You’ve likely heard experts say that you should never stuff a turkey.
Either the stuffing will turn out perfectly and the breast meat will be dry, or the meat will be perfectly juicy but the stuffing will be undercooked and soggy. Worse still, with all the juices from the turkey moistening the stuffing, it needs to reach an internal temperature of 165ºF (74ºC) to be safe to eat! Undercooked stuffing is a serious food safety hazard. And the stuffing is the last thing to come to temperature.
You can always cook your stuffing separately, but then it isn’t infused with all the delicious flavors from the turkey. What to do?! Hardly any Thanksgiving table is complete without stuffing.
Have Your Stuffing and Eat it Too
Fortunately, the traditional Thanksgiving presentation with stuffing inside the bird is both delicious and safe when done properly. It just requires a little extra preparation. Here’s what to do:
Preheat the Stuffing
The key to safe stuffing is, actually, far simpler than you might think–just heat the stuffing before you put it in the turkey. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats presents this solution in his new book The Food Lab.
By preheating the stuffing you jump-start the cooking process. But how do you heat the stuffing and transfer it to the turkey’s cavity without cooling it down, or burning your fingers in the process? Again, it’s easy.
1. Line the Cavity:
Lay out 2-3 layers of cheesecloth approximately 2 feet by 4 feet, and line the turkey’s cavity (as pictured). Once the turkey is lined, fill the bird completely with the cold stuffing. Once it’s full, tie off the cheesecloth pouch and trim off any excess cheesecloth. Voila! You’ve created a little sack of stuffing that perfectly fits the shape and size of your turkey, and the stuffing will stay in a compact little space. You won’t have to worry about making a mess or cooling down the stuffing by moving it back and forth.
2. Preheat the Pouch:
The easiest way to heat up the stuffing is in the microwave. Place the pouch of stuffing on a microwave safe plate and microwave for about 7-10 minutes until the center of the stuffing reaches 180-190ºF (82-88ºC) when checked with your Thermapen®. (Thanks to our friend, Kenji Alt-Lopez for verifying the proper preheating temperature of the stuffing). The temperature of the stuffing will actually cool dramatically during the first half of your turkey’s cook because of the frigid temperature of the turkey surrounding it. But this initial burst of heat will keep your stuffing pouch warm enough to reach its target temperature at just about the same time as the turkey around it.
3. Return Stuffing to the Bird:
The stuffing pouch will be quite hot, use tongs to return it to the turkey cavity, and prepare your turkey for roasting as usual. We placed our turkey on a v-shaped roasting rack and placed it on a sheet pan, then rub a compound herb butter under and on top of the turkey’s skin. (Don’t forget to properly place your ChefAlarm’s probe in the deepest part of the breast.)
Place the stuffed turkey into the oven and roast until you reach your target internal temperatures in the breast (157ºF [69ºC]) and leg (175ºF [79ºC]). Use a Thermapen to test the internal temperature of your stuffing. Depending upon the method of your turkey cooking (lower temperature methods won’t experience as much carryover cooking after the turkey is removed from heat), your stuffing pouch will need to read 157ºF (69ºC) or higher for it to reach a safe resting temperature of at least 165°F (74°C).
4. Finishing the Stuffing:
If you like crispy bits of stuffing, simply cut open the cheesecloth pouch near the end of the cook to allow the some of the stuffing to crisp up with more direct exposure to heat. You can also remove the pouch and empty the stuffing onto a greased or parchment-lined pan and bake for another 5 minutes or so if you would prefer a drier stuffing (or if you have to pull your turkey meat before the stuffing is completely up to temperature). Return the stuffing to the bird when you are done (the pouch makes this easy).
5. Rest the Meat:
Remember to let your turkey rest, just like any other cooked meat. After removing your turkey from the oven, let it rest for about 20-30 minutes before carving and serving. This gives you time to remove the cheesecloth pouch and scoop the stuffing back into the bird, if you like.
Our Turkey Cook:
- We used an approximately 12 pound Butterball turkey (Butterballs are pre-brined), and rubbed an herb butter under and on the outside of the skin after completing the stuffing pouch and tying the legs. We used Kenji López-Alt’s recipe for Sage and Sausage Stuffing from SeriousEats.com.
- We started the oven temperature at 500ºF (260°C), and dropped it to 325ºF (163°C) just after as we put the turkey into the oven. The high start temperature helped to crisp the skin. Our turkey took 3 hours to reach its target pull temperature of 157ºF (69ºC).
Preheating the stuffing works. Our stuffing was ready just when the bird was done. The meat was tender and juicy, the skin was brown and crisp, and the stuffing was both beautiful and infused with the natural aromas and juices of the turkey.
Go for a traditional Thanksgiving this year. Stuff your bird! Just remember to do it safely.