Absolute Best Tests

The Absolute Best Way to Cook a Turkey Breast, According to So Many Tests

October 28, 2020
Photo by Ella Quittner

In Absolute Best Tests, Ella Quittner destroys the sanctity of her home kitchen in the name of the truth. She's boiled dozens of eggs, mashed a concerning number of potatoes, and roasted more broccoli than she cares to recall. Today, she tackles turkey breast.


There’s no less appealing cut of raw poultry than the turkey breast. If you don’t believe me, I invite you to stare one down for more than 30 seconds while ingesting a snack of any kind.

So when my editor emailed me with the subject line, “Fun Idea for Fall Absolute Best Tests,” and suggested rather cheerfully that I tackle said mammoth, pinkish mounds for my next column, I considered moving to a new state and permanently changing my identity for plausible deniability.

But as Thanksgiving has approached, I’ve been forced to consider the reality: Many, myself included, will be tweaking our menus to accommodate smaller gatherings—Thanksgivings for four, Thanksgivings for two, Thanksgivings for one plus a cat and a slate of Netflix originals. Also, I really hate packing.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Followed the Torrisi brine and glaze, but instead of the initial roasting, I put in a sous vide bath for 6-7 hours at 150 followed by an ice bath. Then I followed Torrisi again and glazed the turkey in the oven at 425 for 15-20 minutes. It was soooo moist and tender with wonderful flavor!”
— Kevin S.
Comment

Accordingly, I called my butcher and got to work avoiding eye contact with 20-plus pounds of poultry. Behold, the results of my Absolute Best Tests: turkey breast edition.


Controls & Fine Print

I used bone-in, skin-on breasts, each roughly the same size. The breasts were seasoned only with salt, black pepper, and butter (except in the Torrisi method), and cooked until the meat in the thickest part registered 160°F on an instant-read thermometer (except in the Torrisi and Sous Vide methods).


Methods & Findings

Torrisi

This method is based on the technique in Torrisi's Turkey—except adjusted for bone-in, skin-on breasts—with a pared-down version of the glaze. Check out the Genius Recipe for more details and tips.

  1. Prepare a wet brine: In a medium saucepan, bring 2 cups of water to a boil with 1/2 cup each of kosher salt and granulated sugar. Let cool, and add 1 1/2 quarts of cold water. Add 1 turkey breast and refrigerate between 12 and 24 hours.
  2. Heat the oven to 375°F for the glaze: Toss 4 garlic heads (lightly smashed) with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and roast covered for about 1 hour, until the garlic is soft. Let cool, then squeeze the cloves into a mortar. Add 1/4 cup of honey, 2 teaspoons of kosher salt, and a big pinch of pepper. Blend with a pestle (or food processor, according to original recipe) until smooth and homogenous.
  3. Adjust the oven to 250°F.
  4. Pat-dry the breast with paper towels. Wrap 4 times in plastic wrap and once in aluminum foil. Insert an oven-safe thermometer into the breast and place on a rack in a roasting pan. Add water to reach to just below the rack.
  5. Roast for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, until the internal temperature reaches 135°F.
  6. Toward the end of the cook time, prepare an ice bath.
  7. Remove the breast from the oven and increase the temperature to 425°F.
  8. Submerge the wrapped turkey (thermometer still inserted) into the ice bath for 5 minutes, then remove and unwrap.
  9. Brush glaze on all sides of the breast. Roast for 15 to 20 minutes, until the glaze is golden.
  10. Let rest 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

Not far into the Torrisi method, I was reminded of the time my mother and I walked into what looked like a spa in Greece in pursuit of massages, though neither of us spoke the language. She pointed to the least expensive treatment on a list and we were both shocked when, moments later, a man ushered her into a small room, wrapped her in many layers of plastic wrap until she couldn’t move her arms or legs, and then shot warm, lotion-like goo in between her body and the plastic.

Preparing a turkey breast for the Torrisi method was very similar in process, though unlike my mom’s massage, it produced a delicious result. The roasted garlic–honey glaze was the best-smelling concoction I’ve had in my oven all year (and full disclosure, I eat frozen pizza basically every day). The meat—which was wet-brined in a solution that included sugar, unlike the other wet brine trial—was sweet, succulent, tender, more like ham than poultry. The skin was far from the crispiest of the bunch (the recipe doesn’t call for skin or bone, in its defense), but its inclusion was more than worthwhile: Coated in garlic and roasted to a crackle, I would’ve missed it were it gone.

Sous Vide

This method is based on the technique in Serious Eats’ Sous Vide Turkey Breast With Crispy Skin—except adjusted to cook the breast with its bone still in, for the sake of method comparison. Check out the full recipe for more details and tips.

  1. Carefully remove the skin from the breast and set aside.
  2. Heat a sous vide water bath to 145°F.
  3. Pat-dry the breast with paper towels. Rub all over with 2 tablespoons of softened butter, then season generously with salt and pepper. Place inside a sous vide–friendly bag. Lower the open bag carefully into the bath to let out air, until you can seal the bag above the water to keep the turkey dry. If you need to weigh the breast down to keep it below the surface, tongs clipped to the side of the bath work well.
  4. Cook at 145°F until the meat registers 145°F in the thickest part of the breast, 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours.
  5. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 400°F. Lay the skin flat on a parchment-lined sheet pan and season with salt and pepper. (To keep skin extra-flat, you can top with another sheet of parchment and sheet pan, though mine was fine uncovered.) Roast until golden and crispy, about 35 minutes.
  6. You can either serve the meat sliced next to the skin, or drape the skin over the breast meat before slicing.

You may feel as if you never want to touch turkey again after lifting a plastic bag of sous-vided breast from a 145°F water bath like it's an ancient object you found at the bottom of the sea. But once you get over its initial aesthetics, you’ll accept that the sous vide breast’s meat is actually so tender and delicious, you might mistake it for mortadella with your eyes closed. As suggested by Serious Eats, I removed the breast’s skin and crisped it separately in the oven. When still warm, the skin moulded nicely over the breast, such that it didn’t look weird or detached when slicing. The skin didn’t fully render its fat, which meant that, in addition to being delightfully crisp, it was the smallest bit chewy, a true treat.

Low-Heat Roast (No Brine)

This roasting method is loosely based on the technique in Ina Garten’s Herb-Roasted Turkey Breast. Check out the full recipe for more details and tips.

  1. Heat the oven to 325°F.
  2. Pat-dry the breast with paper towels. Rub with 2 tablespoons of softened butter, on and underneath the skin. Season all over with salt and pepper. Place on a rack fit into a roasting pan.
  3. Roast for 90 to 105 minutes, until the meat in the thickest part registers 160°F on an instant-read thermometer, and the skin is crispy and golden.
  4. Let rest, covered with foil, for 15 minutes before slicing and serving.

Brining a turkey breast is kind of a pain, so I’m pleased to report that this trial was still satisfyingly juicy. It had slightly less moisture than its head-to-head counterparts (the Dry-Brine and Wet-Brine breasts roasted at 325°F), but not so much less that I’d say you absolutely need to brine. It did lack a bit of the flavor of the Wet-Brine breast, having its seasoning concentrated closer to the surface. Its skin was unexpectedly crispier than that of the Dry-Brine (more on that below), but a hair less crispy than that of the Wet-Brine, if you’ll allow me to say “hair” so close to “wet skin” and “crispy.”

Dry-Brine Then Low-Heat Roast

This dry-brining method is based on Russ Parsons’ Judy Bird. The roasting method is inspired by the technique in Ina Garten’s Herb-Roasted Turkey Breast. Check out the full recipes for more details and tips.

  1. Dry-brine your turkey breast: Pat-dry, then and rub with about 1 tablespoon of salt per 5 pounds of turkey, plus a few big pinches of freshly ground pepper. (Note: For a more nuanced brine, here’s where you’d add sugar or other seasonings, like dried herbs, citrus zest, or spices.) Place the turkey in a plastic bag or container, and refrigerate for up to 3 days. For the last 8 to 12 hours, let the breast sit uncovered in the refrigerator for the crispiest possible skin.
  2. Heat the oven to 325°F.
  3. Remove the breast from the refrigerator and rub with 2 tablespoons of softened butter, on and underneath the skin. Season all over with salt and pepper. Place on a rack fit into a roasting pan.
  4. Roast for 90 to 105 minutes, until the meat in the thickest part registers 160°F on an instant-read thermometer, and the skin is crispy and golden.
  5. Let rest, covered with foil, 15 minutes before slicing and serving.

Historically I’ve loved dry-brining poultry, and not just for the shock value of my roommate opening the fridge door to a bare, raw chicken breast splayed between our other groceries like it owns the place. It’s a method meant to increase juiciness, while preserving and improving skin crispiness.

Dry-brining a turkey breast produced very moist, firm meat, more like the texture of high-quality deli turkey. While the skin did not crisp quite as effectively as I’d imagined based on my experiences dry-brining chicken, it did tighten and clench, almost as if the breast had had a facelift. The combination, while unexpected, was delicious.

Wet-Brine Then Low-Heat Roast

This roasting method is loosely based on the technique in Ina Garten’s Herb-Roasted Turkey Breast. Check out the full recipe for more details and tips.

  1. Prepare a wet-brine: In a medium saucepan, heat 2 cups of water until warm to the touch. Add 1/4 cup of kosher salt and some peppercorns. (Note: For a more nuanced brine, here’s where you’d add sugar or other seasonings, like herbs, citrus zest, or spices.) Stir to dissolve the salt and cool completely. Add 2 cups of cold water and 1 turkey breast. Cover and refrigerate between 12 and 24 hours.
  2. Heat oven to 325°F.
  3. Remove breast from brine and pat-dry with paper towels. Rub with 2 tablespoons of softened butter, on and underneath the skin. Season all over with salt and pepper. Place on a rack fit into a roasting pan.
  4. Roast for 90 to 105 minutes, until the meat in the thickest part registers 160°F on an instant-read thermometer, and the skin is crispy and golden.
  5. Let rest, covered with foil, for 15 minutes before slicing and serving.

This breast was a touch drier than the Dry-Brine Then Low-Heat Roast breast, and a touch less dry than the Low-Heat Roast (No Brine) breast, which is something I hope to never have to type again. Its skin was crunchier than that of either the Low-Heat Roast (No Brine) or the Dry-Brine Then Low-Heat Roast, though less crispy than that of the High-Heat Roast (No Brine). Its meat had a little more flavor than both Low-Heat Roast breasts.

High-Heat Roast (No Brine)

This roasting method is loosely based on the technique in Bon Appetit’s Butter-Roasted Turkey Breasts. Check out the full recipe for more details and tips.

  1. Heat the oven to 425°F.
  2. Pat-dry 1 turkey breast with paper towels. Rub with 2 tablespoons of softened butter, on and underneath the skin. Season all over with salt and pepper. Place on a rack fit into a roasting pan.
  3. Roast for 44 to 55 minutes, until the meat in the thickest part registers 160°F on an instant-read thermometer, and the skin is crispy and golden.
  4. Let rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

This breast had the crispiest, darkest skin, closest to that of a traditional Thanksgiving turkey. Its meat was surprisingly juicy right after cooking, though it became drier and a little crumbly within about an hour, relative to the breasts roasted at 325°F.


So, What's the Best Way?

  • If you prefer to skip the brine and want something truly exceptional, if unconventional, sous vide your breast and roast its skin separately in the oven.
  • If you’ve got the time to brine, go with a wet-brine—and add sugar, a la the Torrisi method, even if you’re sticking to a classic roast method.
  • Speaking of roasting, a lower temperature (325°F) will give you tender meat for longer—and you can crank up the temp toward the end for darker, crunchier skin.
  • If you’ve got the supplies, try out the Torrisi method, with or without the bone and skin, for sweet, deeply flavored meat.

What should Ella test next? Let us know in the comments, or send her a message here.
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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.

21 Comments

Kevin S. November 27, 2020
Did a combination of the Torrisi method and Sous Vide and it was AWESOME!

I used bone-in turkey breast (my store sold them as 1/2 breasts so I used 2). Followed the Torrisi brine and glaze, but instead of the initial roasting, I put in a sous vide bath for 6-7 hours at 150 followed by an ice bath. Then I followed Torrisi again and glazed the turkey in the oven at 425 for 15-20 minutes. It was soooo moist and tender with wonderful flavor!
 
srpuywa November 23, 2020
I'm going to try cooking it like I've done small turkeys in the past thanksgivings. Bring it to a boil in a large pot, simmer for about 10 minutes, remove, pat dry, coat with oil or butter then roast in 400° oven for about 15 minutes till the skin is crisp.
 
kdenton November 15, 2020
When you souls vide, is the turkey breast still whole with the bone?
Kazie
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. November 16, 2020
Hi Kazie!

Yes, I cooked the turkey breast sous vide with the bone still in it, for purposes of comparison.
 
Gammy November 15, 2020
Ella (or anyone)... if all you have access to in a small town grocery are the brand name turkeys that are always "pre-basted" with an amount of "natural" flavorings, can you dry brine or wet brine and reduce the salt amount? Butter under the skin is a given, but I love the idea of enhancing a turkey breast with a small amount of sugar along with spices and citrus zest. That "pre-basted" thing concerns me when it comes to adding anything else. No local butchers or farms around and I can't afford to order a heritage bird this year.
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. November 16, 2020
Hi Gammy, I'm so sorry to say, I've never cooked a pre-basted turkey so I don't have a sense of best practices here. I'm guessing your suggestion of adding spices/flavorings but not adding too much extra salt would be the way to go—I'd maybe skip extra sugar too, to be safe. (Though you can likely ask the grocer what was in the brine and just go from there.) Looking forward to others' replies!

Ella
 
Lisa K. November 6, 2020
Brined ( orange juice brine from Cuisine At Home magazine) for 48 hours and then sous vide at 140F for 4 hours and you will think you are eating dark meat. I fooled everyone. It’s a game changer. Bone in 6 pounds. And the juices fantastic gravy
 
Suzie B. November 6, 2020
Not sure if I missed it but, there's no mention of how big the Turkey Breasts are? Like anything else, I would imagine a 7 lb breast takes longer than a 4 lb breast.
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. November 16, 2020
These were roughly 5 pounds.
 
ChefCJ November 5, 2020
The automagic is still down - can you update and relink? Thanks!
 
ellicia November 5, 2020
I could not believe what I was reading - to wrap the turkey breast in 4 layers of plastic wrap and then aluminum foil and then cook in the oven for 2-1/2 hours. Let's make sure we get all our chemicals for Thanksgiving - DEHA from the wrap and aluminum from the foil. I think this could be called Torrisi's Toxic Turkey.
 
Bruce H. November 5, 2020
While you likely use 145 F in your sous vide recipe to account for the bone, 3 1/2 hours is quite a short cook time. The maker of my sous vide tool suggests a boneless breast to be cooked sous vide for 8 to 24 hours at 131 F and turkey legs at 148 F to 158 F for 24 hours or 167 F for 7 hours. For the past several years, I have done legs and then added the breast with a 30 - 36 hour cook. But cancelled Thanksgiving this year.
 
[email protected] October 31, 2020
What size are these turkey breasts?
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. November 16, 2020
Roughly 5 pounds.
 
daisybrain October 30, 2020
Why would anyone bother with turkey breasts? If one were to purchase one part of the turkey make it a good part rather than trying to make the worst part taste good. Blech.
 
barbette C. November 15, 2020
I purchase a turkey breast because it is just my mother and I for Thanksgiving and we cannot store or freeze a whole turkey.
 
garlic&lemon October 30, 2020
Turkey Breasts: Bah! Turkey Thighs: Yum! We used to do a huge Thanksgiving with 2 whole turkeys and the dark meat was always the first to go. Now that we are down to 2 -4 people at Thanksgiving, it's bone-in, skin-on Thighs all the way, usually wet-brined and either slow roasted or grilled with wood chips for the smoke (or some of each!). We make enough for guests to take some home and for us to debone and freeze. Usually get a separate load of backs, necks and wings for make ahead broth for stuffing and gravy. No dry breast meat to have to drown in casseroles.
 
AntoniaJames October 30, 2020
If you can get a turkey breast with the bone still in and the skin still on, here's my favorite: extremely slow roasted, somewhat similar to a beef rib roast recipe that's part of the "Genius" series here. https://www.washingtonpost.com/recipes/extremely-slow-roasted-turkey-breast/13711/

I buy a whole turkey and take it apart, using the wings, back and neck for my make-ahead gravy; the legs I braise in red wine https://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2013/11/red-wine-braised-turkey-legs.html and the breast I roast as noted above.

We'll also smoke a whole turkey.

A good portion of both turkeys will go into the freezer to enjoy in January and February in soups, stews (over toast, of course), pot pies, and gravy sandwiches - for which I'll make and freeze extra gravy.

It makes me happy just thinking about all this. ;o)
 
wjm457 October 28, 2020
Pressure cooker or poached. No brine.
 
suziqcu October 30, 2020
Do you then roast it to crisp the skin? Asking for my carnivorous family ;-0
 
Jane D. November 6, 2020
I have a Ninja Foodi - pressure cook and zap it with the air fry until it's browned and crispy. You need to pour out the drippings befor air frying. The drippings are incredible and make a nice deep brown gravy.