Why Does Meat Dry Out During Cooking?

Dry turkey
Nobody wants to eat a dry turkey. Tetra Images/Getty

Thanksgiving is fast approaching and this is when families really begin to talk turkey, usually regarding how the signature main course is going to be prepared. Methods include frying, brining and basic roasting, as well as more extreme measures such as cooking it on your car engine or even in a vat of tar. However you choose to brown your bird, the one fear that always arises is that the meat is going to dry out in the process. Before you find yourself in the kitchen on Thanksgiving, losing this battle and cursing the world, it might help to learn what happens to meat during the cooking process.

The book Culinary Reactions lays out the science in layman’s terms. Animal muscle—the bit we usually like to eat—is surrounded by tough connective tissues that, when cooked, turn into gelatin sacs that help make the meat tender. Trouble arises when the meat’s temperature rises to the point where the water molecules inside the muscle fibers boil and the protective gelatin bags burst. This is when your meat starts to dry out. In some cases, like frying bacon, the loss of moisture to provide crispy doneness is desirable. In a turkey, not so much.

Thanksgiving dinner. Image courtesy of Flickr user MebS09.

As luck would have it, Culinary Reactions author Simon Quellen Field does offer a recipe for Thanksgiving turkey. But because it calls for cooking at such a low temperature—205 degrees Fahrenheit—extra measures need to be taken to make sure bacteria don’t grow, such as giving the bird a hydrogen peroxide bath and stuffing it with acidic fruits.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to reduce the stress of mounting a major meal. Try to take a cue from writer and Brooklyn butcher Tom Mylan, whose open letter to Thanksgiving cooks advises you to keep calm and try not to over-think things. For those who over-think themselves into a bind, remember there’s always the Butterball hotline to help get you through the poultry portion of your dinner.

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