“Cooking a whole turkey is a classic example of trying to do three competing things that are somewhat contradictory,” says Chef and Modernist Cuisine Co-Author, Chris Young. “You’re trying to cook the breast to one temperature so it remains juicy. You want a higher temperature and longer cooking time to make the legs tender enough so they’re not tough and chewy, and you want crispy skin that requires high cooking temperatures.” According to Young, the lore surrounding traditional turkey tips—brining, cooking at different temperatures, flipping the bird, covering the breast with foil—is all based on bits of truth, but none of the methods really get to the heart of the problem.
Young’s solution to a (near) perfect Thanksgiving turkey is a combination of Chinatown ingenuity and a two-step cooking process. To ensure crispy skin, Young separates skin from flesh—as he would treat a Peking duck—by (intimately) running his hands under every inch of the turkey skin. “You would be surprised how far you have to get your hands into this bird,” he says. He also dries the bird, uncovered, for three days in the walk-in.
To achieve tender legs and succulent breasts, he splays the turkey (no trussing allowed) and hangs it from the top of a combi oven, cooking it on low heat for six or more hours. The gentle heat keeps the breasts moist, and by pulling the legs away from the breasts, the limbs receive more heat from the oven, helping to break down and tenderize the tendons. When the turkey comes to temperature, Young removes it from the oven and lets it rest for several hours (the perfect time to finish prepping and cooking side dishes). Right before the meal, he pops the turkey into a high temperature oven for 20 minutes. In this final step, the steam from the carcass pushes the separated skin away from the soggy meat and the extreme heat from the oven browns it, allowing the yurkey to reach its utmost crispy potential.
“The exterior of the breasts may overcook a little,” says Young. “But this two-step cooking process is as close as I’ve come to getting the legs tender and keeping the breast juicy without brine.” And with his Peking duck-style maneuver, he gets shatteringly crisp turkey skin worthy of year-round cravings.
Peking Duck-style Thanksgiving Turkey
1. Three days before Thanksgiving, work your hands underneath the turkey’s skin, all the way down the backside of the thighs and to the tips of the wings. The skin is fairly tough, but work slowly to prevent tears.
2. Stretch the limbs of the bird as far from the breast as possible, and air dry in a refrigerator for three days, preferably hanging from a hook in a large walk-in.
3. Set a combi oven to low humidity and preheat to 160ºF to 170ºF.
4. Hang the turkey from a hook inside the oven with the legs and thighs pulled as far away from the breasts as possible. If you can’t use a hook, roast on a pan with the limbs pulled away from the center of the bird.
5. Cook until the internal temperature of the breast reaches 140ºF to 145ºF, about six hours, depending on the size of the bird.
6. Remove the turkey from the oven, and rest at room temperature for a few hours. The exterior of the turkey will cool down, but the interior will remain warm.
7. Twenty minutes before serving the turkey, crank up the oven to the highest possible temperature, and cook the turkey for 15 to 20 minutes, until the skin is, according to Young, “unbelievably crisp.”