Yes, that is a saw in my drying rack.
In a nutshell: sous vide the turkey breast and slow-cook the turkey legs. Fifteen minutes of “chef” time; perfect texture and flavor every time.
Turkeys are “hard” to cook because different parts of the bird are composed of different ratios of proteins that happen to require different temperatures and cooking times to obtain ideal doneness. You can cook the “perfect” thanksgiving turkey by splitting up the bird into the two main parts—the breast and the legs—and cooking each of them separately.
First, the turkey breast. Like most breast meats in poultry, turkey breast is extremely lean and low in collagen, meaning that once the actin proteins cook and denature, you’ll have a tough, dry hunk of meat. The Food Safety & Inspectional Services (FSIS) at the USDA recommends cooking turkey to an internal temperature of 165°F / 74°C, well above the temperature at which the turkey breast looses its moistness. Why this temperature? Because it will kill any pathogens related to food-borne illness instantly (well, within 10 seconds), which is a really good thing to do. But you can cook things at lower temperatures, if you hold them for a long enough duration to properly pasteurize them. The FSIS actually provides guidelines for this as well—see page 5 of www.fsis.usda.gov/oppde/rdad/fsisnotices/rte_poultry_tables.pdf for details.
To cook the “perfect” turkey breast, cook it use the sous vide cooking method at 140°F, holding for at least 28 minutes once the breast has reached temperature. For details on how to build your own sous vide setup, see my blog post on a DIY sous vide setup, or just plunk down the cash and buy a Sous Vide Supreme or a unit from PolySci.
What about the dark meat? This turns out to be even easier to do than the breast—no sous vide setup necessary. Like duck legs, turkey legs are high in collagen, which takes a while to break down and become tender. Cooking the turkey leg in a slow cooker works fantastically well, for exactly the same reasons that cooking duck legs in a slow cooker works: with sufficient heat and time, the collagen will break down, but moisture in the meat will remain in-place.
To cook the “perfect” turkey leg, drop the turkey leg into a slow cooker, fill with water, and add a few tablespoons of salt. The salt will brine the turkey leg as it cooks, skipping any pre-brining step. And as for the water? Traditionally in something like duck confit you’d use duck fat, but the only function of the fat during cooking is to convect heat into the duck leg. Water works just as well, and is a heck of a lot cheaper. Plus, you can brine the leg with salt water (the salt will dissolve into the water, but not the oil).
Once you’ve got your turkey leg immersed in saltwater, flip the slow cooker on and walk away. Let it cook for at least six hours; although longer is better. You can even go overnight, if you want to set it up the day before your feast. The slow cooker will keep the liquid hot enough that no food-borne or spoilage bacteria are going to grow; it’s actually safer than your fridge.
But wait, you ask—what about the crispy brown skin? Neither slow cooking nor sous vide reach hot enough temperatures for the Maillard reaction, which is responsible for that browned outside and rich, toasty flavors, from occuring. To get that beautiful brown crispy outside, place the cooked meat, skin-side up, under a broiler set to low for a few minutes, until the skin crisps up.
One more thing: your turkey leg might not fit in your slow cooker. In which case, dear reader, I suggest grabbing a saw and working out any aggressions about the TSA, IRS, or other TLA while hacking off the end of the leg. (You know, I’ve actually only had pleasant experiences with the TSA and IRS, to give credit where credit is due.) And yes, it is scary how easy it is to saw through a 1″ bone with a cheap wood saw. (I have better photos of all of this, sitting at home on my camera that I forgot to sync before hitting the road. Sigh.)