One Woman's Quest For The (Scientifically) Best Turkey : Short Wave Turkey is the usual centerpiece of the Thanksgiving dinner, but it's all too easy to end up with a dry, tough, flavorless bird. For NPR science correspondent Maria Godoy, it got so bad that several years ago, her family decided to abandon the turkey tradition altogether. Can science help her make a better bird this year? That's what she hopes as she seeks expert advice from food science writers and cookbook authors Nik Sharma and Kenji López-Alt.

One Woman's Quest For The (Scientifically) Best Turkey

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EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

REBECCA RAMIREZ, HOST:

Hey, SHORT WAVErs. Rebecca Ramirez here. And today, I am joined by NPR health and science correspondent Maria Godoy. Hey, Maria. What you got for the pod today?

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Rebecca, I'm going to get real vulnerable here. I've got a kitchen confession. I don't do Thanksgiving turkey.

RAMIREZ: Oh. I didn't realize you were a vegetarian.

GODOY: No. I mean, I don't eat a lot of meat. But in this case, we skip the turkey because of - I don't know - soul-crushing disappointment.

RAMIREZ: Oh, no.

GODOY: I know. I know. Several years ago, my family and I decided we just weren't going to do Thanksgiving turkey anymore because it was usually dry and just lacked any flavor. It just didn't taste like anything. So what's the point of getting up super early and spending hours just laboring and sweating and stressing in the kitchen if you're just going to end up with a bland bird? I mean, I don't need that kind of holiday heartache in my life.

RAMIREZ: You know, Maria, I feel your pain. I totally do. But this is a science podcast.

GODOY: (Laughter) I know. But bad turkeys are a problem that science can actually solve.

RAMIREZ: I'm listening.

GODOY: I called up two well-known cookbook authors/food science writers to see if they could help me overcome my fear and loathing of cooking turkey.

NIK SHARMA: OK (laughter). It is one of the most boring and unflavorful pieces of meat. And I think that's probably why everyone struggles every year with this bird.

GODOY: That's Nik Sharma. He's the author of "The Flavor Equation" and a trained molecular biologist. And we're also going to hear from Kenji Lopez-Alt. He's a New York Times food columnist and the author of "The Food Lab." He and Nik agree that tasty turkey can be elusive for home cooks, not just me. In fact, Kenji says it was a problem he knew all too well as a kid.

KENJI LOPEZ-ALT: You know, growing up, we did not love the turkey (laughter). My mom or my grandmother would do the turkey every year. And my mom did not own a thermometer, so she did it based on timing, you know, like minutes per pound, which is the worst way to plan your meals because ovens are so inaccurate and meat has such weird geometry. Minutes per pound - if you see any recipe that says X minutes per pound, it's just - run away because it's not going to give you good results.

RAMIREZ: Wait. So if it's not minutes per pound, then how are you supposed to cook a turkey, Maria?

GODOY: My dear Rebecca, that is where the marvels of science come in. You need to know a little biochemistry and a little bit of turkey anatomy to make a fabulous bird.

RAMIREZ: All right. Well, today on the show, the science of a juicier, tastier Thanksgiving turkey.

GODOY: Yum.

RAMIREZ: I'm Rebecca Ramirez.

GODOY: And I'm Maria Godoy.

RAMIREZ: And you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAMIREZ: OK, Maria, you're here to help me cook the best turkey, according to science. Where do I begin?

GODOY: It actually starts at the butcher shop.

RAMIREZ: Oh.

GODOY: Instead of buying a whole bird - yeah, I know. You want to buy it cut up in parts.

RAMIREZ: In parts?

GODOY: I know. Stay with me, baby. Now, if you have the skills and tools at home, you can chop it up yourself with a technique called spatchcocking. So that's where you remove the bird's backbone so that it lays flat. But if you want to skip all the guts and just go straight to the glory, just get the butcher to do it for you.

RAMIREZ: Oh, my God. Maria, that's, like, half of Thanksgiving, though, is, like, cutting up the turkey when it gets to the table. Like...

GODOY: (Laughter).

RAMIREZ: How is my dad supposed to prove his masculinity if the bird is already cut up?

GODOY: Simmer down, Rebecca. Simmer down.

RAMIREZ: I can't.

GODOY: Listen; I'm sure your dad is a man of reason and science, right?

RAMIREZ: Yeah.

GODOY: Mr. Ramirez?

RAMIREZ: Yeah.

GODOY: And the science says this is the best way to get a delicious turkey. Come on.

RAMIREZ: OK. OK. I mean, explain it.

GODOY: OK. So Kenji Lopez-Alt says cutting up your turkey is the best way to overcome the great white meat-dark meat problem, you know, the well-known fact that if your dark meat is cooked, then the turkey breast is dry?

RAMIREZ: Right. Right.

GODOY: It's because you have to cook these two different types of meat to different temperatures. So on the one hand, you have the breasts. And they have to hit 150 degrees or so. On the other hand, you have the legs and thighs. And they have to get all the way up to 175 degrees. So by the time the legs hit the right temperature, your breast is overcooked. Wah, wah - not so happy Thanksgiving. It actually all makes more sense when you think about how turkeys use their bodies when they're alive.

RAMIREZ: Yeah. And I obviously think about that all the time.

GODOY: No, but seriously, picture this. You've got the light meat that's made of fast-twitch muscle fibers. They don't actually get used all that often. But they're used in short bursts.

LOPEZ-ALT: So like the wings, for instance - like, turkeys don't fly normally. But every once in a while, they run away or they flutter up in the air. And so they flap their wings really hard. And so those types of muscles are generally low in connective tissue, low in fat and very strong. And what that does is it means that it's relatively easy to overcook them.

RAMIREZ: OK. And so what about the dark meat, though, like, the legs and the thighs?

GODOY: Yeah. Kenji says those are slow-twitch muscle fibers that the turkey is constantly using when, you know, they're walking around or standing. So they have a lot of connective tissue, which means you have to cook them at a higher temperature in order to break them down. But here's where the geometry comes in.

RAMIREZ: I swear to God, Maria, I am not bringing the protractor out to cook a turkey.

GODOY: No need for a protractor, Rebecca.

RAMIREZ: Good.

GODOY: Kenji says you also don't need a roasting pan to cook a whole turkey the way most of us do. It actually makes things worse.

LOPEZ-ALT: Really, it would be difficult to design a worse tool for roasting a turkey than a roasting pan because you're taking a problem that already exists and making it even worse, because in a roasting pan, you have these kind of high sides that essentially shield the bottom of the turkey. So they shield the thighs and the legs of the turkey. Meanwhile, the breast is sticking up over the top, so that gets the bulk of the heat.

GODOY: The breast gets even more heat than the thighs because it's higher up. So it dries out even more.

RAMIREZ: I'm not going to lie. I'm still really confused.

(LAUGHTER)

RAMIREZ: Like, how does chopping up your bird solve this problem? Like, you still have the dark meat and the light meat, don't you?

GODOY: Right. But now you have geometry working in your favor.

RAMIREZ: Finally.

GODOY: All you have to do is lay your bird parts out flat, so every bit is getting roughly the same heat at the same time. The thighs and legs are relatively thin compared to the bulky breasts. So they're going to cook faster, which is actually what you want because that dark meat is going to hit 175 degrees or so just as the breast is getting to 150.

RAMIREZ: Maria, this is the food safety police. And I know for a fact that you have to cook poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, which is not what Kenji just said.

GODOY: I know. And I'm actually paranoid about food safety because I got food poisoning once a long time ago. But I asked Kenji about this. And he told me that when it comes to cooking meat safely, it's actually about temperature and time.

RAMIREZ: Oh.

GODOY: So if you get your turkey up to 165 degrees, that kills a bunch of bacteria instantaneously. But if you can get that breast meat up to 150 degrees and hold it there for at least four minutes, that's also going to kill a bunch of bacteria. Just make sure that it stays at 150 degrees for four minutes. And that really shouldn't be a problem for turkey because they cook for so long anyway. Just make sure that you let the bird rest for a few minutes before you serve it. And, he says, please do use a food thermometer, which I second, heartily.

RAMIREZ: All right. Well, so then I can just get over it, chop up the turkey and call it a day?

GODOY: Oh, no. But wait, there's more. Yeah.

RAMIREZ: (Laughter) OK.

GODOY: You've probably heard that brining is the other super important step you have to take before cooking a turkey if you want it to be juicy and flavorful, which, who doesn't want that?

RAMIREZ: True.

GODOY: But there's actually a huge debate in the food world about which is better, wet or dry brining. And people really take sides.

RAMIREZ: Like team wet brine versus team dry brine?

GODOY: Oh, yeah. It can get ugly.

RAMIREZ: Well, which one's better?

GODOY: You know, I asked that very question to Nik Sharma. He's a molecular biologist turned food writer, right? So he has spent a lot of time experimenting with how different marinades and brines affect meat.

RAMIREZ: And?

GODOY: Nik was a little bit coy about it. But he says, wet or dry, he's on team salt.

SHARMA: Salt is the most important thing in a brine because that's what's adding flavor. It's what's helping build moisture inside. It also reacts with the amino acids present in the proteins of the meat and changes them chemically. It also helps solubilize some of these proteins, which also makes the meat much more tender. And then finally, it also helps retain moisture. And this is because when salt is dissolved in water, it splits electrochemically into positive and negative ions of sodium and chloride. And these are the things that react with the molecules present in the proteins - that is the amino acids - and changes the electric charges, which then all help water binding.

GODOY: So basically, Nik's saying that normally during cooking, some of the proteins in meat fibers tighten up so that they end up squeezing the juices out of the turkey like water gets squeezed out of a sponge. But when you add salt, it loosens up those meat proteins, so they hold onto more water. Ta-da, your bird stays juicier.

RAMIREZ: Got to love biochemistry.

GODOY: Exactly, chica. And if you really want to put the power of biochemistry to work, Nik says, for his money, there's one brine to rule them all.

RAMIREZ: Ooh.

GODOY: Are you ready for this?

RAMIREZ: Maybe.

GODOY: Fermented dairy.

RAMIREZ: (Laughter) Wait. Fermented dairy, like yogurt?

GODOY: Yeah. Exactly, or, like, kefir or buttermilk. Nik said, if he had to choose, he'd be on team fermented dairy brine.

SHARMA: You know, cookbook author Samin Nosrat, who's a good friend of mine, she wrote a recipe last year for buttermilk-brined turkey, which is pretty fantastic. And if you're familiar with Middle Eastern cooking and Indian cooking, we often use dairy-based marinades to marinate meat. And that's essentially what Samin is doing here. The reason is that there's lactic acid in fermented dairy. And lactic acid is one of the most gentlest acids on meat proteins.

GODOY: Nik says animals synthesize lactic acid when they're alive, which means their muscles have adapted to dealing with it. So dairy-based brines are going to result in turkey with better texture, you know, turkey, that's tender but not mushy because the acid isn't too harsh on their muscles. He actually did a series of kitchen experiments with various meats and marinades. And he found out that fermented dairy came out on top.

RAMIREZ: Of course it did. OK. Well, I mean, Maria, I do feel like I get a lot of the science about this now. But what if I'm just traditional and really want to serve a beautiful, whole turkey at the holiday table?

GODOY: I mean, why don't you serve a cardboard cutout because it's going to taste like that anyway?

(LAUGHTER)

GODOY: Do you want pomp and pageantry? Or do you want a turkey that's delicious?

RAMIREZ: Por que no los dos? But, OK, if I have to choose, obviously, I want a delicious turkey, obviously.

GODOY: Of course, mi amiga (laughter).

RAMIREZ: You know, I have to say, I have loved the idea of approaching cooking like a scientist. Like, it genuinely makes turkey seem less daunting to me. And, like, if it turns out that it's awful, I mean, that's not a total failure. It's just a data point, right?

GODOY: Agreed. In fact, after all this, I think I'm actually going to tackle turkey this year.

RAMIREZ: Ooh.

GODOY: And I've decided, if it turns out awful, it's OK because as Kenji Lopez-Alt said to me, holiday cooking can be stressful, just don't lose sight of what's important.

LOPEZ-ALT: Ultimately, the quality of the food is secondary, I think. So, you know, as long as the turkey has got people around the table, then it's done its job, no matter how dry it is (laughter).

RAMIREZ: Even a dry turkey brings everyone to the table. And that's what Thanksgiving is for. He's right.

GODOY: Absolutely.

(LAUGHTER)

RAMIREZ: Today's episode was produced by me, Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Sara Sarasohn and fact-checked by Margaret Cirino. Stu Rushfield was our audio engineer.

I'm Rebecca Ramirez.

GODOY: And I'm Maria Godoy.

RAMIREZ: Thanks so much for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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