Saturday, 24 December 2011

Slow roasting

Chris Dillow seasonally enjoins us to 'stick it to The Man' by cooking stuff. (I suppose it's implicit that The Man should not be allowed to eat what we cook.)  I claim no great proficiency in the kitchen, but what's on my mind today is the right way to cook turkey.  There is a way that gives much better results than the usual method, which is to roast it slowly overnight.

Before I try to persuade you of this, a word of warning: this method is widely disrecommended.  However you cook the bird, it's important that every part of it get hot enough: the USDA recommends 165F/74C.  This is comfortably above the temperature at which vegetative bacteria such as salmonella and staphylococci will die.  This paper takes a look at the bacteriology.  The concern with slow roasting is, or at least should be, that the meat will spend longer at intermediate temperatures at which bacteria multiply rapidly and may secrete toxins.  This creates "a small reason to set a minimum time for raw food cook come-up". 

You should choose a bird that's been reared non-intensively.  I like to think that such birds are less likely to be contaminated with harmful bacteria, but in any case you owe it to a creature you're going to eat that it should have enjoyed a life worth living.  And it will taste better.  It will cost more too: most families in the UK can afford it, if you can't then you'll have better things to worry about than my culinary advice.

So to the cooking.  The problem with roasting large pieces of meat at 160C or higher is that the outside will have spent a long time at a high temperature before the inside gets hot enough to be safe.  That's ok with meats like beef for which it creates an interesting variation in texture and flavour, especially if there's a good covering of fat to keep the outside moist.  But turkey just dries out.  You can avoid this by cooking at much more gentle temperatures.  And it makes the whole process of cooking a meal much easier, because there's no need to be exact with the timing provided you give it long enough.  In one way, this method is safer because you won't be tempted to take the turkey out too soon because the outside is getting overcooked or because the rest of the meal is ready.

I hesitate to point you to any specific procedure: I mix and match from various sources.  But the key points are:

- Cook stuffing separately.  This leaves the cavity empty for the turkey to cook from the inside too.
- Start the turkey at a high temperature to kill surface bacteria.  (Or boil it for a few minutes instead if you're equipped to do so)
- Cook overnight on a rack at a temperature just below boiling point (cooler and bacterial toxins are more of a concern, hotter and it's harder to keep the meat moist, though a foil tent completely covering the roasting pan may do it)
- Use a meat thermometer to make sure the turkey is hot enough all the way through.  If you do this with time to spare you can always turn the heat up at the end to speed things up if necessary.

Best get started in the next hour or so...

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