Whole Turkey Sous Vide?

turkey partsParticularly around the fall and winter holidays (though it came up today with the daffodils on a comment thread at chefsteps.com) readers often raise the question: can I cook a whole turkey sous vide?

The answer is sure! You just have to do it in parts!

But that’s not really what the questioners mean, of course.  They mean the whole, intact bird. And that presents a few problems for the sous vide method.  In order to cook a whole bird by the sous vide technique, you’d need a chamber vacuum sealing appliance to vacuum seal the carcass, because with a simple suction vacuum sealer, you aren’t going to be able to extract the air in the cavity of a whole bird and thus, the pouch will float and the meat will cook unevenly.  But even there, some issues arise, because you would need:

  •  a chamber vacuum sealer large enough to accommodate a whole turkey.
  • very large cooking safe pouches that would accommodate a whole turkey.

To get around the need for a chamber vac, you could:

  • Spatchcock the bird, flatten it, and vacuum seal it, but… (see the two points above).  Spatchcocking (butterflying) is admittedly an easier technique with a game hen, chicken, or duck than with a turkey, but the same rules apply!
  • Simply split the bird from neck to tail into halves and vacuum seal them (see same two points above!)

Any of these methods will let you cook a turkey more or less all at once, but, apart from the big ta-da presentation of a whole bird–even a flattened one–why would you want to do that?

One of the reasons to choose sous vide cooking is to bring out the very best in the food in question.  And the very best in white meat poultry, where it is juicy and succulent and never dry or stringy, occurs at around 146F/63.5C.  The best in dark meat poultry occurs at a somewhat hotter temperature (we like 176F/80C for turkey ourselves) which would be most unkindly hot to the muscle fibers of the white meat!

Thus, the perfect solution (and one that doesn’t require a chamber vacuum sealer, though will work with one just fine!) is to separate the turkey into fore and aft and cook the breasts as they prefer and the legs and thighs as they prefer.  The result is that you’ll have something your guests will most surely prefer — a tender, juicy, perfectly-cooked bird!

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