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How Science Can Save Your Thanksgiving Turkey

Amid all the complicated side dishes, storied family recipes and desserts on Thanksgiving, the turkey is supposed to be simple. Toss some herbs in a pan, put it in the oven, out comes the bird. But that bird often comes out desiccated and bland, a totem to the Thanksgiving traditions that have long gone stale.

That, at least, had been my experience. But last year, something changed: I found J. Kenji López-Alt’s cookbook, “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science,” and it transformed the way I made turkey on Thanksgiving Day. López-Alt suggests removing the turkey’s backbone and splaying its legs (what’s called spatchcocking). In this position, the bird cooks more evenly because it lies flatter, which allows the heat to reach every part more efficiently. The spatchcocked turkey I made was delectable.

On this episode of Sparks, FiveThirtyEight’s monthly science podcast that runs in the What’s The Point feed, we discuss “The Food Lab” and the role that science plays in the kitchen. Science writers Christie Aschwanden, Anna Maria Barry-Jester and Maggie Koerth-Baker join me for the conversation. We discuss Thanksgiving dishes, how to cook the best steak and what happens when a “scientific” recipe doesn’t turn out that great. (Beware the mac and cheese.)

Listen to the first part of this month’s podcast by clicking the play button above, and below is the second part, when you can hear a discussion between Barry-Jester and López-Alt about the book.


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Chadwick Matlin is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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