Notes on Stuffing, Dressings, Forcemeat

*No hard and fast rules regarding proportions of ingredients.

*Allow ~1/2 cup of forcemeat per pound of poultry.

*Ingredients such as sausage, or other raw pork, should be cooked to doneness before including with the stuffing in the whole bird.

*Never pack the poultry cavity tightly.  Need to allow for expansion and lightness of dressing.

*Mix up dressing just before cooking bird, unless refrigerated without meat.

*Only stuff bird at the time of cooking!!

*Stuffing is ‘done’ around 1650F.

*Remove all forcemeat from cavities at carving time, after bird has rested for the required amount of time.