Can you reverse sear turkey? And more to the point, is it a good idea?
If you’ve never tried reverse searing, a whole turkey isn’t the best cut to use for practice. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done—only that the process can be tricky with a bird this size. This guide will explain why.
Reverse Sear Turkey
Reverse searing involves cooking meat at a low temperature, then searing it over high heat during the last few minutes. It works well with thick steaks and pork chops, but it’s not the best method for whole poultry. You can approximate the method by turning up the oven or smoker temperature and basting the bird with plenty of butter toward the end.
What is Reverse Searing?
When you reverse sear a cut of meat, you cook it at a low temperature until it’s within 10 to 15 degrees of your target temperature. After that, you finish it off over high heat so that it develops a lovely golden-brown char on the outside.
Reverse searing is a popular method with thick steaks, such as ribeye and filet mignon. If you were to grill them over direct heat the entire time, they would burn on the outside while remaining too rare on the inside. This way, they achieve the ideal texture.
You can reverse sear other cuts of meat as well. Thick-cut pork chops are an obvious example. I personally love to smoke chicken thighs at 250 to 275 degrees Fahrenheit, then grill them over a hot fire so that the skin crisps up nicely.
Some people prefer to sear the meat in the beginning, then cook it over indirect heat until it cooks to their desired temperature. There’s nothing wrong with this method, but reverse searing allows you to finish with a strong sear, resulting in a crisper texture.
Can You Reverse Sear Turkey?
In the past, I’ve experimented with placing a whole turkey in a hot oven—as in, set to 450 degrees—and then turning the heat down to 325 after 15 minutes. This method has the advantage of crisping up the skin at the outset, then allowing the bird to cook through.
Is it possible to do it the other way around, and roast the bird at a low temp before searing it toward the end of the process? It is, but I don’t think it’s the best method for whole birds.
The skin on a whole turkey needs a relatively high temperature in order to achieve the right texture. While I advocate smoking ribs and brisket at 225 degrees, that’s too low for poultry. A minimum temperature of 275 is preferable when smoking turkey.
If you were to smoke a turkey at 250 degrees or lower, the moisture would evaporate before the collagen conversion could take place. This would result in rubbery skin, which is exactly what you don’t want when serving smoked turkey.
Wouldn’t the reverse sear process crisp up the skin anyway? To a degree, yes. But the texture will still be off. Once the skin has turned rubbery, there’s no way to reverse the damage.
There’s another factor to consider: Handling whole turkeys is a tricky business. If you want to reverse sear the bird, you’ll have to take it out of the oven or smoker while you reset the temperature. For very large birds, this can be more hassle than it’s worth.
So, in short, you can try to reverse sear turkey as long as you set the oven or smoker to at least 275 degrees for the initial portion of the cook. It might not be necessary, though, because smoking the bird at that temperature should result in a nice golden-brown skin anyway.
A Word of Warning
I should point out that if you cook poultry at too low a temperature, you might have more to worry about than just an unappealing texture. If the oven or smoker temperature is set too low, the turkey might not even be safe to eat.
Bacteria thrive in the temperature range between 40 and 140 degrees. For this reason, that range is known as the “danger zone.” No meat product should be kept at these temperatures for longer than 2 hours, or 1 hour in hot weather.
Since turkeys are on the large side, cooking them at low temperatures will keep portions of the meat in the danger zone for too long. While the exterior might cook to a safe temp in a hurry, the interior will struggle to keep up.
Also, there’s no point to cooking turkey at such low temperatures. Unlike brisket and pork butt, which contain a lot of fat and connective tissue, poultry is relatively lean. It doesn’t need the extra cooking time to tenderize the meat and render out the fat.
Tips on Reverse Searing a Whole Turkey
Want to try reverse searing a turkey anyway? Here are my suggestions on how to get it right.
First of all, I’d give the bird the brining treatment. Soaking the turkey in a saltwater solution will allow the meat to retain plenty of moisture during the roasting process. It will also provide a flavor boost, which is always welcome.
Use one cup of kosher salt per gallon of water, along with whatever supplementary ingredients you prefer. Brown sugar and citrus work well with poultry, as do savory herbs such as rosemary, thyme, and sage.
After brining the turkey for 12 to 24 hours, remove it from the mixture and pat it dry with paper towels. If time allows, let the turkey dry out on a roasting rack in the fridge for an additional 24 hours.
Season the turkey as desired. Remember that if you used a brine, the meat will already be infused with salt, so you won’t need to add as much. Use a lighter hand with the salt when preparing the stuffing and gravy as well—if you prepare them at all.
Roast or smoke the turkey at your preferred temperature. I would suggest setting the oven to 325, but if you’re firing up the smoker, 275 is a good temp to use.
When the internal temperature of the turkey hits 150 degrees, remove it from the heat. Melt several tablespoons of butter while cranking up the oven or smoker temperature to 450 degrees.
Brush the turkey all over with the melted butter. When the oven or smoker has achieved the set temperature, return the turkey to the heat and cook for 10 minutes.
Apply another coat of butter, then continue to cook the turkey and repeat the process every 10 minutes until the breast meat has cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. You might need to adjust the oven temperature if the skin is getting too dark.
Once the breast meat has cooked to 160, take the bird off the heat. Test the internal temperature of the thighs. The dark meat will be safe to eat when it’s cooked to 165, but I prefer to let it cook until it hits the 175-180 degree mark.
If you want to continue cooking the dark meat, carve away the breasts and wings and allow them to rest while you return the rest of the bird to the oven or smoker. Don’t forget to let the dark meat rest for at least 30 minutes once it’s finished cooking.
When you’re finished, the turkey should be a rich golden brown on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside.
Reverse searing isn’t quite the same with turkey as it is with smaller cuts. It’s impossible for the entire surface area to come into contact with the cooking grate, so it’s more like a reverse high-heat roasting.
Still, if you don’t think the skin is getting crispy enough for your liking, you can crank up the heat for the last portion of the cook. Just be sure to baste the turkey with plenty of butter so that the meat doesn’t dry out.
Hi there! I’m Darren Wayland, your BBQHost. My love of great barbecue inspired me to curate this site as a resource for all my like-minded fellow pitmasters out there. When I’m not researching and learning all I can about the latest tips and techniques, you can find me at the grill—that is, if you can spot me at all through the clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. And since you asked, yes, that probably is barbecue sauce on my face. Welcome to the party!