Thanksgiving Perfection: The End of Dry Turkeys

By Dr. Jennifer Hanes

Dreading another year of turkey so dry even a boat full of gravy is unable to hide its jerky consistency?  Help is here.  No matter what your favorite recipe, once you understand the science of cooking a turkey, a juicy feast is yours to enjoy!

In many kitchens, the refrigerator is so packed before the big feast there is no room for the turkey.  No problem.  The day before (or even two if you monitor the temperature closely) soak your turkey in a big cooler.  Use a large cooler and clean it thoroughly with soap and water followed by a disinfectant solution of bleach and water (directions are on the bleach bottle.)  Then submerse the turkey into the cooler until it is covered with ice water. Also add around 1/2 cup of salt into this bath.  The combination of water and salt both serve to moisten and soften the turkey.  (For you budding scientists, this combination serves to untwist the quaternary structure of the protein.)  You may also add some flavoring to this ice bath, nice additions are lemons, onions, rosemary and sage.  Leave the cooler closed except to check the temperature or add more ice.  The water temperature should remain between 37 and 41 degrees Farenheit to ensure proper food safety.

On Thanksgiving morning, when you take the turkey out of its bath, it will literally have absorbed some water and be heavier than before, adjust your cooking time accordingly.   (And make sure you disinfect the cooler again after the turkey is removed so it is clean for the next use.)  There is a myth that applying butter to the skin makes the turkey juicier, but that technique only affects the skin.  If you want moister meat, place the butter under the skin.  You may use softened butter alone, or add some herbs like finely chopped rosemary and sage.  Once the butter is softened, gently work your hand under the skin.  You will have to break up some of the adhesions connecting the skin to the meat, but this also provides great little pockets to hold the butter in place while it cooks.

Place the turkey into the roasting pan along with your aromatic vegetables.   Good ideas to flavor include onions, celery, carrots, sage, rosemary, lemon, black peppercorns, garlic or any flavoring you choose.  Do not use alcohol as it will dehydrate the meat.  Alcohol, such as wine, should only be used in a sauce for flavoring because when used to marinate or cook protein it actually creates a drier end product.  Do put several cups of water or chicken broth into the bottom of your pan.  Place in the oven, uncovered initially.

The extra liquid in the pan will evaporate creating a more homogenous environment in the oven.  With this extra broth, the turkey is able to keep its juices without evaporating as quickly.  Once the skin is browned (somewhere around an hour of cooking time), you will need to cover the breast to help it stay moist.  Many people create a tent of aluminum foil, which is fine.  However, you can also cover the breast with strips of uncooked bacon.  They will keep the turkey breast moist and add delicious flavor and a wonderful aroma to the meat.  It also adds a great flavor to the drippings to make your gravy.  (Remove the bacon strips before serving.  Some people then add them to a green bean side dish or to the gravy.)

Once you have covered the turkey, do NOT open the door again until it is done.  Each time you open the door, not only do you release a lot of the heat, but it also lets out the steam, and then the turkey gives up more of its juice to create the homogenous environment once again.

When the turkey is cooked and removed from the oven, allow it to rest for at least an hour before serving.  The heat will continue to destruct the protein structure so it will become even softer and juicier the longer it sits.

Five reminders for your juiciest turkey ever:

1)  Give it a salt-water ice bath with herbs for flavoring.

2)  Place the butter under the skin, rather than on top.

3)  Put liquid in the bottom of the roasting pan.

4)  Cover the turkey after about an hour of cooking, then leave the oven closed.

5)  Finally, let it rest before carving.

By following these science based guidelines, rather than simple family traditions, you will have a juicy delicious turkey that is so moist, the gravy boat may go untouched.  Happy Thanksgiving!


A board certified emergency physician, Jennifer Hanes, D.O., discovered that patients have greater success when they understand their bodies.  With that unique philosophy, she founded Empowered Medicine, PLLC, where knowledge is powerful medicine.  She empowers patients with her articles, motivational speeches and private consultations.  You can learn more at