An Engineer’s Guide to Cooking the Perfect Turkey

It’s almost that special time of year again where we all get together and use our families as guinea pigs for new cooking techniques and untested recipes! Some of us are seasoned pros at preparing the big bird of tradition, while others are still experimenting year after year with hopes of nailing the optimal method by chance. [Travis Mikjaniec] approaches this culinary conundrum from an engineer (of aerodynamicist)’s perspective, with the goal of scientifically discerning through simulation the best method to prepare a Thanksgiving turkey; no long term trial and error required.

thermoTURKEY2

As the basics of cooking dictate, the rate at which the meat of a turkey will cook is determined by where the hot air is flowing and gathering inside the oven. Areas of the bird subjected to consistent fresh heat will cook faster and are more likely to dry out over time, so it’s important that the hot air is equally dispersed for an evenly cooked, juicy turkey. To figure out the trajectory of the air and the point where it begins to cool down, [Travis] modeled the naked bird in CAD, complete with the hallow cavity within. He then recreated the baking conditions to use in FloEFD, in this case a standard convection oven with a fan located in back. To compare cooking techniques against one another, he ran a series of streamline simulations with combinations of different cooking variables, like how high the bird was lifted off the baking sheet and whether or not the inner cavity had the added thermal mass of stuffing or not. These chaotic diagrams of simulated air flow helped visualize which conditions were conducive for even heating.

If you’re interested in knowing the verdict of [Travis’] trials with virtual turkeys, he offers thorough documentation on his investigative blog post. His insight might help improve your cooking game plan for Thanksgiving or teach you something you didn’t know about the aerodynamics of a fifteen pound headless bird… which is something you can talk about while sitting around the table.

21 thoughts on “An Engineer’s Guide to Cooking the Perfect Turkey

  1. The situation on the bottom of the bird is actually worse than [Travis] concluded, because he didn’t model the effects of evaporative cooling. You have the juices cooking out of the bird and running to the bottom. Plus any liquid in the roasting pan, especially if you’ve added extra (plus potatoes, carrots, celery). Even without airflow issues, the bottom of the bird is essentially in a swamp cooler. ;)

  2. as much as I am a fan of Alton brown and his ability to demonstrate the science of cooking, Perfection is more of a personal perspective thing. I have developed a process for my turkeys experiments that take about 9 days to prep, most of it static (thawing and brine), overall actual prep is about 2 hours. but what I get out of it is a turkey that is moist (even the leftovers are moist) and delicious. I am not so conceited to believe that it is perfect for everyone since not everyone has my taste in flavors.

    But if you want to do the best deep-fried turkey I would recommend getting a Henny Penny fryer, they deep fry and pressure cook it at the same time. the moisture from the meat steam cooks the meat deeper inside and keeps the grease from invading too far inside. that’s one of KFC’s secrets.

    1. incomplete thought alert: my mentioning alton brown was to bring to light that science like this can’t bring about the perfect turkey. he did not actually have anything to do with this article.

    2. Yeah, I think what we gain from the Mr Brown and work like this is the understanding of why some ideas work better than others–to help come out with something really good, or at least avoid a total disaster! Perfection is totally up to the individual chef and of course, the guests!

    3. I’m curious what temperature(s) you cook at. The extra salt and water brine adds enhances heat transfer through meat, making it cook faster. But not through the joints and sinew, so there is a tendency to still have “bloody” joints by the time the meat is perfect. Seems a lower temperature initial cook followed by high temperature to crisp the skin is promising, but haven’t nailed down exact details yet.

      1. well the purpose of the water and salt is to force the flavors of the brine, not just salt, into the meat through osmosis. the brine moves in and out of the meat, depositing the flavors, the salt is the machine that accomplishes this, so the meat doesn’t really pick up excessive amounts of salt. as far as the temperature goes, 325 to 350, like randy says below, the radiant heat in the oven walls is crucial in maintaining a consistent heat around the bird, to that end, I tend to shy away from convection ovens when it comes to meat, especially if it’s exposed, it will dry out. My turkey goes into a bag, and is sealed, no holes for venting, don’t worry the bad wont explode (at least not with any force) it may develop a small hole and vent, but that’s the worse that can happen. and if you have the meat covered, a convection oven won’t be any real benefit. but slow and steady is the rule for meat.

        1. I used to cook turkey in a bag, which worked pretty well. Once I discovered brining I mostly went with that instead. But never considered *combining* the two in this way (closest I’ve come is sous viding a brined breast). I’m already on rails with a smoked turkey this year, but this sounds intriguing, and will give it a try next time I roast a chicken. Thanks!

          1. I’ve heard good things about sous vide, mostly from a local restaurant owner, he brags about taking ungraded beef and cooking it sous vide and it comes out servable to his customers. I inwardly cringe every time i think about it, but it can do miraculous things to meat.

          2. It’s a useful technique, but claims as to what it can do are sometimes exaggerated. More than anything it taught me the importance of slow cooking, and accurate temperature measurement to eliminate guesswork; both of which provide benefits when used with any cooking method. While I sometimes still use sous vide proper, I do so much more selectively than I used to when it was new and novel.

  3. The comments on the article page are good, esp the one starting with “Good first attempt.” This work doesn’t seem to take into account the thermal mass of the oven itself, which in my understanding is a very large part of what does the “cooking” in the oven–i.e. the radiant heat from the oven walls. I think this is part of why it’s a big deal to pre-heat the oven. I would think the hot oven walls would also affect the airflow due to the higher temperature of the air close to the walls.

      1. I agree with the roast potatoes, and goose fat is a fine thing indeed, but I personally have had 4 epic failures with goose that culminated in getting 4 stitches in a finger Christmas eve a few years back, so I am sworn off goose forever myself. Duck on the other hand is almost as good and just as greasy, and does make some tasty potatoes.

  4. One year our 8 pound female Siamese cat thought she’d found the mother lode. The turkey was cooked and in the wall oven with the door open so it could cool down some before we all packed up and headed off to the grandparents’. The cat jumped onto the open oven door, grabbed a wingtip in her teeth and yanked the 20 pound bird straight out of the oven. *BANG* it went onto the oven door, stayed in the tray, didn’t slop a drop. The noise scared her and she took off out of the kitchen and upstairs at warp speed. Every day of her life that cat did her best to live up to her name, Mischief!

  5. There seems to be a big problem with the simulation, though–the fan is blowing hot air directly onto the turkey. In my convection oven, the fan takes in air from the oven and blows it through heating elements and out along the sides of the oven, not directly through the center of the oven. There’s no hot spot on the turkey directly in front of the fan as seen in the simulation.

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