Thanksgiving Hack: Cook Your Turkey Sous Vide
Maybe you like your Thanksgiving turkey dry and bland. I get it. There’s something deeply traditional about leaving the bird in the oven for hours and hours. Maybe you like the symbolism of the turkey taking up oven space, or maybe overcooked poultry gives you an excuse to overload it with gravy. Maybe you’ve given up on bird altogether (one year, my mom served lobster for Thanksgiving. “No one likes the turkey anyway!”). If you have beloved turkey-cooking traditions, that’s totally cool. But consider this: You can have a platter of turkey that’s juicy, flavorful, and delicious. You just have to cook it sous vide.
It seems counterintuitive, I know. Sous vide—a cooking method that involves sealing food inside a plastic bag and then cooking it in a water bath—seems ill suited for something as cumbersome as a Thanksgiving turkey. It seems too fancy and too French for a holiday that celebrates America. And for those who aren’t used to wielding a sous vide wand in the kitchen, the technique can seem intimidating, even overly precious.
Let me assure you: There is nothing easier or more foolproof than sealing your turkey into a plastic baggie, dropping it into a pot of water, and walking away. Really. That’s it. And when you return, you’ll have the best damn turkey you’ve ever tasted.
Sous vide is a fancy French way of saying “cooked in a vacuum.” You take some food, put it in a vacuum-sealed baggie (or, for the less pretentious chef, Ziploc works too), and leave it to slow cook in a bath of warm water until it’s tantalizingly tender. Unlike cooking by oven or grill, the bath method distributes heat evenly from edge to center, and the vacuum bag seals in moisture. You can cook everything from poultry to lobster to eggs to corn on the cob sous vide. But the method is especially well suited for turkey.
“Turkey breasts are actually really tough muscle, so they’re a perfect candidate for sous vide,” says Grant Crilly, the head chef and co-founder of food and technology company ChefSteps. “Even as a chef, I used to hate turkey breasts. They’re just tough and a pain to cook. Ever since I’ve been cooking them sous vide, I’ve turned into a turkey breast man.”
Learning to cook sous vide is easy. You can find all sorts of sous vide immersion wands that connect with an app on your phone and simplify the method to pressing a button on your screen. (ChefSteps makes one such wand called Joule.) These sous vide wands, which contain a thermometer and a heating element, clamp onto the side of any pot filled with water and heat it to a precise temperature for a precise amount of time. All you have to do is bag the food, fill the pot with water, place the wand inside, and select the correct recipe in the app on your phone.
ChefSteps offers step-by-step instructions on how to prepare your turkey sous vide. Anova and Sansaire, which each make sous vide wands, also have dedicated guides. Whichever sous vide circulator you use, the basic concept remains the same: Quarter the turkey (if you’re doing this yourself, make sure to remove the ribs from the breast; otherwise, the sharp bones could poke a hole and rip the bag open). Place the legs in a large vacuum-sealed baggie, and cook those first. Then add the breasts in a separate baggie. Time and temperature will vary depending on your individual preferences, but Crilly recommends setting the temperature nice and low and cooking the bird overnight.
The sous vide method gives you a juicier turkey, because none of the moisture evaporates. You also get a more flavorful turkey, since you can marinate the meat for hours inside of the bag. (One pro tip from Chef Crilly: “Take a little pot of butter on the stove—this is before you cook the turkey—throw in thyme, garlic; fresh, beautiful herbs; peppercorns. Roast that and make this epic brown butter to dump in the bag with the bird while it cooks.”) Sous vide cooking gives you more control over the texture of each piece of meat: breasts and legs can cook at different temperature for different amounts of time, which ensures that everything comes out beautifully tender. Best of all, cooking your turkey in a countertop water bath frees up oven space for all the other Thanksgiving accoutrements: potatoes, casseroles, and pies. You can start the sous vide turkey the night before and focus on all the side dishes on Thanksgiving day.
One drawback: Poultry cooked sous vide often comes out looking pale and kind of gross. That’s no way to start your Thanksgiving feast. So, to get that nice, golden brown look, you can crisp up the outside in a number of ways: broil it, fry it, torch it, sear it in a pan, sprinkle on a little rub and pop it in the oven. You can crisp up the outside in whichever method you like without sacrificing that moist, tender meat inside.
I can understand that this method requires sacrifices by way of presentation. For some families, the very essence of Thanksgiving is bringing the whole turkey to the table and carving it right there. So if quartering the bird and cooking the hind legs separately from the breasts seems like some sort of savagery, I get it. But! You can also sous vide a whole turkey, provided you have a humongous pot to create a big enough water bath. (Chef Bruno Goussault has great step-by-step instructions here.) You can’t achieve quite the same cooking precision with this method, and it requires some oven time to brown the outside, but it does allow you to preserve the whole turkey without serving something dry, boring, and bland.