A Conventional Turkey Has Dark and White Meat, Two Kinds of Meat that Cook Differently.
How did this happen? In response to consumer demand turkeys have been developed and bred for their white meat, the turkey breast.
Conventional turkeys (Broad Breasted Whites) have distinctly separated white meat and dark meat. Both meats are muscle tissue and both contain the protein, myoglobin, which stores oxygen until the muscles need it for activity. When exercised regularly, muscles need more oxygen and develop more storage capacity; these muscles become dark meat.
Conventional turkeys exercise their legs just by standing and holding up their over-sized breast, so the legs become dark meat while the rest of the turkey stays mostly unexercised white meat.
Why does this matter? There is a notable difference in cooking times for dark and white meat. If you adjust cooking time to be sure the legs are done, the white meat will be overcooked and dry. Many methods have been attempted over the years to overcome this difficulty.
Cut Up the Turkey The easiest solution is to cut up the turkey before it is cooked. This way the dark and white meat can be cooked separately. An objection to this solution is that it leaves no turkey for presentation on the carving board - only pieces. Since presentation and carving of a whole turkey is a dramatic moment, albeit a last remnant of animal sacrifice before a major feast, it remains important to many people for special occasions.
Icing the Breast This has been recommended by Cooks Illustrated and by Harold McGee author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. To do this, put plastic bags filled with ice on the breast while the turkey is being warmed to room temperature. The breast stays cold while the rest of the turkey warms before you put it in the oven, so the legs get a head start when roasting. This helps the dark and white meat reach finishing temperatures closer to the same time.
Cheesecloth Method Covering the breast with cheesecloth as the bird is roasting seems to be falling out of favor. This was recommended in old copies of Joy of Cooking but is not included in the current version. The problem with this method is that you must baste and keep the cheesecloth moist. Constant opening of the oven makes the oven temperature fluctuate. This method can work well for very slow cooking methods such as barbecuing.
The Bacon Method Covering the breast with bacon as its being roasted may help, but it introduces another flavor.
Tenting with Foil Tenting the breast with aluminum foil works best to keep the breast from getting too dark (burning), but is less reliable for slowing down the cooking time of the breast.
Roasting Breast Side Down This technique can help. Roast the bird breast side down, then turn the turkey over (from breast side down to breast side up) midway during the cooking process. This method is good as long as you feel comfortable wrestling a large turkey onto its back. Be careful, things are hot! If your turkey is on a v rack the maneuver can be tricky, so find someone to help. Don't drop the bird!
One of our readers has sent information about how he handles turning the turkey and we found that it works very well. You can read about it here.
Finishing the Legs Separately Cook the turkey until the breast is done. Remove the legs and finish cooking them, then re-attach them for presentation. This method has been recommended by Julia Child and David Rosengarten among others.
Roasting from the Frozen State One recommended method
to overcome the difference in cooking times between the breast and legs
also makes cooking easy. With this approach you roast the turkey from
the frozen state. Since the legs (due to their mass) will defrost first,
they begin to cook before the breast does. The method is safe; just
add 50% to the total cooking time. The problem with this method is you
can't brine the bird first. One of our readers told us about a stuffed freezer to oven turkey from Butterball - but this technique works with any unstuffed turkey. For more information about cooking from the frozen state CLICK HERE.
Wild Turkeys and Heritage Turkeys Wild turkeys and heritage turkey have a more even distribution of dark and white meat so the need to adjust for differing cooking times is less of an issue with these birds.
Brining Turkeys Brining a turkey before cooking it introduces moisture into the breast which helps it to finish closer to the same time as the legs and it acts as a buffer so that if it is a little overcooked it remains juicy.