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Why Your Turkey Always Dries Out—And How to Avoid It, Says Chef

Nothing is more of a buzzkill on Thanksgiving day than overcooked, dry turkey.

Every year when Thanksgiving season rolls around, the internet is flooded with tips and tricks on how to roast the perfect bird. From the best brine and herb butter spread to the perfect timing and temperature, the simple act of roasting a turkey on Thanksgiving seems nothing short of rocket science. And yet, while many feel a 4 a.m. wakeup call is necessary for roasting the perfect bird, this idea that a turkey needs to roast all day results in the inevitable Thanksgiving faux pas—a dried-out turkey.

With so much thought and preparation on roasting that Thanksgiving turkey, why does eating dry, chewy turkey seem inevitable? Thankfully, we asked a few experts for an easy solution so you can avoid this fated turkey day disaster.

"The reason turkey dries out is because the dark meat takes longer to cook than the white meat," says Chef Rob Levitt, head butcher of Publican Quality Meats.

Want to avoid unevenly cooked meat and roast the perfect turkey? Here are a few tips to keep in mind to ensure your bird is perfectly moist and flavorful this Thanksgiving. And for even more turkey roasting tips, be sure to also avoid these 17 Major Ways You're Cooking a Turkey Wrong.

Methods for making a juicy Thanksgiving turkey
grandmother carrying turkey for family on thanksgiving dinner

To ensure that the turkey cooks evenly without drying out, Chef Levitt suggests these tips for avoiding a turkey travesty:

  1. Spatchcocking your turkey will to help it cook faster and more evenly. This is a method of cooking in which your entire turkey or chicken bird is split open, so it can lay flat on a pan or grill. In fact, it's one of Ina Garten's favorite ways to cook a bird.
  2. Cook the different part of the turkey meat separately, removing parts from your whole turkey as it's roasting based on when each type of meat appears to be finished. Separating pieces of your turkey as they cook rather than waiting for the whole bird to roast may not exactly give you the same "wow" factor on Thanksgiving as you put down a perfectly golden turkey on the table. However, that's why Chef Levitt also offers up a third suggestion.
  3. Remove the turkey from the oven before it's totally done cooking. Because the turkey is so hot, it will actually continue to cook on the counter after removing it from the oven. That's why Chef Levitt—along with countless other chefs—advises that you give your turkey time to rest. To do so, Chef Levitt suggests removing the turkey when the thickest part of the breast hits 150°; the dark meat will likely be around 155° if not a little higher.
  4. Let your turkey rest on the counter for some time before carving it. Anywhere between 30 minutes to a couple of hours will suffice, giving you enough time to get those Thanksgiving sides ready. Some experts claim that it's best to refrain from covering that turkey with aluminum foil. Because the turkey is already hot coming out over or off the grill, covering it will essentially enclose it in another makeshift oven until you're ready to serve it. When covered, this can cause your turkey to reach a higher temperature than initially intended and easily dry out.

The type of turkey also matters

While the aforementioned techniques are good methods to steer clear of a dried-out turkey, it's also important to keep the type of turkey in mind. While white turkeys are traditionally purchased for Thanksgiving tables across the country, they aren't known for creating the juiciest cut of meat after roasting.

"Turkeys have been bred to grow so fast that they now must be harvested at a very young to produce the 10–14 pound turkey most people want," says Paul Kelly, managing director of KellyBronze. "As they are only in early adolescence when harvested, they have not laid down the fat that would keep the bird naturally juicy."

According to Kelly, a white turkey is typically harvested at 12 weeks, versus a bronze turkey which is harvested at six months. As the turkey ages, it produces even more intramuscular fat, which helps with keeping the meat moist instead of dried out when roasting.

"Turkey is not a very forgiving meat—and once it goes over temperature, it dries out very quickly," Kelly explains. "A slow-growing bronze breed will cook quicker than a fast-growing commercial breed, simply because it has more intramuscular fat that conducts the heat through the bird quicker."

To make sure you're getting the tastiest turkey imaginable, Kelly strongly suggests keeping a meat thermometer close by as you roast your bird.

Kiersten Hickman
Kiersten Hickman is a freelance health and nutrition journalist. Read more about Kiersten