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This year for Thanksgiving I wanted to focus on spending time with my family without having to worry about the turkey all day. I'll also be at my mother-in-law's place, which has a smaller kitchen so I didn't want to hog the oven all day.
I looked at a few options and eventually decided to let sous vide come to my rescue! I put this write-up together for other people interested in using sous vide for their turkey, either on a holiday or just a regular night.
The process for sous viding a turkey is a little more involved than just tossing it in the oven, but almost all of it can be done ahead of time, the meat turns out amazing, and it reduces a lot of the stress I always feel when I'm roasting a whole bird.
The first step of sous viding a turkey is to realize that the white meat and dark meat should be cooked separately. They both shine at different temperatures, as anyone who has tried to roast a whole turkey knows. So while you can do them at the same time, you will be sacrificing flavor and texture of one or both of them.
So you can either buy a whole turkey and break it down into legs, thighs, wings, breasts, and body, or you can buy pre-cut turkey. Buying pre-cut turkey is also a great way to get more light or dark meat, depending on the taste preferences of your family.
You also shouldn't sous vide a whole turkey unless it has been efficiently shrink-wrapped. Otherwise, the air in the cavity of the bird will usually not come up to temperature and could cause the inside of the bird to become unsafe.
There are many different ways you can season your turkey meat. For a traditional flavor I like some citrus peel, salt, and sage, rosemary, or thyme. You can also use spice rubs for a more varied flavor - I love a good BBQ rub or curry rub on turkey.
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The dark meat cooks at a higher temperature than the white meat so I usually cook it first. I prefer dark meat cooked at 148°F (64.4°C) for around 6 to 12 hours. I think it results in a good amount of tenderness while still retaining a lot of moisture.
Once the dark meat is cooked, I take it out, chill it in an ice bath, and keep it in the refrigerator until about an hour or two before it's time to eat. Then I reheat it in the sous vide machine, sear it, and serve.
I know that ChefSteps just leaves their dark meat in the sous vide machine while the white meat cooks, but I haven't tried this myself.
This year I'll be cooking my dark meat the day before Thanksgiving so it'll be all ready to go once I toss it in the bath a few hours before we eat.
Here's a more detailed look at how to sous vide a turkey leg and thigh.
The turkey breast benefits from a lower temperature than the dark meat. I have found that 140°F (60°C) for 4 to 8 hours is what I like best.
You can either time the turkey breasts to be done when you are ready to eat, or you can do it ahead of time, chill them in an ice bath and store them in the refrigerator. Then when you are an hour or two away from eating you can bring them back up to temperature in the sous vide bath before drying them off and searing them.
Here's a more detailed look at how to sous vide a turkey breast.
If you are a fan of gravy with your turkey, you may be wondering how you'll get enough juices to make it. Using the body and wings of the turkey to make stock is my go-to method, even if I end up roasting the bird in a traditional manner. A good stock, especially if you have a pressure cooker, has more flavor than the simple pan drippings will.
To make a turkey stock, combine some aromatics like onions, carrots, and celery with some herbs and spices like bay leaf, coriander and peppercorns. Add the turkey bones, wings, or body - roasted for additional flavor if you like - and cover with water. Either simmer on the stove for 2 to 4 hours, or pressure cook for 60 minutes. Then strain and use the stock to make gravy, add flavor to vegetables, and add body to sauces and stir-frys.
Here's a more in-depth look at how to make a pressure cooked stock.
Since several people have asked, here's my sample schedule for the holiday this year. We are planning on eating around 3pm on Thursday.
As I mentioned above, you can cook all the meat ahead of time and refrigerate it until a few hours before you are ready to eat.
There are several different goals people have when cooking a turkey. They can't all be accomplished equally using sous vide so it's important to know what you are most concerned about.
If your primary goal is to serve perfectly cooked turkey to your guests, then using sous vide to cook your turkey is hard to beat. Both the white and dark meat will turn out super-tender and moist. You also have exact control over the doneness, so you can go as high or low with your temperature as you want.
A huge benefit to cooking turkey with sous vide is the flexibility it adds to your schedule. You no longer have to worry about all the sides getting done in the 30 minute window that the turkey will be done in. Because all the meat is pre-cooked, it can stay in the water bath for several hours until you're ready to remove it and serve.
So if the football game goes to overtime, people are in the middle of a great conversation, or someone is stuck in traffic it's now really easy to shift the meal by an hour or two with no loss in quality, and no additional stress.
If you love carrying out the platter with the full turkey on it and carving it in front of your friends and family, then sous vide might not be right for you. Because you break down the bird, it's much harder to reassemble it before carving. You can always make a nice display of the cooked breasts, legs, and thighs, and cut them up at the table, but only you can decide if it's close enough to the traditional carving for you.
On the other hand, if you hate the pressure of trying to carve the turkey in front of everyone, then you now have a great excuse not to do it! Because you already broke down the bird you only have to deal with the much easier to cut breasts, legs, and thighs. You can even slice it all up in the kitchen ahead of time!
When I was younger, my favorite part of the bird was the really crisp skin. I'd stand around eating it while the bird was being carved. Even with a traditional roasted turkey, it can be really hard to perfectly cook the skin while not over cooking the meat. With sous vide, you have two options.
The first is to be content with some crispy skin, but less than you would have on a roasted bird. It's also not quite as crisp as it is after sitting in the oven for hours.
The second option is to really go for it. Remove the skin from the breasts, legs and thighs in as large of pieces as possible. Then when you are about an hour away from eating you can bake the skin.
Take a sheet pan with raised edges and lay down some parchment paper on it. Add the turkey skin in a single layer, then cover with another layer of parchment paper. Finally place another sheet pan on top and bake it at 400°F for about 40 minutes, until it turns nice and brown. It's a little more work but if you are a big fan of crisp skin it'll be worth it!
Another benefit to doing the turkey sous vide is that it frees up your oven space for all the other things you need it for. You no longer have to jostle for space with the stuffing, casseroles, pies, and bread that all need to go into the oven.
This also means that your oven isn't running all day, heating up the kitchen!
If you think the smell of roasting turkey wafting through the house is an integral part of Thanksgiving, then you might struggle with sous vide. You get a great burst of aroma when you sear it near the end, but you miss out on the hours of roasting smells.
Of course, if you want perfect food AND great smells, you can always spend an extra $5 on a package of turkey wings and roast them while the actual turkey breast and thighs cook in the sous vide bath. That way you can enjoy the smell but still have moist and tender meat.
Another giant benefit is how much active time is saved by using sous vide, especially on the day we are all getting together. I have to do some work leading up to the big day, but on Thanksgiving I can spend time hanging out with my family and catching up, instead of working in the kitchen the whole time.
Though depending on your family, this might be a negative!
Similar to freeing up your time, if you are using sous vide you don't have to be constantly worrying about whether the turkey is done, if it's time to take off the foil, how the timing is going, or anything else. You know that the meat will be ready when you are, and you can focus on enjoying the people you are with, instead of worrying about the food.
I hope you have a great Thanksgiving and make some really amazing food!
Have you made sous vide turkey before? Got any tips for other readers? Do you have any questions I didn't answer? Let me know in the comments!