Why is the Turkey Still Pink?

You’ve covered your bases— the turkey was in the oven with a digital probe, or separated into white and dark meat, and then cooked to the perfect internal temperature. But when you begin carving your bird, you notice the devastating color that is sure to break the hearts of hunger-mad guests moments before Thanksgiving dinner is served: pink. No need to panic. If you’ve carefully cooked your bird, there are other reasons why you might see that hue.

Several phenomena can cause discoloration in cooked meat. By far the most common, and to some people the most off-putting, is the pink discoloration that frequently occurs in poultry and pork that have been over cooked to temperatures above 80 °C / 175 °F or so. This pink tint makes some people think that the meat is still slightly raw—a common complaint with Thanksgiving and Christmas birds. In pork, the pink hue may even lead diners to suspect that a sneaky cook has injected nitrites into the meat.

In fact, a pigment known as cytochrome is to blame. Cytochrome helps living cells to burn fat. At high temperatures, it loses its ability to bind oxygen and turns pink. Over time, the pigment does regain its ability to bind oxygen, and the pink tinge fades. That is why the leftover meat in the refrigerator rarely seems to have this unseemly blush the next day.

Pink discoloration can also come in other forms, such as spots and speckles. Nearly all of these blotches are the result of the unusual way that various protein fragments and thermally altered pigment molecules bind oxygen. None of them indicate that the meat is still raw or that it will make you ill. Nor do they implicate a sneaky cook.

-Adapted from Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking

Leftovers Survival Guide

Let’s cut to the chase: we look forward to Thanksgiving leftovers almost as much as the formal dinner itself. One of the most emblematic leftover preparations is undoubtedly the post-Thanksgiving turkey sandwich. A delicious amalgamation of last night’s meal, this sandwich is the essence of Thanksgiving between two slices of structurally sound bread. When it comes to handling leftovers, however, things can get a bit funky. Here’s what you need to know.

Danger, Danger

At the end of dinner, there’s a mad rush to clean the kitchen and pack leftovers so that loafing can begin. It’s usually an afterthought, but proper packaging is a crucial step for ensuring your leftovers survive.

Cooked food should be chilled quickly to inhibit bacterial growth. The “danger zone” range is 4–60°C / 40–140°F, encompassing temperatures between refrigeration and cooking temperature. This zone is notorious because it provides favorable conditions for bacteria to rapidly multiply. The longer food spends cooling in this zone, the more likely it is that your leftovers will harbor unwanted microbes. As a general guideline, food should not sit in the danger zone for more than four hours. The guideline also comes into play for thawing food. A whole turkey and similarly large foods thaw slowly and unevenly, so they should not be left to thaw at room temperature. As the bird slowly thaws, bacteria will develop on the outer tissue layers even though the inside remains frozen.

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It’s important to note that these guidelines, developed by the FDA, are an oversimplification of how bacteria behave. Multiplication rates vary according to many factors, such as temperature, moisture, and pathogen type. More conservative recommendations from other organizations, such as the USDA, suggest that two hours is a more suitable estimate, while others expand the window to six.

As you get ready to pack leftovers, do the math and toss anything that could have exceeded this threshold. If it’s particularly warm in your kitchen, dispose of leftovers well before the four-hour mark. Food should be disposed of after an hour if it held in a 32 °C / 90 °F environment.

Rapid cooling has another big benefit: it maintains juiciness and fresh-cooked flavors better than slow cooling can. Juices gel and thicken before they escape, and flavorful aromatics stay locked in your foods.

The obvious remedy to cooling hot food appears to be simply placing it in the refrigerator straight away. But this strategy happens to be the worst way to cool and store leftovers. Warm packages stay warm, well after an hour, and actually raise the temperature of surrounding foods, increasing the risk of spoilage as illustrated in the infrared images below. It’s an interesting problem: food should be chilled rapidly, but cooling via the refrigerator or freezer is problematic.

SV5_Fridge w hot food thermal
Top: Hot food immediately placed in a refrigerator. Bottom: One hour later, leftovers are still hot and neighboring food is now warmer.

The Art of Cooling and Reheating Leftovers

Putting warm leftovers away probably seemed like a mundane task a few paragraphs ago. Now it might feel more like a dilemma, but you have several options.

If you’re cooling lots of sauce, like warm gravy or stock, pour it into a shallow container to increase the surface area. The shallower the container, the faster your liquids will cool. You can also divide the sauce or stock among several smaller containers.

The best way to quickly cool food to refrigeration temperatures is to dunk your sealed foods in ice water, which can be as simple as a sink or bowl of cold water with lots of ice cubes. Once the food is chilled, it can then be stored, still sealed, in a freezer or in the enclosed drawers at the bottom of the fridge, which maintain the most stable temperatures. Avoid the shelves in the door, which are the warmest part of a refrigerator.

When you’re ready for reheating, simply put your bags of leftovers in a heated water bath, and let them warm gradually. Most foods should be reheated to 60 °C / 140 °F, though red meat should be reheated to its original cooking temperature. Avoid reheating any food to temperatures above 65 °C / 149 °F, and take care not to overcook food. Finally, allow reheated food to rest. The rationale is similar to why we let meat rest— resting allows the exterior to cool slightly while juices thicken. This final step will preserve the flavor and moistness of the food.

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If dunking your foods in ice water isn’t an option, let them cool on your counter (if time allows), or, if the weather is cold, place covered leftovers outdoors until they’ve cooled enough for safe storage.

Warmed-over Flavors

Turkey and ham come with an additional challenge: the slightly stale, somewhat-rancid aroma that develops after being reheated. It’s an aroma that can put a considerable damper on daydreams of savoring a delicious turkey sandwich.

The underlying cause of rancidity is the oxidation of unsaturated fats found in muscle-cell membranes. When first cooked, these unsaturated fats remain reasonably stable. Once the meat cools, however, the cell membranes readily break down, exposing fat molecules to oxidation. The greater quantity of unsaturated fats, the more likely warmed-over flavors will arise after reheating cooked meat, which is why such aromas are commonly found in seafood, poultry, and pork.

Iron, abundant in meat and myoglobin filaments in muscle, catalyzes these oxidation reactions after food has been heated, cooled, and then reheated. Brines with curing salts can be used as preventative measures against the reaction, but salt alone can do more harm than good. The best way to buy more time for your leftover turkey is to keep it tightly packaged in a sous vide bag after cooking. The air-free environment therein will help slow the process of oxidation.

Now back to that sandwich. There’s a lot to be said for one perfect bite of thanksgiving—getting all of those flavors in a single bite. When it comes to sandwiches, be strategic. First, if you don’t use a water bath to warm your turkey, try reheating it in extra gravy to restore flavors and lost moisture. As you begin construction, use cranberry sauce as a spread, and then add your gravy-soaked turkey. Next comes a rather difficult decision: whether to finish your sandwich with stuffing or potatoes, but not both. Too many carbohydrates will upset the delicate ratio of proteins and condiments.

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Building a Better Turkey

When it comes to turkey, there are many different theories about the best way to prepare a bird. The topic can get downright philosophical with every side presenting evidence on behalf of a particular technique, leaving you to exit the fray with over a dozen methods, each one somehow better than the last. While some methods yield far better results than others, the only true loser is your dried-out bird. Here’s our guide, backed by science, for making a truly succulent turkey.

The Mechanics of Dark and White Meat

Structural differences between white and dark meat make succulence a particularly challenging goal. Meat gets its color from an oxygen-carrying protein called myoglobin, which naturally binds and shuttles oxygen throughout an organism’s body. Dark meat is comprised of slow-twitch muscles that are built for endurance and found primarily in the legs and thighs. These aerobic muscles require large quantities of oxygen-friendly myoglobin to help sustain prolonged use—such as long-distance running—hence their dark coloring. They also burn fat for fuel, so the meat ends up richer in flavor.

In contrast, if you were to look at a turkey breast under a microscope, you would see many light-colored, fast-twitch muscle fibers, geared for intense bursts of activity such as fluttering or scrambling across a road. These fibers work anaerobically and don’t burn fat, so few myoglobin proteins are present, resulting in a white, lean meat.

With different compositions and purposes, muscles cook at different temperatures—dark meat, for instance, requires higher cooking temperatures than white meat. That’s why preparing a turkey can get tricky. A Modernist approach is to cook each separately. For Thanksgiving, we like to create a confit of dark meat, brine the breast meat, and cook both sous vide at their respective times and temperatures. Cooking sous vide provides a precision-based strategy for maximizing juiciness, and it has an additional bonus: it frees up precious oven space for other dishes on your menu.

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The Whole Turkey

It can be hard to imagine a Thanksgiving meal without an iconic, whole-roasted turkey. Maybe it’s a deep‑seeded, primal instinct based on millennia of roasting meats over a fire. Or perhaps it’s the nostalgia from that special moment when everyone in the kitchen holds their breath in unison to take in the aroma, the color of the skin, and the site of the steaming turkey as it emerges from the oven.

Whatever the reason, there are two issues that make roasting a whole turkey tricky. First, white and dark meat have to be baked together. Second, a crisp, golden skin requires temperatures that will leave the meat underneath undesirably dry. Suddenly, roasting a turkey becomes a juggling act between crispy skin and succulent meat, a task akin to an algebraic formula: if a turkey leaves the station in St. Louis at 15 mph, how long will it take to arrive in Denver with crispy skin and tender meat? Is there a definitive solution for roasting a whole turkey? Likely not. But we’d like to think that injection brining comes pretty close.

How Brines Work

On a fundamental level, brines modify meat proteins. When dissolved, salt dissociates into positively charged sodium ions and negatively charged chloride ions, which are the atoms that actually diffuse throughout your foods. Salinity is a measure of the concentration of these two ions, which equates to a specific ratio of salt to water. Ions flow from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration, but, due to a shallow gradient in muscle tissues, the diffusion of dissolved salt tends to be quite slow, which is why it can take months to properly cure a ham.

Brining technically does not work via osmosis, as popular opinion suggests. If osmosis alone were at play, water would be drawn out of the meat, but brining works by pulling water into muscles. Chloride ions from dissolved salt diffuse into muscle fibers and accumulate along the surfaces of protein filaments. As these ions increase in number, they generate a negative charge that loosens and pushes neighboring filaments apart. This newly created channel provides enough space for water to enter the muscle, causing it to swell from the influx of ambient water. Ions further modify muscle proteins by causing them to bind tightly to water and resist shrinking as the meat cooks. Muscle will continue to swell until the salinity reaches 6%—after that, it shrinks and begins to lose water.

Brining is a slow process; salt diffuses through muscle roughly 100 to 1,000 times slower than heat conduction. As such, traditional brining can take days—the thicker the cut of meat, the longer it will take to brine. Protein is also found in skin, thus water molecules are bound and trapped there as well. As a result, the skin of brined meat can easily get soggy because of the time it takes for the brining process to work. Excess water can, then, lead to soggy skin and a rubbery texture. Enter injection brining.

MEAT6_Brine Injector_MG_9900

Injection Brining

Injection brining speeds up the process, turning a multiday event into an overnight task. This technique will give you more control over where your brine diffuses, allowing you to expose only the bird’s muscles to the brining solution.

The day before Thanksgiving, create a brine of 6% salt by turkey weight—a reasonable rule of thumb is to use at least as much water by weight as you have meat. Pull back the skin so that you only pierce the meat. Then, using a brining syringe, slowly inject the legs, breasts, and thighs. Inject the muscles evenly over the surface, leaving about an inch between injection sites. Turkeys can be large, so this may require dozens of injections. After your turkey is brimming with brine, let it rest overnight in your refrigerator. When you’re ready to roast the turkey, put it on a roasting rack over a drip pan. The rack allows air to circulate around the turkey, which helps amplify flavors and promote even browning of the skin.

Crispy Skin

Skin has an incredibly high moisture content—it’s about 70–80% water by weight. The science behind golden skin is simple: dry it out by removing moisture. For particularly thick skin, however, we like to add an extra step before cooking—don’t cover your brined turkey when you refrigerate it overnight. Instead, leave it uncovered until it’s time to put it in the oven. By doing so, you’re allowing the turkey’s skin to dry out so that it crisps better in the oven.

Crispy skin is also dependent on knowing the internal temperature of your turkey, so we like to combine the drying step with another equally simple step: tracking the oven’s temperature. Cover your turkey with aluminum foil, which will help prevent the skin from getting too dark, and then place it in the oven. Depending on your oven, bake the covered turkey between 191-204 °C / 375-400 °F. Once the turkey reaches an internal temperature of 68 °C / 155 °F, take the foil off, and crank your oven up to 232 °C / 450 °F in order to brown the skin. When the internal temperature reaches 71–72 °C / 160–162 °F, take the bird out of the oven. The turkey will continue to cook from residual heat to an internal, safe temperature of 73 °C / 163 °F. Note that for the most accurate temperature readings, you should insert your digital probe into the thickest parts of the bird, such as the turkey’s breast.

Patience is a Virtue

Once your turkey is out of the oven, it may be hard to avoid a display of turkey worship, but try to resist the urge to immediately carve your bird. Letting the meat rest can be one of the most difficult steps of the entire process, but it makes a considerable difference in flavor and texture. Ripe with brine, your finished turkey will be juicy. If you carve into it too soon, all of those glorious juices will end up on the cutting board instead of in the meat.

Why do we need to let it rest? Some popular theories suggest that the delay allows moisture, forced toward the meat’s interior during cooking, to travel back to the surface. But the slow diffusion rate of water actually prevents moisture from migrating during cooking and resting. In truth, degraded and dissolved proteins slightly thicken the natural juices as the turkey cools. The thickened liquid then escapes slower when the meat is sliced.

We recommend letting your turkey rest for 20 minutes. Use that time wisely by reheating vegetables made earlier in the day. Five minutes before service, gently warm your turkey in the oven.

One Final Debate: Stuffing

The subject of stuffing also happens to be fodder for debate. In one corner, there are devotees of cooking stuffing inside the turkey. In the other corner are those who insist that stuffing must be prepared separately.

If you want Thanksgiving to be memorable for all of the right reasons, make your stuffing in separate cookware, like a cast-iron skillet. Cooking stuffing inside of your turkey introduces food-safety issues—because turkeys are so thick, your stuffing will never reach a safe internal temperature, meaning you must contend with contamination issues from uncooked turkey drippings. Plus, you’ll miss out on the best part of stuffing: the crispy bits on the surface.

Ready for pie and leftovers? We have a recipe and more tips coming your way.

A Very Sous Vide Thanksgiving with Modernist Cuisine

This Thanksgiving we are exploring the diverse bounty that cooking sous vide can produce. Call it a bit of a challenge for Modernist diehards, or a joyful homage to a technique we are truly thankful for, but make no mistake: it’s a very sous vide Thanksgiving at Modernist Cuisine.

MCAH_SV_Slow Cooker Sous Vide Cutaway

Modernist chefs have embraced sous vide cooking because of the unparalleled control it provides over the textures of cooked food. Sous vide is actually perfect for a preparation-heavy, feast like Thanksgiving—by removing the chef as the role of human thermostat, you can yield perfectly-cooked food without any of the babysitting required by traditional roasting. Preparing dishes sous vide will also help to alleviate the competition for space (and correct temperature) in your oven on Thanksgiving Day. Make dishes like our potato puree ahead of time, and then store and reheat them in your water bath. They won’t overcook, and they’ll never dry out!

Planning a Thanksgiving dinner with the help of sous vide will require a water bath and a little organization, but those who plan ahead will be rewarded by the most delicious, stress-free family feast ever. To help you succeed, we’ve selected some professional tips, organized our recipes according to order of preparation, and included a few extra recipes that highlight our sous vide favorites. For juicy, evenly cooked meat, tender vegetables, and smooth potatoes, make all of these recipes, or just choose your favorites.

Turkey leg final

Improvising a Water Bath

If you have one or more sous vide baths, you’re ready to start cooking! But if you don’t yet have a sous vide setup (or if you want an extra), there are a few ways you can improvise. All you need is a digital thermometer.

  • One of the simplest ways to improvise sous vide cooking is with a pot on the stove. Clip bags of food along with your digital thermometer to a wire cooling rack, and hang it on the rim of the pot, arranging bags carefully so that the pot isn’t overcrowded. Dial in a burner setting that maintains the desired water temperature. Keep the pot covered to retain heat, uncovering only to check on the temperature.

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  • Placing a pan filled with water into your oven will also work, but we recommend using an oven probe to be sure the temperature of your water remains stable.

Stack in Oven

  • When in need, you can convert a clean kitchen sink into a water bath. Fill the basin with water that has been heated to the desired cooking temperature, adding 1–2 °C / 2–4 °F. Add bagged food to the water, refreshing it with hot water as needed. Use silverware to hold down floating bags.

Salmon in Sink

  • If your kitchen sink (or bathtub) is occupied, a cooler can make an excellent water bath.

Step 4

  • Don’t fret if you don’t have a circulating bath. Although these baths are preferred by professional kitchens, keeping your portions in each bag small and well separated will help convective currents flow around them easily.
  • Our last suggestion doubles as a party trick: believe it or not, a hot tub will work as a (giant) water bath (but only if you’re lightly cooking salmon). If only we had a photo.

 

Prep

Now that your water bath(s) are all ready to go, it’s time to start cooking sous vide.

blog post table

1. Start your preparation by making the potato puree. This can be made two days ahead of time and then reheated just before you’re ready to serve your meal. This is not your standard mashed potatoes recipe—instead, you’ll produce velvety-smooth potatoes without a hint of gumminess or grit! Dairy-free? We also have you covered.

MCAH Potato Puree

2. Don’t save dessert for last when it comes to sous vide. Make our Vanilla-Cinnamon Cream Pie two days ahead of time and refrigerate it. The brown butter crust and apple foam add a seasonal twist to this Modernist favorite.

MCAH Sous Vide Vanilla Pastry Cream

Brown Butter Crust

Apple Foam

3. Next, it’s time for vegetables. Chop seasonal vegetables as desired and then vacuum seal them separately. All of your vegetables can cook at the same temperature (see table), and bagging them separately will allow you to pull individual bags from your water bath when they reach the desired tenderness. Make sure you don’t overcrowd your tank; leave enough room for the water to circulate. Prior to serving your food, reheat it and dress it with our Modernist Vinaigrette.

If you prefer the traditional aesthetic of roasted veggies, feel free to make those ahead of time; then seal them in a bag with a little butter or olive oil. An hour or so before you’re ready to eat, pop the bag in your sous vide bath and your veggies will stay at a perfect serving temperature.

MCAH Modernist Viniagrette

4. Classical approaches to roasting a bird whole can compromise your results: perfectly cooked breasts hide the undercooked dark meat of the thighs or else swap flavorful dark meat for dry, overcooked white meat. A Modernist approach is to cook each part of the bird separately. We devoted an entire chapter in Modernist Cuisine at Home to the art of roasting chicken and poultry. For Thanksgiving, we suggest a confit for the dark meat and sous vide turkey breast. Top your turkey with your favorite gravy recipe or dip bites into our recipe for Cranberry-Apple Sauce.

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Cranberry Apple Sauce

5. Infuse your meal with some family favorites—these might be the best dishes to pair with your sous vide creations.

On Thanksgiving Day, heat your water bath to a serving temperature that’s still below the lowest cooking temperature of the foods you’ll load into it—in this case, 55 °C / 131 °F. Then add your prebagged foods at least two hours before you plan to eat. That’ll give everything enough time to get nice and warm. If your guests arrive late—not to worry—your food won’t suffer at all because of the delay.

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We’re very thankful for sous vide Thanksgiving. Very thankful, indeed!

Turkey Tips

Stop worrying over your Thanksgiving turkey! Follow our guidelines and you’ll serve up the perfect roasted bird. Place your cursor over the white circles in the photo below to learn everything you need.

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Thanksgiving, the Modernist Cuisine at Home Way

What better time than Thanksgiving to try out recipes from Modernist Cuisine at Home? To get you started, we put together a menu using recipes from our website and new book. And if you’re not hosting a Turkey-Day feast this year, we hope you’ll bring a dish or two to your friend’s or family’s house.

For tips on cooking the perfect (whole) bird, check out Nathan’s interview in Men’s Health. And for advice on cooking safely for the holidays, see our article on Food52.com. If you have any questions, or if you want to post tips of your own, check out the “Thanksgiving!” thread on our forum.

Page numbers refer to the page in the main volume of Modernist Cuisine at Home.

 

Hors d’Oeuvres

Pressure-Cooked Garlic Confit on Toast (page 126)
Carbonated Cranberries
Clams in Chowder Sauce (page 292)
Savory Cheese Pie (page 379)

Soup & Salad Course

Autumn Salad (page 166) with Modernist Vinaigrette (page 117)
Caramelized Carrot Soup (page 178)
Breadsticks (page 296)

Main Course

Sous Vide Turkey Breast (page 247)
Turkey Leg Confit (page 246)
Home Jus Gras (page 93)

Sides

Deep-Fried Brussels Sprouts
Creamed Spinach (page 199)
Pressure-Cooked Vegetables (page 185)
Potato Puree (page 230) or Dairy-Free Potato Puree
Garnet Yam Fondant with Sage Foam
Stuffing Puree

Dessert & Coffee

Pecan Gelato (page 370)
Apple Cream Pie (page 379)
Coffee Crème Brûlée

A Brand-New Recipe in Our Library: Carbonated Cranberries

With no time to lose, we’ve added one more Thanksgiving recipe to our library, Carbonated Cranberries, a take on the fizzy grapes featured in Modernist Cuisine. Of course, we will be serving this dish at all of our holiday affairs from now until New Year’s, so even if you have your menu set in stone for this Thursday, you might want to try them at your next party.

We’ve also added an interactive photo of our cutaway turkey and provided tips and tricks for cooking the perfect bird.

New Recipe (and It’s Not from the Book): Thanksgiving Stew

What do you get when you combine a water bath, pressure cooker, chicken feet, cranberries, and Stove Top stuffing? The tastiest Thanksgiving meal you’ve ever eaten out of a bowl!

Along with the multi-component recipe, we also have tips, photos, and four videos (sous vide turkey breast, sous vide cranberry consommé, microwave-fried herbs, and how to beautifully plate your stew).

A Modernist Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving holds a special place in most U.S. kitchens because, of all the holidays, it is certainly the most food-focused. Indeed, while we have much for which to give thanks from the passing year, on a more visceral level, we celebrate the abundance of deliciousness that graces our tables on this particular day.

Now, much has been written about that centerpiece of Thanksgiving deliciousness: the turkey. Whether one is bemoaning the painful experience of eating a dry chewy bird, or analyzing the best way to remedy that failing, cookbooks both old and new are bursting with opinions on how to master a succulent and tender roast turkey. Rather than mastering the classic interpretation, the recipe in Modernist Cuisine flips it on its head by focusing on refining the flavors of a roasted bird and applying Modernist techniques.

In this case, we have chosen the turkey wing to be the primary vessel of Thanksgiving flavor. Specifically, we take the radius and ulna of the turkey wing (the middle portion with two bones running through it), cure it, and then cook it sous vide for the most tender result.

First, after chopping off the joints to expose the two bones inside the wing, we cure the turkey wing segments in a dry rub of salt and sugar for 24 hours.

The turkey wing as it cures in the sous vide bag.

After a day of curing, we rinse the cure off of the wing and vacuum seal it with a bit of clarified butter. Then we cook it sous vide at 58 °C / 136 °F for 12 hours. Immediately after pulling the wing out of the bath, we pull the bones out of the wing while its flesh is still warm. If the wing has been properly cooked, the bones should just slide right out. Once the segments have cooled, they are ready to be dusted in potato starch and panfried.

The cured and dusted wing prior to being panfried.

The finished pan fried wing.

Once we have a deliciously crispy and tender piece of turkey, it’s time for the gravy. There is only one primary Modernist twist to our turkey gravy, but it is crucial to the overall flavor concentration of the sauce.

A traditional gravy requires quite a bit of roux to thicken a flavorful poultry broth to the right consistency. Instead of roux, our gravy has a small percentage of Ultra-Sperse, a pre-hydrated starch from National Starch. The Ultra-Sperse is whisked in to thicken our broth. The advantage here is in flavor concentration: Because Ultra-Sperse is more efficient than fat and flour in thickening liquid, we use significantly less of it, so the concentration of turkey flavor in our gravy is not diluted, as is what happens when roux is used.

Finished with a bit of diced cranberry and picked sage, our small bite of Thanksgiving turkey bursts with flavor.

The sauced and garnished wing.

How would you refine Thanksgiving turkey? Let us know by leaving a comment below.