A wise gal named Ursula K. LeGuin once said “There are no right answers to wrong questions.” Sing it sister.
This sentiment may be the exact reason you or a loved one struggles with either over or under cooking the Thanksgiving turkey every year. How long should you cook your turkey for? Frankly, we have no idea.
Nope, we have not a clue as to how long your turkey should cook in your oven. You see, how long one should cook a turkey is the wrong question. Time is an outcome, not an input, when cooking meat. Time is dependent upon three variables that can vary widely: The type of meat being cooked, the cooking method being used, and the desired temperature at finish.
Additionally, there are uncontrollable factors that may muck-up a strict time-cooking equation, such as whether your oven cooks ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ – i.e. runs at a higher or lower temperature then the set temperature. We do know this: Few to no oven runs exactly, 100% to the set temperature. This is yet another reason we never rely on time to measure doneness, but rather look to a variable that is predictable and can be consistently monitored.
The right question? “To what internal temperature should my turkey be cooked?”
This bares repeating. Wrong Question: How long should I cook my turkey for? Right Question: To what internal temperature should my turkey be cooked? The answer is 165 degrees Fahrenheit (as measured by a meat thermometer) for a pasture raised turkey. Indeed, the best and most accurate way of determining when your turkey is ‘done’ is by internal temperature.
The Correct Way to Cook a Turkey In The Oven
For pasture raised turkey we recommend aiming for a finished temperature of 165 degrees. What’s so magical about 165 degrees Fahrenheit, you ask? First, bacteria are killed at 160 degrees. Second, at 160 degrees, a pasture raised turkey is still moist and flavorful. And third, the turkey will raise approximately five degrees in temperature after it is pulled out of the oven. We call this carryover cooking. Hence removing your turkey from the oven at 165 degrees will actually yield a finished temperature closer to 170 degrees. As the internal temperature climbs beyond 170 degrees, pasture raised turkey will dry out and loose it’s flavor. Thus, at 165 degrees when removed from the oven, a pasture raised turkey is moist, flavorful, and perfectly safe to eat.
How much time does this actually equate to? While the rule of thumb is approximately 13 minutes cooking time per pound of bone-in whole turkey, we recommend alloting 10 minutes cooking time per pound for pasture raised bird.
At approximately half-way thru the total alloted roasting time, take the internal temperature of your turkey. Continue to check the internal temperature periodically, remembering that the rate of cooking increases as the internal temperature of meat rises. In other words, the time it takes the internal temperature to rise from 140 to 150 degrees is much faster than the time it takes the internal temperature to rise from 90 to 100 degrees. As the turkey approaches a final temperature of 165 degrees, it will cook more quickly. Once the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees, remove the turkey from the oven. Let rest for 30 minutes to finish cooking and redistribute juices.
For more turkey cooking tips, here’s a simple three step dry brine method to help ensure a moist and flavorful turkey.
The 180 Degree Myth
You may have read that 180 degrees Fahrenheit is the ideal temperature a turkey should be roasted to. We kindly disagree. A 180 degree finish is appropriate for a mass-produced turkey purchased from the supermarket, but not for a pasture raised turkey purchased from a trusted source. Roasting turkey to 180 degrees is actually overcooking it, as harmful bacteria is killed at a much lower temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
So why in the world is it recommended one overcook a turkey to 180 degrees, resulting in a dried-out piece of poultry?
The 180 degree guideline was developed in response to the rising level of illness-inducing bacteria in mass produced poultry. For many years many Americans have purchased mass produced poultry from the grocery store, raised on overcrowded factory farms that use antibiotics to combat rampant illness in the flock. This poultry, including turkey, is at much higher risk of bacterial growth due to highly crowded (and hence less clean) living and processing conditions.
At one point in our history, 60% of all supermarket chicken was found to have Campylobacter, a nasty bacterium associated with food poisoning. As recently as February of 2016, the USDA reported that 25% of mass-produced chicken cuts en route to grocery store shelves tested positive for Salmonella. And, here’s the really scary part – antibiotic resistance within these bacterial strains is increasing due to extensive overuse of antibiotics in factory farm poultry flocks.
In a nutshell, bacterial contamination is so profound in mass-produced poultry that for consumer safety, it is deemed necessary to overcook poultry (to 180 degrees). Overcooking factory farmed turkey ensures that bacteria aren’t just killed, but vaporized into oblivion. Yuck.
A Simple Solution. Start Clean.
Fortunately, you can by-pass all of this worry and overcooked poultry by simply roasting a pasture raised turkey this Thanksgiving, instead of a potentially contaminated mass produced one. Simply put, it’s not necessary to overcook them because there is much lower risk of bacteria growth in pasture raised birds, and specifically less risk of encountering the virulent antibiotic-resistant strains present in factory farms. Why?
Because raising turkey in small flocks in an unconfined environment (ahem…pasture raised) on a small, non-factory farm promotes cleanliness and reduces flock illness. Bacteria don’t survive very well in a clean, uncrowded environment. The environmental risk factors (overcrowding, flock illness, overuse of antibiotics) for bacterial proliferation are mitigated in a pasture raised environment. Hence, when preparing a pasture raised turkey, overcooking isn’t required for human health and safety.