I slow roast my turkeys, and I think you should, too. Especially if you're cooking a big one.
It all started with chickens. Why, I wondered, are rotisserie chickens so much better than the ones I cook at home? Why do they pull apart into big delicious chunks of meat rather than being held together by tight, stringy pieces of connective tissue? Does the rotisserie have magical powers? Isn't it pretty much just a heat source with a rotating skewer? Gee, I thought, I know how to deal with connective tissue. Cook it low and slow, like a braise. So I cooked a chicken for 8 hours or so at 250 (without any liquid, in a regular roasting pan). The skin was definitely not great, but the meat was epic. Incredibly tender, and the juiciest roast chicken I'd ever made. Why don't people do this? I wondered. What an unimaginable travesty that most people cook their roast chickens at 350 or 450. I can't find any evidence that salmonella makes a heat-resistant spore or toxin, but I think part of the reason is that people are concerned about food safety. Also, nobody likes rubbery, anemic chicken skin.
It was the Amish who solved the food safety problem and the disappointing skin problem in one fell swoop: start the turkey in a hot oven and then turn it down before the meat gets hot enough to start losing moisture or toughening up. I cooked this year's 20-ish pound work-turkey at 450 for an hour, then 250 for 7 hours. It was . . beyond words: picture-perfect brown on the outside (I didn't take a picture, because I am dumb) and just shy of fall-apart tender on the inside: you could slice it into nice-looking pieces, but you could cut it with a fork once it was on your plate. I think the slow roasting gives good results for two main reasons. First, protein gets tough at high temperature. Second, you lose less moisture as steam. Basic science tells us that temperature is the average kinetic energy. In a hotter oven, the distribution of kinetic energy is less even. In, say, a 350 degree oven, when the probe tells you it's 160 or 165 inside, in small spots, especially near the surface, it's much hotter than that. Not only do the hot spots get tough, but the temperature inside the turkey doesn't have time to equalize before the moisture molecules evaporate out of the turkey. The bigger the bird, the worse the effect. In a 250 degree oven, you get less of that phenomenon. It seems strange, but you can cook the turkey to temperatures that by intuition should result in a dessicated, horrible bird- think 200 degrees internal- and instead end up with a bird that's moister than a bird cooked to 160 using the normal methods. One could argue that this method is safer- it takes almost 165 degrees to be sure the bacteria are dead, but you can't cook it extra in a hot oven because you'll dry out the breast. With slow roasting, every nook and cranny of the bird is well over 165, and for a longer time. One caveat, though, is to suck out the juices from the bottom of the pan now and then. By the same logic that the moisture evaporates out of the turkey less, it travels less distance from the turkey before cooling back to liquid, and so it pools in the pan. Too much moisture in the pan will make the bottom of the turkey soggy, and will hinder the browning of your drippings. A side benefit of this method is that you have at least a good hour where the turkey is perfect, and it doesn't need to rest quite as long when taken out of the oven. This results in more flexibility with your meal time.
This sermon ends with a call to action. I believe deep in my gut that this is how poultry was meant to be roasted, and I want the world to know. I'm not a religious gal, but this, this was preordained. Roasting a turkey in an unusual method probably sounds scary- it would be horrible if you ruined an expensive turkey and didn't have one to serve at Thanksgiving dinner. So, how about a baby step? How about slow roasting a chicken some time this week? It'll mean a late dinner if you're starting it after work, but remember that you can cook it in a 450 degree oven until the temperature is 100 or so, and then turn the oven down to 250 and let it work its magic. I think once is all it will take to get you hooked. If you've read this far, you have my sincerest respect, and I hope you'll join the revolution.
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