Have you ever had your turkey split open during cooking? Depending on the severity of the fissure, this issue can range from annoying to problematic.
The question is, what went wrong, and how can you prevent this from happening in the future? Read on to find out.
Why Did My Turkey Split Open?
When turkey skin splits open, it usually means there wasn’t enough fat on it. Roasted turkeys usually receive a generous coating of butter, but that can cause flare-ups in the smoker. Instead, opt for a thin layer of cooking spray or neutral oil as a binder. This will also keep the spice rub from falling off.
How To Prepare a Turkey For Smoking
When you smoke a turkey, you want to make sure the skin has had a chance to dry. That’s true no matter how you plan to cook it, but since the meat will be on the smoker for a long time, it’s important to take this step. Otherwise, the skin might turn rubbery.
If you’re starting with a frozen turkey, defrost it thoroughly. A whole turkey could take 3 to 6 days to thaw, depending on how big it is. Plan on 1 day for every 4 pounds of meat. A 12-pound turkey should be ready for the smoker in 3 days.
When the meat is thawed, remove it from the packaging and take out the neck and giblets. Pat the bird dry with paper towels, concentrating on removing as much moisture as possible from the skin.
At this point, you can put the bird in a roasting pan and let it sit uncovered in the fridge overnight. This will allow the skin to dry even further, which will promote browning.
When you’re ready to cook, coat the turkey with a thin layer of cooking spray or neutral oil. This binder helps the spices adhere to the skin—and may also help to prevent the skin from splitting open, as we’re here to discuss.
Season the turkey as desired. Kosher salt and black pepper work fine, but adding some smoked paprika and garlic powder to the rub will work, too.
Set the smoker to 275 degrees Fahrenheit for smoked turkey. You want the meat to cook slowly enough to absorb the smoke, but not so slowly that the process will take all day. At this temperature, a 12-pound turkey should cook through in about 4 hours.
Reasons Why A Turkey May Split Open
It’s not a good idea to lift the lid of the smoker too often during the cooking process. Doing so will lower the temperature, so the turkey will take longer to cook.
However, you will want to check the internal temperature of the turkey at your estimated halfway point. That will allow you to gauge your progress, giving you a better idea of when to take the bird off the heat.
When you open the smoker, you might notice that the turkey skin split open as the meat was cooking. This can be unnerving, as the exposed flesh turns tan and leathery without the protective layer of skin.
Split turkey skin usually comes about as a result of insufficient oiling. That’s one of the reasons chefs apply a generous coating of unsalted butter or olive oil to the turkey before roasting.
When you smoke a turkey, though, you don’t want to add as much butter to the skin as you would if you were roasting it. The butter will drip down onto the heat source as it melts, which can result in flare-ups—and therefore bitter-tasting meat.
A layer of cooking spray made from a neutral oil can help prevent the skin from splitting open. While this is your best form of defense, it isn’t foolproof. Sometimes, the turkey will split open in spite of your best efforts.
Will The Split Skin Affect My Results?
Not necessarily. Although the flesh that’s exposed to the heat will be slightly overcooked, the split skin shouldn’t have a negative effect on the whole turkey.
When you notice a split, keep cooking the turkey as you normally would. Temperature is the only reliable method for doneness, so remove the turkey from the smoker when the breasts have cooked to 160 and the thigh meat to 180 (see below).
The only time you really have to worry about split skin is when you’re on the competition circuit. In these cases, you’ll be judged on appearance and presentation as well as flavor and texture. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter if the bird splits open.
When carving the turkey, you can always discard the portions of the meat that toughened up as a result of the split. Alternatively, save them for a soup or pot pie. The meat will soften up again in the broth or gravy.
When Should I Take The Turkey Out of the Smoker?
The safe internal temperature for poultry is 165 degrees, according to the USDA. Turkey breast can be served at this temperature, as higher temperatures will cause it to dry out.
However, it’s better to cook the thighs and drumsticks to 185 degrees. This meat is richer and therefore better able to withstand the higher temperature. In fact, we prefer the texture of “overcooked” dark meat.
As you approach the end of your estimated cooking time, test the internal temp of the breasts as well as the thighs. If the breasts are done cooking before the dark meat, remove them and set them aside while you put the rest of the turkey back on the heat.
The exploding turkey phenomenon is rare, but it has been known to happen. In these cases, it isn’t just the skin that splits—the entire bird cracks open in spots.
We can think of a few reasons why this might have happened. First of all, if you were cooking the turkey in a roasting bag, the bird might have exploded because you failed to cut open the vent slits. The steam buildup may have resulted in the explosion.
It’s also important to remove the bag of giblets from inside the turkey before you start cooking. Steam can also build up inside this bag. Since the bag is stored inside the turkey cavity, when the bag explodes, so does the turkey.
Cooking a frozen or partially frozen turkey can lead to this type of mishap. It’s safe to do so as long as you cook the meat thoroughly—you just need to cook it about 25 percent longer for partially thawed meat, and 50 percent longer if it was frozen solid.
This practice can cause problems with steam buildup as well. The meat is defrosting as it cooks, so there’s a lot of moisture trapped inside. As we’ve established, when steam builds up inside the turkey cavity with no way to escape, it can result in an explosion.
Thorough defrosting and proper handling are the best way to avoid this issue. Try to steer clear of roasting bags, too—they won’t do the smoked turkey any favors anyway.
It’s frustrating to see your turkey skin split open, but it isn’t a major issue unless you want a truly Instagram-worthy bird. When it comes to smoked meats, there are worse problems to have. Just keep cooking until the turkey reaches the proper temperature.