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Slow roasting the turkey: a homily

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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  1. i'm not a religious gal either, but you held me until the end! and you're not alone - fellow Hounds have voiced their appreciation in the past for low & slow turkey:
    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/335611

    i know ATK/CI did a feature on it once too. if i was doing a whole bird this year and not just a breast, i'd join the revolution ;)

    3 Replies
    1. re: goodhealthgourmet

      :-)

      I guess I should clarify that I discovered it in the Columbus sense. . .

      And should maybe also add, after reading lots of safety concerns on the linked thread, that there are options. You might want to turn down the oven when a chicken gets to 100 inside, because it heats up so fast, but with a big turkey, you can probably go to 120 or 140 before you turn down the oven, to no ill effects. So, you can leave it at 450 for extra time and cover it, or keep it at 350 for a while afterwards, and probably be in the danger zone for the same amount of time as you would cooking it through at 350, or not much longer. The 450 for an hour then 250 was born of the fact that I had to start it in the middle of the night to be ready at lunchtime, and was too lazy to wake up any more times to cover/uncover it or change the oven temperature.

      1. re: jvanderh

        I guess I should clarify that I discovered it in the Columbus sense. . .
        ~~~~~~~
        i hope you didn't take my post the wrong way! i meant it as a positive thing, to point out that you're in good company.

        as for the safety concerns, i'm in the camp that it's not much of an issue if you're smart about it. maybe this will make some of the more conservative cooks feel better:
        http://www.hi-tm.com/Documents/Turkey...

        1. re: goodhealthgourmet

          No offense taken, ghg.

          That was an interesting read. C. Perfringens is a nasty, horrible bugger- it's been tormenting my fella's dog for months and months. It took four antibiotics to kick it- I'm not surprised it can survive in a turkey *shudder*

    2. I am in sync with you on the slow roasting method but there's a couple of points you may want to re-evaluate.
      The rotisserie chicken you get from the supermarket "take out" is slow roasted but it is also on a rotisserie and that promotes a more even distribution of moisture in the meat during he cooking process.
      Most of the moisture lost from your bird remains in the baking vessel as drippings. From there, as its temperature increases, it will begin to evaporate. Moisture lost as steam is lost to either the outside environment (oven vent) or condensed to find its way to the baking vessel along with the drippings that don't evaporate. The moisture inside the bird can only be lost as steam if the inside of the bird reaches 212 degrees at sea level.
      The center of the breast at the minimum temperature of 160 degrees will mean, as you stated, that the meat closer to the surface is at a somewhat higher temperature, but I've never found a better method for determining when the bird was ready for removal from the oven so using a digital thermometer is all I can offer as advice to my students.
      Although I would agree with your statement "... protein gets tough at high temperature", once it gets past that temperature the fibers tend to relax (think braise) as the gelatinous molecules do their magic. I believe you make that point with "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."
      Thanks for sharing what you learned from your experiences; and I enjoy your style of writing.

      1 Reply
      1. re: todao

        "The moisture inside the bird can only be lost as steam if the inside of the bird reaches 212 degrees at sea level." ... Not true. You will lose some moisture due to evaporation and the closer you are to the boiling point, which varies mostly based on altitude above sea level, the more moisture will be lost due to evaporation. If you doubt this, place a glass of water on your counter and check back in a few days and you will find that water does indeed evaporate at room temperature.

        Killing bacteria is a necessity when cooking poultry and the temperature necessary varies based on the bacteria. For example, Salmonella is killed by heating it to 131 degrees for one hour, 140 degrees for 1/2 hour, or heating it to 167 degrees for 10 minutes. I've seen some people who advocate cooking the Turkey to an internal temperature of 155-160 and then letting it rest for a short time as it continues to cook while you're finishing the prep/plating. As a general rule, it's unwise to leave meat between 40-140 for an extended period of time (more than two hours) as it gives bacteria a chance to grow, if any exists.

        I've eaten very slowly cooked beef at 120F for 24 hours and it was the most tender and moist I've ever eaten but I would use high quality beef for this ... like the type of beef used for steak tartar (which I would never recommend or do for any type of poultry).

      2. <<<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.>>>

        I really want to try this on my bird this year but I am not sure I understand this part.
        I need to manage my "oven time". In the standard 350 degree method, it is pretty easy to figure out how long it will take- and you can take it out a little early and let it rest for an hour while using the oven for the other dishes.

        With this method.......???? Does the Turkey NOT need to rest? Does it matter if you leave it to rest on the counter anyway -so you can have the oven back? At 250 degrees, is there a hour per pound formula?

        Thanks for your post!

        1 Reply
        1. re: sedimental

          Cool, a potential convert! I planned on a good couple hours more than if you were to cook it at 350 throughout. I cooked my 20 lb turkey at 450 uncovered for one hour and 250 covered for seven more. The nice thing is that you can tweak it based on the time you have, because it's really only the oven temp toward the end of the cooking time that matters- just cover if it gets too brown. We ate it about 40 minutes after it came out, and it was definitely still hot. If you're making a much smaller one, an hour of resting might be too long. I might wrap a towel around the roasting pan or something to hold in some heat, or plan to cook it in big heavy cast iron.

        2. I do the reverse - low slow roast at 250 or so, breast down. Then flip it, and continue slow and slow for a while until it's nearly cooked. Then baste with butter or ghee and roast at 400 until skin is done.

          And I brine the turkey for 12-24 hours with kosher salt before roasting. Simple and easy. Usually I also stuff the turkey with homemade stuffing but that's optional.

          1. Interestingly, I got this in my email the other day and thought I'd give it a try: slow cooker turkey http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/slow-coo... Since I have an old 1-temp Crock Pot, I will start it in the oven for an hour, then go to the Crock Pot -- I'll use the crock in the oven then transfer to its heater.

            5 Replies
            1. re: travelerjjm

              I think that technique sounds good, but are you using the small 6 lb turkey breast they describe? That sounds like way too much time, since a crock pot on low is around 250F, and I cooked a 20lb turkey in that time. I think it would be falling apart completely.

              1. re: jvanderh

                I was thinking of putting a remote probe thermometer in and seeing how it goes. My turkey breast is a bit bigger than theirs I think. I also think my cooker runs closer to 200 or less -- I live at 8500ft and it takes a while to get water to boil (196). But yeah, it sounded like a long time.

                1. re: travelerjjm

                  I think an hour in the oven is too long, too. I'd go until it looks nicely browned or until it's 100F inside, whichever comes first. I think that will be more like 30 or 40 minutes. This is a bone-in, skin-on breast, right? Slow roasting is no good with really lean, well-trimmed meat. If your eating time is flexible, it sounds like a great experiment.

              2. re: travelerjjm

                To report back: The Crock Pot was about a half inch too small in diameter, so I did it in the oven. About 60 mins at 300, then about six hours at 200, until it reached 170F. My wife said "wow, turkey I actually *like*!" To be fair, she liked my smoked turkey, too, but otherwise she is not a turkey lover.