Experts found that roasting a rock-solid bird produces a better turkey.
It involves a hot oven, an icy bird and six hours to hang out with your relatives.
While the technique turns out not to be new, it's gaining traction because of a Web publication outlining how to do it by Peter Snyder of the Hospitality Institute of Technology and Management, which does safety training for food companies.
Snyder found that roasting a rock-solid bird produces a better turkey. "The breast is still moist and the dark meat is still tender," he says from his office in St. Paul. It's also excellent for food safety "because you didn't drip that nasty turkey juice on everything in the refrigerator for four days."
Turkeys are by no means a biohazard, but it's not unusual for them to be contaminated with salmonella or campylobacter.
Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
So, can you roast a frozen turkey?
You can. You can even, I found out, overcook one.
On Friday morning I went to the supermarket and bought a 12-pound turkey so frozen solid I could have used it to pound nails.
Once I got home I turned the oven to 325 degrees. I pulled out the wire rack from the microwave and put it on top of a cookie sheet. Then I cut the plastic wrapping off the turkey and put it on the rack.
I put the whole thing in the oven and set the timer for 4˝ hours. It was 11:45 a.m.
By 1:30 p.m. the house was starting to smell like Thanksgiving; the odor of roasting turkey was wafting from room to room. But when I opened the oven, the turkey still looked pale and frozen and my instant-read thermometer only sank about half an inch in before it hit frozen meat. I closed the oven door and went back to my desk. At 3 p.m. I checked again and found that the turkey was turning golden brown, so I grabbed some aluminum foil and laid it on top of the breast.
By this time it had been cooking for four hours but the thigh was only at 130 degrees. I closed the oven and went back to work.
Unfortunately, this is when I should have started paying closer attention. When the oven timer started beeping at 4:15 p.m., I pulled out my thermometer and plunged it into the turkey’s breast. Then I watched in horror as the dial swept to 140, 150, 160, 170 and finally stopped at 178 degrees. The thigh was registering 195. It should have been 160 to 165.
I’d managed to overcook a frozen turkey.
When we sat down to eat, the dark meat was still moist and tender but the breast was dry and tasteless. Thankfully that was pretty much like every turkey I ever ate growing up, so to me it tasted just like Thanksgiving should taste.
And with enough cranberry sauce to go with it, no one else seemed to care.
So yes, you don’t have to thaw your turkey. It may not be the best turkey ever made, but it’s very likely to taste a whole lot like the one Mom used to make.
Given that, Donald Schaffner, a food microbiologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., says from a safety perspective Snyder's right. "A frozen turkey is going to spread less contamination around your kitchen than a thawed turkey."
Snyder tested the technique because "I had been one of those people that had woken up at 7:30 in the morning and the turkey was still frozen." But being a food-safety professional, he decided to throw in a few temperature-measuring thermocouplers.
He placed them at various points on multiple frozen turkeys as they roasted. What was happening in the oven, he found, was "the first half of the cooking period thaws the turkey and then the second half roasts it," he says.
His technique is simple:
Take one frozen turkey, 12 to 13 pounds.
Place a low wire rack on a cookie sheet with low sides.
Remove the plastic cover from the turkey.
Put the turkey on the rack.
Put it in a 325-degree oven.
Wait 4˝ to five hours.
Snyder recommends using a cookie sheet or another baking sheet with a low rim, not a high-sided roasting pan. "You want the hot oven air to evenly circulate all around the turkey," he says.
He also recommends putting the turkey on a rack on the pan so that the hot air can circulate underneath, as well. If you don't have a roasting rack, pull the metal rack out of the microwave and use that, he suggests.
Snyder found that cooking a frozen turkey actually results in a moist breast and fully cooked thighs, without the hassle of turning it upside down or covering with butter-coated cheese cloth or other gimmicks that have been tried in he past.
"When you cook from the frozen state you don't have any of that. The legs are sitting up in a hot oven. The breast, because it's full of frozen water, cooks slower. It gets up to 160 degrees and the legs come out nice and tender."
Don't try to turn the temperature up to rush the process, he says. "It won't work — the outside burns and the inside is still raw."
The techniques work for both natural turkeys and turkeys with added brine, Snyder says.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's food-safety experts agree with Snyder. Kathy Bernard of USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline says "you can cook a turkey from a frozen state, the only thing you need to know is that it takes one and a half times longer to cook" than a thawed bird.
The technique is well known to the folks on the Butterball Turkey Talk-line. They get "lots" of calls on the topic Thanksgiving morning, says Carol Miller. She has been answering frantic questions for 27 years out of the Naperville, Ill., office.
"They buy the turkey late on Tuesday or even on Wednesday and they think a 20-pound turkey is going to be thawed on Thursday morning."
When it isn't, the 60-strong hotline staff has instructions on how to roast a frozen turkey, which are similar to Snyder's.
When is it done?
The ideal final temperatures for the turkey is 160 degrees at the breast and 185 for the legs. But Snyder doesn't think a thermometer is necessary because you can tell when the leg has reached 185 because "it will wiggle back and forth really easily" because the connective tissues will have begun to dissolve at that temperature, he says.
USDA isn't so keen on the "wigging the leg" method of testing for doneness. "You need to use your food thermometer, you need to make sure the turkey should register 165 in the innermost part of thigh and the thickest part of the breast," Bernard says.
Butterball's Miller says this is the time to canvass the neighborhood. "You really need a meat thermometer. If you don't have one, give a guest a call and see if they can bring one. Or go to a convenience store. Or knock on a neighbor's door."
If the breast starts to get too brown, you can loosely cover it with some aluminum foil, says Miller.
Stuffing and giblets
The one area where Snyder and other turkey experts differ is on the matter of the neck and giblets, which in most commercially prepared turkeys will be placed in the neck and body cavity.
Snyder says that after about 2˝ to three hours the turkey will have thawed enough that you can "carefully" pull them out of the warming bird to start to make stock. "You can leave them in, but then you don't have them for the gravy," he says.
Butterball's Miller disagrees. The bag they come is "designed to go through that heating process, so that's not a problem." Trying to remove a slippery bag tucked deep in a turkey straight out of a hot oven — especially when everyone's stressed about getting things done on time — just isn't necessary. "They're just as happy staying right where they are. That's our recommendation and we've been doing this for 30 years."
And forget about stuffing it. From a food-safety standpoint "that really gets iffy," says Miller. "Just cook (the stuffing) in a casserole dish."
For serious restaurant professionals, the real question is "Why would I want to do that?" says Brendan Walsh, associate dean for production kitchens at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
But, he admits, things are a little different in a restaurant setting, anyway. "We cook 20 to 25 birds every Thanksgiving. We take the legs off, debone them, braise them, remove the breasts and then roast one every hour so they're always perfectly cooked and juicy" as guests order them.
"And I always put thyme butter under the skin," he says, which is a little hard to do when the turkey's frozen solid.
The one thing you can't do with a frozen turkey is deep fry it, because the frozen liquid can cause the oil to boil over, Snyder says. "That would be very, very dangerous."