Food Failures: Add A Dash Of Science To Your Thanksgiving Recipes

20:37 minutes

Roast whole turkey or chicken over wooden background, side view
Credit: Shutterstock

This Thanksgiving, put your cooking skills to the test. Looking for tips to avoid singed sweet potatoes, acrid apple pies, and a burned bird? Molly Birnbaum and Dan Souza from Cook’s Science help us understand the science behind favorite Thanksgiving recipes so you can avoid food failures, and get the most out of your roast and side dishes.

This segment re-aired on November 19, 2021.

Segment Guests

Dan Souza

Dan Souza is co-Editor of Cook’s Science: How to Unlock Flavor in 50 of our Favorite Ingredients (Cook’s Illustrated, 2016). He’s based in Boston, Massachusetts.

Molly Birnbaum

Molly Birnbaum is co-Editor of Cook’s Science: How to Unlock Flavor in 50 of our Favorite Ingredients (Cook’s Illustrated, 2016). She’s based in Providence, Rhode Island.

Segment Transcript

CLARK GRISWOLD: Catherine, if this turkey tastes half as good as it looks, I think we’re all in for a very big treat.

CATHERINE: Thank you.

EDDIE: Why are you crying?

CATHERINE: I told you we put it in too early.

CLARK GRISWOLD: It’s just a little dry. It’s fine. Here’s the heart.

IRA FLATOW: That’s one of my favorite scenes in any movie. That was of course Clark Griswold master of the disaster holiday meal. And while this scene from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is one of the funniest I think, it ain’t when it happens to you, is it? We’ve all been there. You’ve roasted a perfectly golden brown turkey. You’ve basted it for hours, cooked it low and slow and resisted opening that door every five minutes. When you finally carve it up and take that first taste, you get that sad stringy bite, the one that makes you reach for the gravy, right? And a glass of water.

Well, we’re here to help you this holiday to become a master of your roast and I’m not just talking about the turkey. We’re going to tackle side issues too, the unsung heroes of any Thanksgiving meal. What can you do to balance the sweetness in your sweet potatoes? Which apples are best for baking? How can you create a broiler map? Yeah, we all need this to tell you the hot spots in your oven.

My next guests are here to add a dash of science to our recipes. Molly Birnbaum and Dan Souza are coeditors of the new book Cook’s Science, How to Unlock Flavor in 50 of Our Favorite Ingredients. From America’s Test Kitchen, they join me here in our [INAUDIBLE] Studios. Welcome to Science Friday.

DAN SOUZA: Thanks for having us.

IRA FLATOW: And if you need help with a particular ingredient or a side dish you’re trying to perfect this holiday, we want to help you out. So give us a call. Our number is 844-724-8255. 844 SCI TALK or you can tweet us @scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I. Don’t you love that scene in that movie?

DAN SOUZA: Oh, my god. That’s one of my favorite movies of all time. I watch it every season before Christmas.

IRA FLATOW: It is right on.

DAN SOUZA: Oh, yeah, that thing just opens up, and then the scene afterward, where they’re all chewing the skin pouring like the tops of gravy on it. It’s priceless.

IRA FLATOW: As food-ologists, how common is that kind of mistake with a turkey?

DAN SOUZA: So I think that goes a little bit too far. But I think a lot of people have a difficult time with turkey I mean, for one thing people really cook it pretty much once a year, so you don’t learn the mistakes and then apply those next year. So you’ve got to start with a really good recipe to get good results.

IRA FLATOW: So is that the first biggest mistake, get a good recipe?

DAN SOUZA: Yeah, start with start with a well-tested recipe I think is key. And you know if you try it one year and you make a little change, make note of it and then kind of follow through on that next year. But turkey itself poses some challenges in that it’s really an odd thing to roast in terms of its shape and in terms of the composition of its muscle.

So if you look at the breast, which is primarily white meat, those muscles are made for flight, which turkeys don’t do very much. But they’re kind of fast twitch muscles. They’re very lean and they can dry out really quickly. Then the legs, which do a lot more work, have a lot more connective tissue, more myoglobin, more oxygen goes there and those need more heat to break down. So you’re trying to roast two things at once and have them both be done perfectly. It’s kind of an odd challenge.

IRA FLATOW: And a helpful solution is what, how to do that?

MOLLY BIRNBAUM: We have a few helpful solutions for that. One of the most easy things to do is actually break down the turkey a little bit so that you roast the breast separately from the legs. You can roast them on the same pan, but if you separate them they end up finishing right around the same time, when the breast reaches 165 or so and the legs reach 175 degrees Fahrenheit. And just having them separately because the breast is so much bigger, it cooks a little bit slower.

IRA FLATOW: One of the real problems I’ve found over the years is finding the actual temperature of the oven.


IRA FLATOW: You know, my ovens are off 25, 50 degrees sometimes. So that thermometer is really important to go in, if it says roast for x number of hours at 350, you better know that you’re oven is only 325.

DAN SOUZA: Right, 100%, yeah. Ovens go out of calibration really easily. And I mean, when was the last time you calibrated your oven?

IRA FLATOW: I don’t even know how to do that. How do you do that?

DAN SOUZA: It depends on the oven. In the owner’s manual, which I’m sure you still have, will tell you that. But we find that an oven thermometer that you put in there is really important. So you want a nice new one in there. And you can adjust your oven based on what the reading you’re getting out of it. And that’s an easy way to kind of make it work. And then have a professional calibrate it as well. But they can vary a ton. They’re not the most accurate instrument in the kitchen.

But another thermometer that’s really important is a digital instant read thermometer. And that’s for taking the temperature of the bird itself when it’s close to done. And that’s super important because you really can’t judge it any other way. And you’re going to mess it up if you don’t know. You want to pull it out at 160, 165 in the white meat. That’s the safe temperature. Anything over that, you’re not doing it any favors.

IRA FLATOW: Let me just remind everybody, I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI Public Radio International, talking with Dan Souza and Molly Birnbaum of Cook’s Science, How to Unlock Flavor in 50 of Our Favorite Ingredients. And you know, when you cook in the oven, the oven is full. It is really chock full of stuff with the side dishes. But yet it’s uneven temperature in different places. How do you know where it’s hot and where it’s cold? Can you do something?

DAN SOUZA: Sure. So one thing is, most turkeys can rest for a really long time after they come out of the oven. So it’s really nice to get your turkey done and let it rest up to an hour even. In so big. Huge thermal mass. It’ll stay warm for a long time. Frees up your oven to do a lot of other stuff. But if you’re using your broiler, which is great for finishing the top of casseroles on Thanksgiving. It’s the fastest cooking method you can do in the oven.

We came up with a really cool technique. We call it a broiler map. So on a rimmed baking sheet, you line it with white bread and you put it in the distance from the broiler that you’re going to put your food and you turn the broiler on and you let it go until some part of the bread is basically burnt. Take it out, and you’d be amazed at how uneven it is. But you really get to see what parts get hot, what parts are cool. So when you’re broiling something you can adjust and put the food in just the right place.

IRA FLATOW: We asked our Twitter audience for some questions in advance and we got a couple here. Linden asks, is it really worthwhile to bring the meat up to room temperature before cooking?

MOLLY BIRNBAUM: No it’s not totally necessary to bring that turkey up to room temperature before cooking. I think the most important thing is that the temperature at which you take it out of the oven. So getting that breast meat to around 160, 165, and getting the legs to 170, 175. It might take just a little bit longer if the turkey is colder when you put it in. But other than that it doesn’t really matter.

IRA FLATOW: Our own Jen Kwok asks, does basting really do anything or does it just drip off?

DAN SOUZA: It does do something, but it’s not really what you want it to do. So what basting does is, you put a hot liquid on the outside of it and you actually get evaporative cooling. It evaporates off, just like water on our skin on a hot day and it cools the surface down. So it actually slows down the speed of cooking of your turkey, which is not really something you want necessarily. It also adds a liquid to the exterior. And what you’re trying to do is drive moisture out of the skin so that it can then crisp and brown. So you don’t need to baste. It’s kind of a waste of time.

IRA FLATOW: That’s kind of a waste of time, OK.

DAN SOUZA: You have plenty of other things to do on Thanksgiving. Don’t bother basting.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Niko in San Francisco. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

NIKO: Thank you for taking my call. My question is about brining. I know brining tends to make it more tender, but it’s still counter-intuitive. You think sodium would actually make it drier. How does brining actually work?

IRA FLATOW: It seems like salt would pull moisture out of the meat.

MOLLY BIRNBAUM: Right, right. And sometimes it does. So if you want to dry salt your turkey, what happens first is the salt pulls the moisture out, but then it forms a concentrated brine. And then the salt starts to move into the turkey through diffusion. And that’s what happens in a brine as well, a water salt mixture. And as the salt moves into the turkey, it actually changes some of the proteins in there, helping them to hold on to water more easily, so that when you cook it, it maintains more moisture. And it also seasons the turkey throughout as a salt throughout the whole turkey.

DAN SOUZA: It’s also really important, the percentage of your brain. So we use one in the test kitchen that’s usually between 6% and 9%. If you go too high, you are just drawing moisture out. There’s enough dissolved solids inside of muscle fibers that the water through osmotic pressure still wants to go in, but if it gets too high, it’s going to pull it out.

IRA FLATOW: So what cup per water is that 6% to 9%?

DAN SOUZA: Oh, you’re quizzing me. Off the top of my head, yeah. I’m not sure off the top of my head.

IRA FLATOW: We’ll find out during the break.

DAN SOUZA: Yes, definitely. I got to look it up in the book.

IRA FLATOW: You’ve got to look it up. The book is Cook Science: How to Unlock Flavor in 50 of Our Favorite Ingredients. Talking with Dan Souza and Molly Birnbaum. Our number is 844-724-8455. Hoping a little bit of research and science will help you get a better and more flavorful turkey, as well as other side dishes. We’ll get to you and also tweet us at scifri. We’ll be back right after this break. Stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. This hour we’re talking about how to roast the perfect bird and all those side dishes this holiday. Molly Birnbaum and Dan Souza are walking us through a few tips. They are coeditors of the new book Cook’s Science: How to Unlock Flavor in 50 of Our Favorite Ingredients from America’s Test Kitchen. And if you’re looking for tips to maximize the flavor of your ingredients and dishes this Thanksgiving, give us a call at 844-724-8455, 844 SCI TALK or you can tweet us at scifri.

Let’s go to the green part. I’m going to try to sneak in some unhealthy stuff into the meal. You can make a kale salad. It’s not your typical side dish, but I’m learning now that you massage your kale. Molly is that what you do with your kale, you massage it?

MOLLY BIRNBAUM: That is definitely something you can do with your kale. So kale has two issues that I think make it hard to love it raw in a salad. One is that it’s kind of tough, and the second that it can be very bitter. And to help with the toughness of kale, massaging actually running your fingers over it to help the leaves loosen up a little bit, you can use a rolling pin over a bag, it really helps tenderize the leaves.

But what happens when you do that, is it makes it the flavor of a little bit more bitter. And that’s because the flavor of kale really only happens when you start to damage the cells within it, because then an enzyme interacts with the sulfur containing compound to create a totally new compound that they wouldn’t interact if the cells weren’t damaged. But this new compound is very bitter.

IRA FLATOW: I see you’ve got a bag. Is that a bag of kale?

MOLLY BIRNBAUM: I do have a bag of kale.

DAN SOUZA: We brought you kale.

MOLLY BIRNBAUM: We have two samples of kale here. We worked really hard on figuring out how to get kale to taste less bitter.

IRA FLATOW: All right, I’ve got one sample here.

MOLLY BIRNBAUM: You have one sample there. That is raw kale that has just been lightly torn up for a salad.

DAN SOUZA: Neither of them might be super pleasant because when there’s no dressing or anything but that is just kale that’s been washed and torn up.

IRA FLATOW: Tastes OK. Tastes green.

MOLLY BIRNBAUM: Exactly. Tastes healthy.

IRA FLATOW: OK, now this one.

MOLLY BIRNBAUM: This one is massaged.

IRA FLATOW: Massaged kale.

MOLLY BIRNBAUM: Massaged kale.

DAN SOUZA: And so what we did–

IRA FLATOW: I could tell, oh wow, it is much more better Dressing!

MOLLY BIRNBAUM: Yeah, I mean, sometimes adding a lot of dressing very bitter kale can help. And so one thing we did in the book was try and figure out how to make kale less bitter. And we discovered that rinsing it after you massage it and create all this bitter flavor can lessen the bitterness of the kale.

IRA FLATOW: Will this happen to other vegetables that maybe broccoli or anything like that too, that same effect?

DAN SOUZA: It’s interesting, there’s a number of different vegetables that kind of go through this. So in the brassica family, which kale is and cabbage, they really don’t have flavor until you damage the cells. So you can control that. The same thing is true with alliums, so your onions, garlic, shallots, the more you cut those, the more intense the flavor is going to be. Even how you slice an onion, whether you slice it pole to pole or the opposite direction can actually change the amount of flavor. So there’s a lot of vegetables that kind of fall into that camp.

IRA FLATOW: Another favorite is a green bean casserole. Love that. It’s sort of gooped up with mushroom soup. Everybody uses mushroom soup in something.


IRA FLATOW: You say, try roasting the green beans. Why is that good for bringing out the flavor?

MOLLY BIRNBAUM: Well, green beans are interesting in that they’re a very hearty vegetable. And that’s because most of their texture comes from the fact that we’re eating the pod and not the immature seeds within them. And because of this, you can roast them for a long time and actually keep the texture and keep them together so that they stay intact. And this is because they have a lot of cellulose and pectin in this pod. So roasting them for a longer time or brazing them allows them to soak up the flavor of the braising liquid in a really nice way. So you can let them in the oven for a long time, still get really good flavor.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones to Rachel in the Pittsburgh. Hi, Rachel. Rachel go ahead. You’re on

RACHEL: Thanks for taking my call. I’m looking forward to you bringing those ideas to my boyfriend’s Thanksgiving. And I was really wanting to make the kind of quintessential sweet potato marshmallow nut sort of casserole. But it always ends up tasting more like a desert instead of a side. So I was wondering if you all had any suggestions about making it a little less sweet.

DAN SOUZA: That’s a tricky one. When you put marshmallows on it, you’re almost kind of asking for that dessert aspect to it. But I mean the one thing that’s really interesting about sweet potatoes is that they kind of change from when you pick them, they’re relatively high in starch and low in sugar. And then during storage, there’s an enzyme called amylase that converts some of that starch to sugar. So they get sweeter during storage and then a little bit sweeter during cooking.

So longer, slower cooking can increase the sweetness a little bit. So I would recommend that you want to cook them actually relatively quickly. So if you’re going make them mashed first and then put them in the casserole. Put them in the water, bring them right up, and boil them and get them down that way, as opposed to slow roasting or anything like that. And then I would have to say, leaving off the marshmallows would probably help you out a lot.

IRA FLATOW: It’s not really a potato, is it, a sweet potato? Is it a real potato? Yeah?

DAN SOUZA: Yeah. Yeah, it’s in the potato family, but it is quite different than white potatoes.

MOLLY BIRNBAUM: And it’s not the same as yams. Those are often names that are lumped together. But sweet potatoes and yams are totally different.

IRA FLATOW: One is more starchy than the other?


DAN SOUZA: And yams are enormous. They’re like the size of a small car. That’s an exaggeration, but they’re much, much bigger than sweet potatoes.

IRA FLATOW: I’m going to keep that vision. Let’s go to Val in Sacramento. Hi, Val.

VAL: So my question is, I have a whole bunch of apples that besides making apple juice and apple pie, I don’t like what to do with them. And for the holiday, I was wondering how could I incorporate those apples into side dishes or other food besides apple pie and apple juice?

IRA FLATOW: I love my apple pie though. Yeah, what else can you do with apples? You go apple picking, you’re coming home with a bushel.

DAN SOUZA: You are. You’re coming home with a lot. So it really depends on what the kind of apples that you pick actually. So we did a really interesting test in the book where we figured out, we baked a huge variety of apples. And we also cooked them sous vide in little bags at 185 degrees, which is the temperature at which pectin breaks down very rapidly. And we saw a huge difference between the Red Delicious, Golden Delicious apples which turned to mush very, very fast and are great for something like applesauce, and Granny Smiths, Pink Ladies and Honey Crisp, which on the other end, which stay firm for a long time.

So those are great for baking. You can bake them whole. You can kind of core them out and use some of that apple chopped up with other more savory flavor stuffed back in. Those make a really nice baked apple. We also have in the book a really nice French apple tart, which is a little bit different than an apple pie. It uses Golden Delicious, and they’re nice and soft. There’s a mash underneath and then some softened ones on top. And that’s a little more elegant I think than American apple pie.

MOLLY BIRNBAUM: It’s a beautiful tart. There’s a rosette on top and it’s actually quite easy to make.

IRA FLATOW: Tarte au pomme, as they say–


IRA FLATOW: –in French.

DAN SOUZA: We’ll leave the pronunciations to you.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Cleveland, Ohio. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

RENE: Hi my name is Rene and, first of all, I’m a huge fan of America’s Test Kitchen. We watch it all the time.

DAN SOUZA: Awsome.

RENE: My question is regarding the Maillard reaction. How does that actually improve the flavor of your food? And then kind of along the same lines, with brining your food if you put like sugar or honey or maple syrup, does that actually impart the flavors since those molecules are so much bigger than salt or are you wasting good maple syrup?

DAN SOUZA: These are both really good questions. So for the Maillard one, what’s kind of happening during that reaction is you have amino acids reacting with reducing sugars, which are really small sugars. And it improves the flavor because it creates hundreds of new flavor compounds. There’s a few reactions that go on during it, and you get creation of compounds and then destruction and creation even more. And you end up with something that is really, really complex.

If you compare that to something like caramelization which is just sugar, it’s infinitely more interesting flavor. So that’s what’s going on with the Maillard reaction. In terms of brining sugar, yes, sugar will move a bit into the meat and it has a little bit the same effect of salt in terms of pulling moisture out. So we do include sugar in a fair number of our brines. You have to be careful if you’re doing something that you’re going to roast at a relatively high temperature, because you can get additional browning, whether you want it or not, if you add sugar. We like it on pork a lot because that sweetness works really well with it.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s see if we can get one last call or two in. Let’s go to Washington, DC. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: Hi there.

SPEAKER: I got an idea I tried. I think it’s terribly easy. Well I have a roasting pan that’s roughly the same width as my bird and I just cook it upside down or with the breast side down. And it seems like the juices of the turkey keep the breast moist. And when the leg’s done, the whole thing’s done. And no fuss, no muss.

DAN SOUZA: I like it.


DAN SOUZA: So I think that’s great, and you’re definitely exposing that dark meat to the heat that’s in the oven and protecting the breast underneath. The one problem there is you’re probably not getting great browning on the skin. So a lot of our recipes we start that way down, and we give the dark meat a head start and then flip it about halfway through, so you get a little more even cooking, which is also nice.

MOLLY BIRNBAUM: We also have an interesting recipe that we published recently in which you use a baking stone heated up really hot.

IRA FLATOW: Like a pizza, what you put pizza on?

MOLLY BIRNBAUM: Exactly. And you have that underneath the roasting pan, so you still have the breast up, but the legs down. So it gets much hotter on the bottom and so the legs cook a little bit more quickly. And it all finishes at the same time.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That’s a great tip. Let’s talk about leftovers, because we’re going to have a few. Everything seems to taste better, doesn’t it?

DAN SOUZA: A lot of stuff does.

IRA FLATOW: A lot of stuff. Is that in our mind or is there really something going on in the chemistry of what’s going on in it?

DAN SOUZA: There really is something going on with it. And I actually don’t know a ton about the chemistry behind it. Sometimes you can get these kind of warmed over flavors that aren’t very pleasant. But with things like stews, a lot of times the flavors just get a lot more complex. In terms of like flavor movement going into things, I think it’s a good method for like a lot of stews and soups and things like that.

IRA FLATOW: If you want some great methods, I suggest you get a copy of Cook’s Science: How to Unlock Flavor in 50 of Our Favorite Ingredients from America’s Test Kitchen. You can read an excerpt of the book about the best baking apples, yeah a lot of different apples in there. Jonathan’s are my favorite. It’s on our website at sciencefriday.com/tanksgiving. Molly Birnbaum and Dan Souza, coeditors of Cook’s Science. Thank you for coming back.

DAN SOUZA: Thanks so much for having us.

MOLLY BIRNBAUM: Yeah, thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you.

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