One of the most challenging aspects of cooking a whole turkey is that there are two distinct types of meat that need to be cooked to different doneness temperatures—and all the meat is supposed to be ready at the same time! We have the thermal tips you need to ensure your turkey’s dark and white meat will be at their tender, juicy best on Thanksgiving Day.
The Difference Between White and Dark Meat in Turkey
The differences between white and dark turkey meat are similar to the differences between a tenderloin steak and a brisket. Can you imagine trying to cook each at the same time? Thinking of cooking a turkey with that perspective, it’s no wonder that breast meat is often overcooked and dry, and the leg meat can be tough. The difference lies in the type of muscle that each is, and how it’s used on the animal.
➤ Breast Meat: Fast Twitch Muscle
Fast twitch muscles contract quickly and are meant for short bursts of energy, not constant activity. It’s typically more tender and lean, without a high amount of connective tissue. Since turkeys are flightless birds, their breast meat is white rather than dark like the breast meat of a duck or goose.
Prolonged cooking can result in dry, tough white meat. For best results, fast twitch muscle meat should be cooked to its pull temperature (157°F [69°C]), and not a degree higher.
➤ Thigh and Leg Meat: Slow Twitch Muscle
Slow twitch muscles are from heavily-worked areas of the animal and are designed for constant, extended periods of activity. They are well-oxygenated and darker than breast meat with more collagen-rich connective tissue.
The web of connective tissue in the muscle needs to be cooked to and held in a higher temperature range (175-180°F [79-82°C]) to properly dissolve—helping the tough protein become tender.
Once dissolved the connective tissue unwinds, turning into gelatin. This process of connective tissue turning into gelatin is what gives tough, slow twitch muscle meats (like pork shoulder and brisket) their silky, succulent texture.
☼ Did You Know? Gelatin can absorb up to 10 times its weight in liquid.
Dark meat is perfectly safe to eat once it has reached 165°F (74°C). But optimizing your cooking method to reach a higher temperature range will improve its texture dramatically for a better eating experience.
Different Pull and Doneness Temperatures
- White Meat Pull the white meat at 157°F (69°C), so it will come to a final resting temperature of at least 165°F (74°C).
- Dark Meat The higher temperature range of 175-180°F (79-82°C) allows the connective tissues to dissolve, and turn the tough meat into tender and silky meat. The legs and thighs are smaller than the breasts, and will not experience as much carryover cooking (food retains heat and continues to cook even after being removed from the source of heat). Temperatures 5-10°F (2-5°C) above 175°F (79°C) will not harm the dark meat.
Different Oven-Roasting Methods
To prevent a turkey with dry breast meat, it must be pulled from the oven at 157°F regardless of the dark meat’s internal temperature. To achieve the end goal of tender, juicy breast meat and silky, succulent dark meat, the internal temperature in the thighs needs to be at least 175°F by the time the breast meat reaches 157°F. To help alleviate the challenge of cooking to completely different types of meat at the same time, there are different methods, tips, and techniques that have been developed by chefs and food science experts. And we tried them all!
1. Deconstructing the Bird
- Cooking White and Dark Meat Separately
- Breaking down your turkey and cooking the breasts separately from the legs allows you to more easily control how each type of meat is cooked. The most obvious drawback to this deconstructed cooking method is that you won’t have a traditional whole turkey to present to your guests at the table.
- Many experts recommend this method for speed in cooking and the meat’s doneness temperatures. The turkey becomes more uniform in thickness, and there is maximum exposure with the legs. ➤ To learn more about this technique, read out post, Spatchcocked: Roast Your Turkey in Record Time!
2. Keeping the Turkey Whole
There are a few different tips and techniques of cooking a whole turkey to keep the breast meat tender and juicy, while allowing the legs to come up to their best temperature range to dissolve connective tissue.
- Do Not Truss Legs
- Leave the legs open to expose more of their surface area to the heat. Trussing makes them more compact, shielding them from cooking quickly.
- Icing the Breasts
- Allow the raw bird to rest at room temperature while icing the breasts. This method, recommended by Harold McGee, gives the dark meat a thermal head start.
- Periodically replace the ice bags with fresh ice to keep the breast meat’s internal temperature at 40°F (4°C) or below. The turkey can safely be left on the counter at room temperature for four hours (and no longer) prior to cooking. The turkey should then be cooked immediately.
- Tenting with Foil
- Alton Brown recommends covering the breasts with heavy duty foil to shield them from the heat keeps the white meat from overcooking while the leg meat cooks.
- Roasting Upside Down
- In this method the breast meat is shielded from being exposed to direct ambient heat while the legs are more exposed to the heat, helping them to cook faster. The turkey is flipped over breast-side-up during the last part of the cook to allow the skin to brown. The experts at America’s Test Kitchen recommend this method.
Starting the bird breast side down shields the white meat from oven heat and helps solve the fundamental problem with cooking any bird—dark meat should be heated to a higher internal temperature than white meat. To crisp the skin on the breast, turn the bird breast side up for the second half of the roasting. —The Science of Good Cooking, Cook’s Illustrated, pg. 104
- Baking steel or stone
- Preheating a baking steel or stone will create a radiant heat source directly below the bird, helping the legs to reach their appropriate temperature faster. Kenji from SeriousEats recommends this method for cooking whole birds. Preheat the oven to 550°F (260°C) (or as high as it will go) with the baking stone for an hour, then reduce the temperature to 300°F (149°C) once the turkey goes in.
☼ Turkey Tip: Roasting Pans with High Sides
…they shield the underside of the bird, preventing it from browning and crisping, but they also shield the legs—the very part you want to cook fastest! A much better tool for roasting a turkey is a plain old aluminum half sheet pan with either a wire rack or a v-rack set in it. —The Food Lab’s Definitive Guide to Buying, Prepping, Cooling, and Carving Your Holiday Turkey, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
In Our Demo Kitchen
To prevent dry breast meat, the turkey must be pulled from the oven at 157°F (69°C) regardless of the dark meat’s internal temperature. The goal is for the dark meat to have effectively dissolved its connective tissue by reaching an internal temperature of about 175°F (79°C) by the time the breast meat needs to be pulled from the oven. We always use Butterball turkeys in our kitchen. They are pre-brined, helping to ensure a juicy, flavorful bird. This year we’ve cooked over 20 of them with each of the well-vetted techniques listed above. All had an impact on the turkey’s rate of cooking and the final quality of each type of meat.
➤ For each project, we used our new dual-channel oven thermometer, Smoke™. It was ideal because we could simultaneously track the internal temperature in both areas of the turkey with one thermometer. We used the high temp cooking probe in the breast, and the shorter, finer needle probe in the thigh.
Our Best Turkey Cook Results!
3We found that a method combining 1) icing the breasts while the turkey sits on the counter, 2) using a preheated baking stone in the oven, and 3) keeping the legs open rather than trussed, resulted in a turkey with the different pull temperatures we were looking for. In other words, perfectly tender and juicy breast meat with silky dark meat…success! Why it works:
- Icing the breasts lowered the white meat’s temperature by about 15°F (8°C) compared to the dark meat before the turkey went into the oven. With the breast meat’s temperature so much lower than the legs, the breast meat took about an hour longer than it normally would to reach its ideal pull temperature. Giving the dark meat more time to reach the higher temperature range necessary for its connective tissue to dissolve.
- The preheated baking stone maintained steady radiant heat close to the legs, helping them reach their higher temperature.
- And finally, keeping the legs open rather than trussed also helped ensure the dark meat had ample heat transfer on all sides.
Smoke isn’t just for backyard cookouts—it’s a lifesaver when you need to monitor temps in more than one area. Tracking the internal temperature is crucial to the success of your turkey, and Smoke’s wireless receiver makes it easy.
Learn more about turkey…
Master the critical turkey temperatures and be your family’s Thanksgiving hero this year!