Pardon the turkey, but pardon me first

Once we’re all assembled together with the family around the Thanksgiving holiday, we smother the incumbent anxious tension with a security blanket of football games, inordinate amounts of alcohol and quasi-probing discussions of tomorrow’s Black Friday shopping extravaganza. I suppose getting stoned on pot has also been introduced as an added stress moderator. We don’t get together for the food, that’s for sure. The only thing more akin to cardboard than old fashioned, home roasted turkey is eggplant, and even that is a toss-up. We all say we love pumpkin pie, but we eat it exactly one day per year, just like the stuffing and the cranberries. As much as we look forward to those day after turkey sandwiches, Mom knows we better have lots of mayonnaise on hand to moisten the saddle-like leather that yesterday’s turkey becomes.

For better or for worse, Thanksgiving has become the only time of year when turkeys are cooked from raw and at home. A rapidly decreasing number of us still participate in the yearly family ritual, if only because of a sense of obligatory duty. We celebrate Thanksgiving with our relatives because we will get scolded if we don’t.

That doesn’t mean people don’t eat turkey the rest of the year–the turkey sandwich and the iconic club sandwich still reign supreme, right along side hamburgers and hot dogs.

Sliced thin, cheese or no cheese, trimmed crust or untrimmed,

toast or no toast, tomatoes or no tomatoes, you don’t have to study the metrics to know this item dominates cold sandwich stations everywhere.

Woot came first?

I’ve been looking for whole raw turkeys in the store so I could post an updated sous vide recipe and article. With the exception of ground turkey and the occasional “Miso-marinated turkey tenderloin,” almost all of the turkey in the retail and wholesale market is sold pre-cooked. Bad news for Salmonella, I guess. Most of that turkey is processed sous vide, too, although you’d never know it from the label. Wait. Woot? Take a look at the turkey products available in your local chain market, especially the deli.

You don’t have to look very closely to notice that the wide assortment of “roasted,” smoked,  etc. turkey breasts are sealed in very tight fitting, durable plastic. Why is this? Turkey is one of the greatest beneficiaries of sous vide processing. It’s pasteurized. It’s moist. It’s convenient. If you don’t crack the bag, it keeps in the fridge for a long long time.

The easy part has gotten harder

There is still a lot of shock and awe when people realize just how widespread sous vide processing already is–we discuss this in the FB Group that I host. Americans tend not to believe in anything until it comes to their attention in a tv commercial, and there has never been that much mention of sous vide until lately.

Let the truth be known

By the ’70’s, the lion’s share of retail pre-cooked turkey and all of those other deli meats have been routinely cooked and pasteurized using sous vide technology. So, why all the subterfuge? Why are “egg bites” the first thing we have ever heard about that uses sous vide? Sous vide was pretty hush hush until the advertising analysts at the gigantic global coffee seller realized that it could become a valuable PR buzzword. In spite of its widespread use, nobody had been inclined to test the literal French translation of “under vacuum” as a means to lure Americans into opening their wallets. I have to hand it to Starbucks for at least figuring THAT out. I kinda wish it hadn’t been a generic version of ham and cheese quiche without the crust, but I guess I can’t blame them for starting their marketing campaign in the shallow end.

How do you pronounce that again?

The frozen food section and the aforementioned deli are chock full of foods discreetly prepared “Sue Veed.” Why? To eliminate food borne pathogens like salmonella for one thing, and shelf life for another. Anybody who has ever read the label on the milk carton has seen that word “pasteurized.” By now most people take it for granted without even really thinking about what it means.

Louis Pasteur was a French scientist who discovered that spoilage of protein foods could be arrested WITHOUT pressure canning if they were heated to a certain, moderate temperature and then quickly chilled. In the case of milk, this staved off a series of calamitous European epidemics like tuberculosis and a laundry list of other communicable diseases that had plagued 19th century Eurasia.

Bacteria had been discovered, but, once again, people weren’t really sure that they actually caused diseases. You know how them scientists are with all those highfalutin’ theories. Global warming is a hoax and vaccines are bad for you, right? Back then, people actually believed that if you carried fragrant flowers on your person you would be protected from getting the bubonic plague–remember that nursery rhyme “Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies”? That is an obscure reference to Yersinia pestis, the pathogenic culprit responsible for millions of deaths. “Ashes, ashes, all fall down.” I will let you look it up on your own, so as not to digress.

What’s that you say? There’s money to be saved?

Fast forward to the ’70’s. Profit engineers realized that it was a lot cheaper to pasteurize in a sealed container than it was to pasteurize something in the open air and then rush to seal it before it could get contaminated during handling and transit. It’s as simple as that. Rather than building and maintaining a costly, sterile laboratory, they could just vacuum seal the turkey breast (or ham, or beef, or head cheese, or whatever), follow and implement the USDA guidelines for pasteurization and cooling, freeze everything and ship wherever whenever.

Even fast food giants started doing this with burgers and other foods that were otherwise at risk of being cross contaminated with e. coli, clostridium perfringens and/or any other number of incidental pathogens that populate people’s fingers, skin, hair, and even breath. The more we get dumbed down, the more idiot proofing is required.

Back when there was just the one continent

Working in the industry since the ’60’s, I cooked my share of turkeys, mostly whole but progressively hacked into smaller and smaller pieces. We were taught to avoid turkey hens and to favor Toms that weighed at least 25 lbs. There were several reasons for this, but just the bone to weight ratio was usually enough to justify this preference. Hens also had a much higher water content, and, ironically, the males always had larger breasts.


Lots of things have changed since then, and scientific breeding practices can create turkeys featuring characteristics that just didn’t exist way back when. Now, they can produce pretty much anything they want, an otherwise scary thought. Fortunately, turkeys are still extremely stupid, so we needn’t worry about the prospect of axe-dodging Turkeyzillas crowding the landscape in the near future. Hopefully, anyway.

Seven weeks in May

After seeking in vain for whole raw turkeys all month, my favorite broker down at Nicky’s convinced me that these “natural” 6 lb, bone-in double turkey breasts were a good product. I had already calculated in my head that they must be hens, and not even very big hens. They were not cheap either, but I wanted to get a turkey post up ASAP. I rolled the dice. As it turns out, he was right. They are good, surprisingly plump. My first whimsical thought was maybe they were Angus turkeys.

I have continued to look in all the chain markets and even the big box stores, to no avail. Still, the info in this article will be useful come Thanksgiving. That’s the great thing about sous vide. The same parameters can be used on a 2 lb turkey breast as on a 6 lb turkey breast, with only slight modifications of the processing interval.

Whole or in part

For a more extensive explanation of how to remove the bones from a raw turkey, visit HERE. When I actually find a WHOLE one, I promise to re-shoot the regrettably amateurish pictures. The recently edited explanation should be enough to give most people the idea. No matter in what form or partial form you buy your raw turkey, it is usually a good idea to remove the bones in advance. They can be sharp and poke holes in the sous vide bag.

You can’t eat them, so you are going to have to remove them eventually anyway. They can be used to make gravy while you wait for the turkey–see HERE. Don’t feed them to your pets, by the way, whether they be raw or cooked. Very dangerous–too sharp.

So THAT’S what dinosaurs looked like

You can expect bones to comprise approximately one half of the total weight of a bone-in breast. In the case of a whole turkey, the weight of the bones and trim may comprise even more than that. If you buy the turkey already boned out, the price/lb is considerably higher. Of course, this premium covers the labor cost incurred in trimming the turkey. Beyond that, if you buy the turkey without the bones, you are still paying for them–you just don’t get them. The producer then sells them off to pet food companies and bouillon manufacturers. The effort required to learn how to bone out a whole turkey becomes more valuable with each passing step–it is not difficult, as explained HERE

Boned out, these turkey breasts(s) came out to about 1.5 lbs each. That’s just about the right size for a large skillet.

This works out to

135 F/57 C for 4 hours to pasteurize.

While we wait

After this breast was done, I cold shocked it in iced water until it achieved 70 F/21 C. I refrigerated it to 40 F/4 C. That was a few days ago. Less than two weeks, anyway. I get busy with stuff around here. Sous vide processed/pasteurized proteins keep a long long time. They should still be labeled though.

What were once assignments are now obsessions

Remove the breast from the bag and harvest the juices, there really aren’t much. Honestly, I just tossed them in the stock that I made later because I knew I would end up straining it through a fine cloth. Heat the large skillet to 250 F/121 C and add enough oil to coat. Fry the breast, skin side down. Searing is hotter, we want to render as much fat out of the skin as possible without scorching. There are other ways to do it, but this way is kind of a habit.

I use a bacon press to encourage the skin to sit flat. These things are frequently abused by cooks who press down on the burger to finish it so it’s not bloody at the table. That is not a good thing. But if you use it at the beginning of the process, it will not dry out whatever it is sitting on top of.

We’re going to add a little more color later if necessary, so a cursory treatment is sufficient. If you get it super crisp now, you will have dry turkey later. The French think that the Americans are just a little bit too enamored of brown crispness and crisp brownness. I think they’re right.

I added a little mirepoix to the pan–the peel and ends of the carrots, some green onions and celery left over from making dressing.

The turkey breast itself comes out and gets vacuum packed again, into the 140 F/60 C bath to hold until my lunch companion arrives.

The mirepoix gets well browned, but like I said, I do this because it was foisted upon me so many years ago. Now I just can’t stop myself. It’s very mindless at this point.

Quite brown, tomato paste, no tomato paste, wine, no wine, whatever is convenient. We just want a simple stock with some body and color. Actually, I’m still going to cheat and add some Knorr later.

2 cups/0.5 liters of water, or unseasoned stock if you have it, or sous jus that accumulated, again, this and that. Don’t put potato peels or peppers trim in there. Don’t put lettuce in there. Some people just go crazy with this stuff. Don’t put cabbage in there either.

There’s no bones in there, so it really only has to cook for half an hour or so. I just put it on low and go about my business. Then I strain it when I decide what I’m going to do with it.

Traditional service

With all the traditional accompaniments (recipes for each on this site if you look around), what we have here is one of the best examples of Americana.

Other countries have turkeys, cook turkeys, eat turkeys, serve turkeys, but this dish is truly American and unlikely to be found anywhere else. We have to give credit to sous vide though. In all my years, I never saw turkey like this unless it was processed sous vide. Maybe this will finally bring families back together around the holidays. Nah.

Norm King