As grilling and smoking enthusiasts, we always keep a healthy supply of heavy-duty aluminum foil on hand. It’s useful in many ways, but is it a good idea to use it to cover your turkey as it cooks?
Should I Cover My Turkey With Foil While Cooking It?
It’s preferable not to leave a turkey covered with foil for the duration of the cooking process. If you want to keep the breast meat from overcooking, add the foil when the skin has had a chance to crisp up. Alternatively, you can add the foil in the beginning, then remove it when the turkey approaches the target temperature.
Why Cover a Turkey?
Because turkey is very lean, the meat is prone to drying out.
Whole turkeys take several hours to cook through, and the white meat on the breast is leaner than the dark meat on the legs and thighs. That means that the breast meat may become unpleasantly dry before the dark meat has a chance to cook through.
By covering the turkey breast as it cooks, you can shield it from the heat, thereby preventing it from overcooking. Some chefs advocate using cheesecloth soaked in melted butter or olive oil, while others use special covered roasting pans.
Since it’s both inexpensive and easy to come by, though, aluminum foil is a popular choice. The question is, will this yield the results you want?
Should I Cover My Turkey With Foil While Cooking?
We’ve found that tenting the turkey with foil can prevent the skin from crisping up as much as we’d like, especially when we use the smoker. For this reason, we don’t advocate the practice, except in specific circumstances.
Crisp, golden-brown skin is one of the hallmarks of a perfectly smoked turkey. If you were to tent the bird with aluminum foil for the duration of the cook, the skin might have a rubbery texture instead.
Granted, most recipes recommend removing the foil for the last 30 minutes or so to encourage the skin to crisp up. In our opinion, the technique works better if you take the opposite approach.
Test the temperature of the turkey at the estimated halfway point. The meat may be cooking faster or slower than you’d expect, so this will allow you to make a more educated guess as to when it might be ready.
If you notice that the breast meat is approaching the target temperature (see below) while the thigh meat still has a long way to go, you can cover the breast with foil to lock in the moisture.
Target Temperatures for White and Dark Meat
The only white meat on a turkey is found on the breast. This portion of the turkey needs to cook to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. If the temperature climbs too far past this point, the meat will be dry and straw-like instead of juicy and moist.
To ensure that the white meat doesn’t overcook, it’s best to take the turkey off the heat when the breast temperature registers 160 degrees. The temp should rise a few degrees while the turkey is resting, so the meat will be safe to eat and retain its texture.
The dark meat is technically safe to consume at 165 degrees. That said, the higher moisture content means that it can withstand higher temps without drying out.
We’ve found that the thighs and drumsticks have a rich, succulent texture when cooked to 180-185 degrees. For optimum results, take these off the heat at the 180-degree mark, then let the bird rest.
Test the breast temperature by inserting the thermometer probe into the spot where the meat is thickest. Don’t touch any bone, or you’ll probably get an inaccurate readout.
Similarly, insert the probe into the meaty portion of the thigh. You’ll need to be extra careful not to brush up against the bone in this section, but it can be done.
As you may have guessed, the breast meat could very well be done before the legs and thighs. That’s one of the reasons why people choose to tent the turkey with foil. While this is still an option, it’s not the only one you have.
It’s also permissible to carve the breast portion off the turkey and let it rest while you finish cooking the remainder of the bird. The presentation might suffer, but you’ll be carving the bird at some point in any case.
When the dark meat has finally achieved the proper temperature, let it rest while you carve the breast meat into slices. The legs and thighs should be ready to serve by the time you finish.
The Upside-Down Approach
Have you ever tried roasting a turkey “upside down”? The technique refers to positioning a turkey on the roasting rack with the breast side facing down, instead of on top.
Advocates of the upside-down method claim that it keeps the breast meat nice and moist while allowing the dark meat to achieve the ideal serving temperature that much more quickly. While this works well enough in the oven, though, it’s not ideal for the smoker.
Most smokers are configured so that the heat source is located below the cooking grates. If this is the case, and you position the turkey with the breast side facing down, the white meat will be exposed to direct heat. That could make it dry out much more quickly.
Our advice is to smoke the turkey so that the breast portion faces away from the heat source, wherever that may be. The dark meat will be better able to withstand direct exposure to the heat, while the skin on the breast should crisp up nicely.
If you want to try roasting a turkey upside down, feel free. You can even rotate the turkey at your estimated halfway point to get the best of both worlds. Bear in mind, though, that whole turkeys are especially awkward to handle when they’re piping hot.
Also, know that the skin on the breast portion will be a bit soggy if you keep the turkey upside down the whole time. The meat will be exceptionally juicy, though. Only you can decide if this trade-off is worth it.
Pro Tip: When stuffed turkeys are roasted in the upside-down position, the stuffing tends to fall out of the cavity. To prevent this, try blocking the cavity with a piece of bread secured with toothpicks.
Aside from foil, is there any other way to keep the breast meat moist during the long cooking process? Here are a couple of popular ones.
A turkey roaster is an oval-shaped vessel designed to encase an entire bird. They’re usually made of lightweight material, with an enamel coating to make cleanup easier.
Turkey roasters are also distinguished by their tight-fitting lids. You want to make sure the turkey will fit inside without brushing against the lid, as this may cause the skin to peel off when you’re ready to take the turkey out.
Check the unit’s listed capacity before you make a purchase. There’s no sense in buying a turkey roaster that will be too small for the specimens you bring home.
There are plenty of people who swear by turkey roasters, as they create a braising effect that keeps the meat juicy. You can even add extra stock or broth partway through the cook.
If you opt to use a turkey roaster, remember to remove the lid for the last half hour or so. This step is a critical one if you want to ensure that the skin on all that juicy meat will be golden and crispy.
Because there’s a chance that cheesecloth might start to smoke or even catch on fire in the smoker, we don’t use this technique when smoking or grilling turkey. But it works wonders when roasting is the cooking method of your choice.
Start by melting a few tablespoons of butter. You can also create a combination of melted butter, olive oil, and a bit of white wine. We like to add about a tablespoon of minced fresh herbs to the mixture as well. Parsley, sage, thyme, and rosemary all work well.
Soak a generous length of cheesecloth in the butter mixture until the material has had a chance to absorb the moisture. You can even take this step the day before you plan to cook the bird.
After you’ve removed the giblets and neck from the turkey’s cavity and patted the meat dry with paper towels, position the turkey on the rack in a roasting pan. Drape the prepared cheesecloth over the breasts, then cook according to your chosen recipe.
Remove the cheesecloth during the last 30 minutes or so of roasting. The skin on the breast portion should be a lovely golden brown, while the meat will be wonderfully moist and flavorful.
Should I Smoke My Turkey in a Foil Pan?
You can smoke your turkey in a foil pan if you want to preserve the cooking juices to make gravy. Smoked turkey gravy has a lovely, rich flavor that’s difficult to replicate if you allow those juices to go to waste.
That said, we think smoked turkey is better when you put the bird directly on the cooking grate. More of the surface area will be exposed to the smoke, which will improve the taste as well as the texture.
The Bottom Line
Should you decide to cover your turkey with foil, don’t do it for the entire length of the cook.
You can wait until the turkey is nearly done and then add the foil, or start with the foil and remove it toward the end. Either way, your goal is to attain nice crispy skin without turning the breast meat into sawdust.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!