How to Avoid 'Food Failures' This Thanksgiving

Remember last year's overcooked, dried-out turkey? Don't let it become a tradition. In this episode of "Food Failures," Jeff Potter, author of Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food, dishes up a few tips for Turkey Day—like cooking turkey breasts separately from the legs, or microwaving potatoes to free up real estate on the stove.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Next up, time for Food Failures.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Mmm. Turkey and dressing and pie and cake.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And cranberries. Gee. I can hardly wait.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Me too!

FLATOW: Mmm. Oh, me too. Wait. Who doesn't get excited for Thanksgiving, right? Let's be honest, though, just between us. We've all done it. We've overcooked that turkey so dry even the gravy can't save it. Or we undercooked it because the oven temperature is really not 350 when it says it is. Mine has been as low as 50 degrees lower in my own place

Or in a rush to get cranberry sauce ready finding, well, the mashed potatoes weren't fully cooked because we were working on the cranberry sauce. We didn't find space on the oven so we didn't get that all done right either. Well, you're in luck because we've got some kitchen hacks for you this year, ways science and technology can up your family game on turkey day.

It's a special Thanksgiving episode of our series Food Failures. And Jeff Potter, author of "Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food." He's also a software engineer and he's here back with us in New York. Welcome.

JEFF POTTER: Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Good to see you. Let's start with the turkey, right? You've got to start with the turkey.

POTTER: Turkey is the big challenge in all of these things. I mean, if you look at the bird, it's just one of these complicated things and the idea that you can cook it all at the same time in the oven and have everything come out magically right, well, it's a challenge.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: I'll say. Well, a lot of interesting things we talk - let's talk about it first. How do you make sure it gets up to the temperature but not too high? How do you make sure you don't overcook it, you don't undercook it?

POTTER: This is going to sound pretty simple but use a probe thermometer and actually check the temperature. When it comes to something like a turkey cooking, it's really about getting the mass of that bird up to a certain temperature where various chemical reactions happen in the bird. And, you know, a thermometer is a good measure of that.

FLATOW: Now, when I stick the thermometer in the meaty thigh part am I - is that getting accurate enough for the rest of the bird?

POTTER: Well, you know, what they look for is really what's the coldest part of the bird and all of the instructions they give you are for making a safe Thanksgiving. And I, for one, certainly want a safe Thanksgiving but there's also the idea of wanting a tasty Thanksgiving and these two things, well, they can come into conflict pretty easily.

FLATOW: Tell us.

POTTER: So with probing a bird, you know, when you've got a thermometer in there what you're measuring for is the coldest spot of the bird when it cooks if you're roasting it in the oven in the traditional way. And they tell you, you know, put it in between the thigh and also probe into the part of the breast that's the deepest because that's the part of the bird that's going to take the longest to get up to temperature.

But at the same time, you know, you're trying to also make sure it doesn't overcook. So it's really a story of bacteria versus the proteins. And the bacteria being the things, you know, the cross-contamination that you want to make sure you kill, the proteins in the bird, you know, for the most part being things you want to cook and denature but you don't want to overcook.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 if you have questions about Thanksgiving and how to eat better. I'm Ira Flatow, SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Talking with Jeff Potter. So are you saying then that maybe we should sacrifice some safe - if you want it tastier, undercook, or cooked just right you should sacrifice some safety margin here?

POTTER: Well, OK. A little bit. I'm squirming in my seat here.

(LAUGHTER)

POTTER: Because, you know, of course you want the Thanksgiving dinner...

FLATOW: Right.

POTTER: ...to be safe.

FLATOW: Right. Right.

POTTER: That's, you know, step one. The guidelines that the USDA gives out say cook your turkey to 165 degrees. Now, this is a pretty hot temperature and it's actually the point at which some of the proteins, especially in white meat, will have denatured and cooked and you don't want those ones cooked. But that 165 is called an instant kill temperature.

Basically, you get the bird up to 165 even for a few seconds...

FLATOW: Bam.

POTTER: ...any bacteria up there, bam, they're gone. You're good. But that's a really simple model and, you know, we geeks, we like our science. We don't mind a little more complexity. And the more complicated model here would say time and temperature. And so they actually put out - the food safety inspectors, in other words, puts out guidelines for commercial poultry and chicken that say hold the turkey at this time for this length.

FLATOW: Right.

POTTER: And those guidelines assume that you're going to hold it which is a more complicated, you know...

FLATOW: You're a professional.

POTTER: Well, right.

FLATOW: You're allowed to do that.

POTTER: You're a professional.

FLATOW: Yeah.

POTTER: And, you know, you're willing to do a little bit more work.

FLATOW: Right.

POTTER: And, like, if you look at their guidelines, what they're looking at is the reduction of salmonella that be present. They take the worst case scenario. What's the absolute worst turkey we've ever seen?

FLATOW: Right.

POTTER: And they look at, OK, how many bacterium are actually present and what do we have to do to reduce that to a sufficiently safe level where you're not likely to have an unfortunate Thanksgiving? So at 165 degrees, it's fine pretty fast. But if you go down to 160 degrees, well, you have to hold the turkey for about half a minute. And if you go down to 155 degrees, eh, it's about a minute that you have to hold it there once it comes to temperature.

Now, why bother cooking at a lower temperature? Well, it goes back to what I was saying about the proteins that are in there.

FLATOW: Yeah.

POTTER: Turkey is really a story of three or four different proteins that we care about and it just happens that we happen to like myosin, one of the proteins, cooked and denatured where it changes its texture and it's literally structurally different. We tend to like things with actin in its original native state and that particular protein cooks at a higher temperature, around 150, 155-ish, kind of in that range.

And so if you can cook the bird well enough for your white breast meat, you can prevent that protein that makes it tough from setting up.

FLATOW: But you've got to cook it long enough.

POTTER: You've got to cook it long enough...

FLATOW: So what if...

POTTER: ...and hold it at temperature once it reaches thereabout.

FLATOW: Let me ask you, just between us, what do you cook your bird at, at what temperature?

POTTER: Um, nobody else is listening?

FLATOW: No.

POTTER: One-hundred-fifty.

FLATOW: One-hundred-fifty.

POTTER: But I'm going to hold it there for at least four or five minutes to make sure that it's properly...

FLATOW: That's pretty easy, isn't it?

POTTER: It is easy.

FLATOW: It's in the oven.

POTTER: It's in the oven.

FLATOW: You keep it in. You keep it...

POTTER: Yeah. I've got a probe thermometer. It's this little cable thing that comes out of the oven door and I can just look at it and make sure it sits there. You know, it's not that complicated but, you know, the numbers are safe guidelines to make sure that nobody has any real problems.

FLATOW: And one thing before we go to the break, quickly. You say don't wash your turkey before you throw it into the oven.

POTTER: Yeah. Well, think about...

FLATOW: Because?

POTTER: ...cross-contamination.

FLATOW: Oh.

POTTER: I mean, if you think about the fact that your turkey might have something on it and you go to rinse it in your sink and it splashes on the counter and you touch the handle...

FLATOW: Salmonella.

POTTER: ...you've now got salmonella on the handle. All, you know, it's about the safety again. You go to cook the bird, you wash your hands.

FLATOW: Right.

POTTER: And then you touch where you've contaminated it before and then you get it...

FLATOW: Back again.

POTTER: ...into your dinner and it's bad news.

FLATOW: So I guess if you're saying you can cook it at 400 degrees or three - whatever it is, that's certainly way above sterilization point, right?

POTTER: Well, that...

FLATOW: You're going to sterilize the bird.

POTTER: That's the temperature of the oven, not the temperature of the bird.

FLATOW: Ah.

POTTER: The bird that's cooked at 400 degrees is a piece of charcoal.

(LAUGHTER)

POTTER: Now, I don't about your family traditions but in my family that's definitely overcooked.

FLATOW: All right. Yeah, that would explain some of my problems.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Remember that Thanksgiving movie with Chevy Chase where they're eating all that bird that was cooked - we'll talk about that later. We have to take a break. We're going to come back and talk about some more with Jeff Potter. And our number: 1-800-989-8255. If you have some food failures for Thanksgiving you'd like to talk about, give us a call. You can also tweet us at scifri - S-C-I-F-R-I. We'll be right back after this break.

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FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about some Thanksgiving cooking hacks as part of our Food Failures series with Jeff Potter, author of "Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, Good Food." He's also a software engineer. And when I interrupted you so rudely, you were explaining to me why you shouldn't wash the turkey. And you said, well, in the washing process you're going to handle it and get that salmonella all over the place.

Which sounds logical, but what's going to kill the salmonella anyhow?

POTTER: Well, the heat of the oven. So salmonella itself doesn't actually live much up above, I want to say - I know it's in the 120s or 110s.

FLATOW: Right.

POTTER: You know, it's definitely well below the temperature even at 150 or 165. So, really, with washing the chicken or the turkey or whatever your poultry is, it's about preventing cross-contamination where you've got the raw area, then you cook it, and then you've got kind of your clean, pasteurized area, shall we say, and you don't want to cross contaminate between where it was handled before you put it in the oven.

So it's really much more about making sure that, you know, it's, shall we say, clean after it comes out of the oven.

FLATOW: Now, if you cut into the leg - and a lot of people do this - and you look to see the pink parts of the meat...

POTTER: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: ...does that mean?

POTTER: That actually means - the pink is not a good indicator of doneness. It's from a protein called myoglobin which turns, you know, things pink.

FLATOW: OK.

POTTER: Usually kind of down near the bone just happens to be where it is. Myoglobin's related to, well, it's oxygen and blood flow in the tissue. So it's really those parts of the animal that have a fair amount of blood flow through them. So if you think about turkey breasts, our modern turkeys are actually bred to have very large chicken - I'm sorry, turkey breasts. And they don't really use much oxygen.

Because they basically kind of sit there. But the legs are actually, you know, walking around and there's load on that leg. So the legs have a fair amount more of oxygen and blood flowing through them. So you have more of the myoglobin and that ends up making it dark meat. But the pink bit that you're talking about is not a good indicator of doneness because you have cases where the turkey is still pink but cooked.

FLATOW: Right.

POTTER: Because the myoglobin is another protein and it begins to denature under its own set of conditions, whether it be ph, or temperature, or salinity. If you think about smoked turkey and in fact it has a little bit of pinkness to it from the smoking process.

FLATOW: Oh, yeah.

POTTER: And nitrites and nitrates in cured meats make those things pink. But they are certainly safe.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones: 1-800-989-8255. Emile(ph) in Waterbury, Connecticut, hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

EMILE: Hi. I have a dual question, actually. If the major issue is getting an even temperature through - is it the deeper parts of the bird will take longer to come to temperature, why not just break the bird apart before you cook it and cook it in pieces?

FLATOW: Ah.

EMILE: And the other question is for killing bacteria can you augment the regular cooking? If you put it in a microwave oven can you kill bacteria that way?

FLATOW: Ah. Jeff's shaking his...

EMILE: It augments your cooking.

POTTER: These are both...

EMILE: Thanks for your help.

POTTER: ...excellent, excellent questions. You hit it right on the head. That is actually how I cook my turkey. I cook the leg separate from the breast. Which, you know, I sacrifice the idea of having a beautiful turkey at the head of the table where I'm going to carve it for my family or my friends. But what I gain is the ability to cook the leg in an environment and a temperature range that's good for the protein combinations that are there, turkey legs being higher in collagen.

And then I cook the turkey breasts separate, usually in a glass baking pan with, you know, the stuffing underneath it, in the oven and then I roast it, the stuffing catching some of the, you know, juicy bits that run off the breasts and with the fat, you know, gives it that nice flavor that you kind of want in your Thanksgiving.

FLATOW: My mouth is watering.

POTTER: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

POTTER: Definitely cooking them separate means that you basically - you can control the temperature of these two different parts independently. I mean, if you've thought about driving a car down a freeway...

FLATOW: Yeah.

POTTER: ...where you want half the car to go 55 miles an hour...

FLATOW: Right.

POTTER: ...the other half to go 60, like, you're going to be either doing lots of hairpin turns to keep one half - I mean, that's just - it's tricky.

FLATOW: So I understand you have a special way of cooking those drumsticks.

POTTER: I do. I am a huge fan of duck confit, which is a cooking method, very traditional, that basically involves taking a duck leg and immersing it in duck fat and cooking it for a long, slow time. Really, it doesn't have to be in duck fat and really, it doesn't have to be a duck leg. What you're looking at is a cut of meat - in this case a drumstick off a bird - that's high in collagen.

Collagen is a protein that's kind of like structural steel in muscle tissue. It provides support. And if you think about things like squid and octopus, those animals actually are almost - that's what gives them their structure. Collagen is a tough molecule to cook. It takes a really long time to break down. So it needs a fair amount of time at temperature. The hotter you go, the faster it breaks down.

But duck confit, well, that same idea works for turkey. So I cook my turkey legs by putting them in a slow cooker with some salted brined water. Not too salty. And just let it sit there. And the slow cooker, you know, warm setting, 160, 170 degrees. You know, for 12 hours longer. The benefit being that it frees my oven up and it also means that I get this turkey leg which is really moist, tender, and, you know, it's got all the hallmarks of that great kind of drumstick that you want.

FLATOW: Mmm.

POTTER: Now, the downside of doing - cooking it that way is that you're only getting the interior up to that temperature so you don't get any of the browning reactions...

FLATOW: Right.

POTTER: ...you want on your outside. You know, that nice...

FLATOW: Right.

POTTER: ...you know, crispy skin.

FLATOW: Right.

POTTER: That's brown and, you know, you think sizzle.

FLATOW: Magazine cover look.

POTTER: Right. Exactly.

FLATOW: Yeah.

POTTER: So to get that after you cook it you've got to pull it out and put it in the oven really hot just to get the outside cooked.

FLATOW: Oh, hey, it works.

POTTER: The two ideas of internal temperature and external temperature.

FLATOW: Let's talk a bit about side dishes. You have a technique for cooking potatoes that's a little bit unorthodox.

POTTER: Yeah. People have a thing against microwaves. I guess they hear the word radiation or something and they think oh, no.

FLATOW: They're going to nuke it.

POTTER: Right. You know.

FLATOW: Yeah.

POTTER: Well, yeah. You know, I say put your potatoes in the microwave and nuke them for five or 10 minutes. If you think about the way that cooking works, there's really two cooking methods: wet methods and dry methods. Dry methods give you those browning reactions. It gives you that nice, rich brown skin on the turkey.

The wet methods, well, there's water involved so the food doesn't get up to those temperature ranges. If you think about potatoes, well, the way they cook is the water molecules inside the potato from a microwave, you know, heat up and heat up the surrounding...

FLATOW: Right.

POTTER: ...flesh of the potato and that causes the potato to undergo kind of the cooking reactions. In the case of a potato, it's the starches in there begin to kind of melt and change in their structure. So what I do is I pop my potatoes in the microwave.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

POTTER: I nuke them for, you know, as long as it kind of takes based on the number of potatoes, so that they're cooked. Because the potato has got no idea, you know, that the water's being heated via microwave versus, you know, via boiling on the stove. You know, the mass of the food is the same in terms of the way it's heating up.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So don't you just mash them, right? And they're ready to mash.

POTTER: Pull them out.

FLATOW: All done.

POTTER: You know, throw some sour cream, some butter, maybe some, you know, oregano or something if you want to spice it up if you want to do something a little fancy. But, yeah. You know, the heating method is - microwaves are good for not just leftovers. They're good for heating up things that have water in them and where your cooking method is a wet method.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's talk about cranberry sauce.

POTTER: Cranberry sauce. This is always - you know, the fun thing about things like cranberry sauce is different people have different ideas of what they want their cranberry sauce to be like. Do you want it to be more jelly-like? Do you want it to be a little runnier? You know, I'm pretty much a traditionalist. I don't go for anything too fancy. You don't have to - in my book...

FLATOW: Right.

POTTER: ...worry too much about getting it up to seven, be nice and thick, lots of pectin in it. You know, cranberry sauce is basically just about the flavors for meat. That's why you put it on top of the turkey and it's kind of the tradition. I'd make it the day before so that you don't have to deal with...

FLATOW: Yeah.

POTTER: ...you know, hey, have I got enough burners on the stove to cook everything?

FLATOW: Yeah, you don't.

POTTER: Anything that actually heats up well is a leftover. By definition you can make the day before.

FLATOW: Right.

POTTER: Because it heats up well. So cranberry sauce is - you know, that's my trick for cranberry sauce.

FLATOW: All right. I also understand you have a sinful suggestion for pumpkin pie.

POTTER: Yeah.

FLATOW: You're about to confess, huh?

POTTER: You already got me to say that I cook my turkey at a temperature I'm not supposed to say.

(LAUGHTER)

POTTER: I don't know how much more I want to say here. I personally - I do like to bake but I'm not somebody who wants to spend, you know, six hours in the kitchen doing everything. I buy my pumpkin pies. You've heard it here. I'm sorry. Don't...

FLATOW: Don't judge.

POTTER: Don't...

FLATOW: Don't judge me. Right.

POTTER: Yeah. Don't judge me for it. You know, it's one of those things if you happen to love making pies, you should make a pie by all means. But I think that with something like Thanksgiving there's so much pressure to turn out the perfect meal at the same time that you're supposed to be spending time with family, that anything you can do to kind of offload the amount of work that you have to do in the kitchen and spend more time with your guests, you know, gets a definite thumbs-up in my book.

And pumpkin pie, you know, commercial bakeries, good bakeries, they make pumpkin pies that are, yeah, they're superb and they're not that expensive. It's practically the cost of ingredients of making it yourself.

FLATOW: OK. So this year is a very rare year in the calendar because it's - Hanukkah and Thanksgiving fall on the same day. It's not going to happen for another 70,000 years or something like that, right? They're calling it Thansgivukkah.

POTTER: I love it.

FLATOW: You know, give us - can you make a Thanksgiving latke that will work? Any tips on making...

POTTER: Well, something like the latke, if you think about it, it's really about being a nice brown exterior. This is beginning to sound like turkey.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

POTTER: And a nice fluffy interior. OK, maybe you don't want your turkey fluffy. But, you know, it really is about getting the chemical reactions that occur in cooking to set up. So if you think about latkes you think, right, nice brown outside. I know I need the Maillard reaction in there so I know the oil's got to be hot enough.

You probably don't want it to be too oily so you've got to think about how do I make sure that this doesn't absorb oil. Well, the oil's got to be hot enough for the steam to kind of push out, you know, water. Is it steaming up and not letting the oil come in? I mean, you could start thinking about the mechanics of it.

If you want to think about Thanks-Hanukkah where you, you know, kind of doing some fusion stuff, maybe some cranberry sauce on top. So a nice fuchsia cranberry sauce, some applesauce. You know, whatever kind of traditionally works for you. But, you know, it's really about thinking about the tradition of it. And it's really fun that this year that we have the two holidays at the same time, both harvest festivals.

FLATOW: Right.

POTTER: So thinking about how you combine those things.

FLATOW: And which veggies would you use in a latke? You use anything, right? Just about any vegetable.

POTTER: Well, you could go a sweet potato.

FLATOW: Sweet potato.

POTTER: Sweet potatoes.

FLATOW: Sweet potatoes. Right.

POTTER: You know, carrots could be interesting. You could do a carrot-zucchini thing, kind of mix in a couple of things.

FLATOW: Right.

POTTER: I mean, what would be traditional for Thanksgiving in terms of - yeah, I guess you've got sweet potatoes.

FLATOW: Right.

POTTER: I don't know if you could work, you know, string beans in there somehow.

FLATOW: String beans.

POTTER: But...

FLATOW: But let's get back to the physics, the chemistry that's going on. You have to make sure the oil temperature is the right temperature.

POTTER: Yes.

FLATOW: Because what's going to happen when that wet, mushy latke hits the oil?

POTTER: Well, hopefully it's not too wet and too mushy.

FLATOW: Yeah.

POTTER: That's actually one of the tricks, is to make sure it's relatively dry.

FLATOW: Dry. You want it dry as you can.

POTTER: Dry. Because the moisture in that latke's got to steam up and get out of the latke for the whole thing to kind of become fluffy and light. And if it's not actually dry, you've got a lot of energy being sucked out of the hot oil and transferred into taking that water and steaming it up and getting it out there. And some parts of the latke are going to finish cooking before other parts.

And then suddenly they're just kind of sitting in the oil and absorbing the oil in and, you know, it just turns into kind of a greasy - so a large pot of oil. Think about making sure it's relative - yeah, your latke batter is relatively dry so you don't have a lot of moisture that you're, you know...

FLATOW: Right.

POTTER: ...giving yourself a head start. You know, it's the same thing as making dinner rolls for Thanksgiving. You think about what do I want in terms of the reactions in the food? What temperatures do those things happen at? And then what cooking techniques to use to drive those variables where I want them to be?

FLATOW: Jeff, thank you very much. I've learned a lot and all our listeners have learned a lot today.

POTTER: Well, thank you for having me back. It's my pleasure.

FLATOW: We'll have you any time. Well, then we'll have you back. I know Christmas is coming.

POTTER: Christmas is coming, right?

FLATOW: It's "Cooking for Geeks." Jeff Potter is the author of "Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, Good Food." If you're a geek. If you're not, you'll learn a lot about it. He's also a software engineer. Thanks again.

POTTER: Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: We'll see you later.

POTTER: Yes.

FLATOW: Thank you. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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