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Jan McGirk

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You Don't Have to Be a Rocket Scientist to Cook a Turkey, But It Helps.

Posted: 11/26/2013 12:57 pm

Thanksgiving used to be a no-brainer for me. All I had to do was come home to my parents' house, feast with the relatives, and be prepared to wash dishes and silver afterwards while the games were on TV. Some years, we even sneaked away after lunch to ski in the local mountains, fresh turkey sandwiches in our backpacks. It was the best holiday of the year -- Christmas without the greed. No Secret Santa. No prezzies. Just family.

When I got married, I tried to emulate my mom's relaxed technique to achieve a perfectly moist turkey. Didn't she just shove the bird into a roasting bag, put it in a hot oven and wait? The correct temperature must be listed on the bag packaging. Or the turkey wrapper. Or available on line. I wasn't too worried. But my first attempt to cook a turkey nonchalantly at my in-laws' backfired. Literally. My husband's dad complained that the plastic might taint the taste of his traditional turkey. While I was out of the kitchen, he slashed a few extra large holes in the roasting bag -- on the bottom! Out came all the juices, dripping onto an electric heating unit -- and a fire blazed in the oven, smoking out our whole Thanksgiving feast. Sigh.

I am thankful I don't have to relive that episode.

Sure, nearly every recipe tells you to place the bird into a preheated oven and let the cooking transpire. But beware of dried-out breast meat or a partially cooked stuffing that might sicken your guests. My sister-in-law contracted salmonella on the Raw Diet last summer, and now is more adamant than ever about thermometers and minimum temperatures in the interior cavity. She no longer is a giblets gal.

Especially if dozens of cousins attend the feast, our family Thanksgivings frequently feature dueling turkeys -- when siblings try and outdo one another with poultry prowess. My big brother once brought an organic brined turkey done Southwest style over mesquite chips in a backyard smoker, custom-built for our meal. But we also served a butterball, stuffed two ways: Czech-style with sauerkraut, plus some stovetop cornbread dressing on the side. Way different, both good.

How to top that this year? With so many smartphones in the kitchen, everyone's going to try and be the expert. This doesn't bode well for my know-it-all siblings, given the number of sharp knives lying around. Luckily I found a wonderful new source to trump all this conflicting online culinary expertise: Cooking with a Touch of Science, by George R Brewer.


It doesn't take a rocket scientist to cook a feast, but surely it helps. A noted electronic engineer, gourmet cook, world traveler and eager eater, Dr. Brewer has systematically experimented on all the variables in 84 of his favorite dishes to create a unique cookbook. This cook's obsession with detail is impressive; he photocopied cross-sections of multiple French bread loaves that he'd baked in order to compare the density of air holes. His expertise includes research and development of microwave electron tubes, electron beam generation and focusing, and ion propulsion for spacecraft. So Brewer's suggestions for getting the most out of my aging electric stove do merit attention.

Dr. Brewer suggests roasting a turkey at 450 degrees for the first hour, then turning the temperature down to 250 degrees until it's done. The total roasting time should take 16 minutes per pound.

"The decision when to remove the roast from the oven is the last step in a lengthy process; it is the cook's last chance at perfection!" he cautions. "Don't overcook!"

 

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