Thanksgiving is one of the most food-centered days of the year, and just about the only time for a Turkey to shine. In this post, we’ll help you with one of the key principles of turkey cooking that you need to get a perfect bird this year!
While you can find any number of turkey recipes with varying methods and flavors they all have one thing in common: making sure your turkey is properly cooked. And the thermal principles that we talk about here for cooking your turkey are applicable to any recipe.
Not Just One Thermometer
One thermometer is just not enough for perfectly cooked turkey. You need an oven-safe leave-in probe thermometer to track the temperatures during the cook and an instant read thermometer to verify doneness at the end. And to ensure that your leave-in thermometer is doing its job correctly, you need to make sure that your probe is in the right place.
The First Step: Accurate Probe Placement
For best results, insert your thermometer’s oven-safe probe ( a DOT® with a Pro-Series® High Temp Straight Penetration probe [included with every DOT]) into the deepest part of the turkey breast, avoiding bone. You want an even layer of meat above and below the probe so that it’s evenly surrounded by the meat.
Avoiding bones is important because bone has different thermal properties than meat. A probe resting against a bone will not give an accurate temperature reading for the meat itself. Plus the bones are not in the thermal center of the bird.
How to Place the Probe
- Insert the probe horizontally, from near the neck cavity.
- The probe’s tip should be about 1/2 to 1 inch (1.3 to 2.5 cm) from the internal cavity of the bird to avoid touching the bone.
With the probe in place, you’re ready to track the breast’s internal temperature during the cook. Remember that breast and leg meat should cook to different temperatures, but breast is the one that will dry out if overcooked. So make sure you temp that breast! If you want to learn more a bout how white and dark meat differ, read about it in our comprehensive turkey post.
To Place your Probe Correctly, Understand 3 Things:
1. Understand Temperature Gradients
Heat moves. Sounds obvious right? Maybe not. Because of the way that heat is transferred through substances, the outside of a turkey will be at a higher temperature than the inside. This difference in temperature between the exterior and interior of the meat is called a temperature gradient.
When cooking anything, the higher the temperature you cook at, the larger the temperature gradient inside the meat. That is, turkey cooked at 450°F [232°C] will have a larger band of overcooked meat around its edges than turkey cooked at 250°F [212°C]. —The Food Lab’s Step-by-Step Guide to Smoking A Turkey, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
Understanding temperature gradients leads to understanding proper probe placement: the thermal center.
2. Understand the Thermal Center
The thermal center is the point in any food (including turkey) that is furthest from the exterior of the meat and therefore takes the longest to cook.
The turkey’s breast is the largest mass on the bird, and the center of the breast in its thickest area is where the thermal center will be. This is where the temperature needs to be tracked during the cook because it will be coldest here and your meat is only as done and safe as the lowest temperature found.
3. Understand Your Thermometer’s Probe
For the most accurate probe placement, you need to understand your leave-in thermometer’s probe.
☼ Sensor location
- In the DOT’s probe (or any other Pro-Series probe), the sensor occupies only the very tip (within 1/8 of an inch [.3 cm]) of the end of the probe. A small sensor like that allows you to pinpoint your temperature taking.
☼ Minimum Immersion Depth
•Bi-metallic thermometers (dial thermometers) have a minimum insertion depth of up to 4 inches (10 cm). This is because their sensor is that long. And not only does this mean that incorrectly inserting it won’t get the whole sensor in the bird, it also means that you’ll be taking the average temperature all along the length of that sensor. That’s telling you practically nothing about the thermal center of your turkey. The tiny sensor of our leave-in probes can hit that thermal center almost exactly.
Turkey Cooking Challenges
We all want the same thing on Thanksgiving: a juicy, flavorful, picture-perfect turkey you can be proud to share with your loved ones. But most of us only cook a turkey once a year, making it difficult to get really good at making one in the first place. And cooking a whole turkey is actually a fairly complicated undertaking.
Turkey’s lack of uniformity doesn’t help anything, either! With two kinds of meat and a weird, uneven shape, it can be hard to get it just right. That’s why it’s so important to use your thermometers to cook your turkey. Placing a leave-in probe in the thermal venter of your turkey to track the temperature as you cook will help you get that bird out of the oven before it dries out. And using an instant-read thermometer like the Thermapen® to verify the doneness (maybe you didn’t quite hit the thermal center with the probe…) will ensure safety for your family.
So remember, no matter how you cook your turkey, roasted, smoked, deep-fried, or spatchcocked, the first and most important step to getting it just right is getting your probe in the right place.
Learn more about turkey…
Master the critical turkey temperatures and be your family’s Thanksgiving hero this year!