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There are many different ways to cook a turkey breast, and the best tips for success vary somewhat depending on method. Following a few simple guidelines about moisture, seasoning, and internal temperature can go a long way to ensuring a tasty meal, though. It is usually best to strive for a consistent temperature — have your meat thermometer ready — and be sure to have plenty of basting liquid on hand.
Seasoning and Moisture
One of the most common complaints when cooking turkey breast is that the meat is too dry, but this problem is easily avoidable with a bit of preparation. It is usually a good idea to start by marinating the meat in some sort of liquid, like broth, wine, or vinegar. Rubbing the bird in salt or soaking it in a brine solution can also help seal in moisture and prevent dryness from prolonged heat exposure. In many cases, these tricks can also add a lot of flavor to the meat.
Making sure that the breast starts out moist is only the beginning. Many of the best cooks will monitor the meat’s moisture as it cooks in order to keep it soft and supple. This often involves a process known as basting, where liquid is constantly drizzled over the meat as it cooks to prevent premature browning and crisping. When done properly, basting can also help the breast cook evenly by keeping the exterior at about the same temperature as the cooler center.
Health and Safety
One of the most important parts of cooking a turkey breast relates to the bird’s internal temperature. Poultry is often very susceptible to foodborne illness and bacteria that can lead to food poisoning. Cooking the meat thoroughly is the only way to kill these harmful particles.
Even if it looks golden brown and delicious, a turkey breast is not fully cooked until it reaches an internal temperature of 170°F (about 77°C). Most recipes will give an approximate cook time, but it is also very important to check the bird’s temperature to make sure that it is actually done. Time can be a good estimate, but only an actual reading is decisive when it comes to whether the meat is safe to eat.
Dedicated meat thermometers usually work best for these purposes. It is usually a good idea to measure the meat’s temperature a couple of times during cooking, often once near the middle and again at the end. Keeping a close eye on the meat’s progress avoids overcooking, which is another major source of dryness.
Roasting is perhaps the most common way to cook a turkey breast. This typically requires a roasting pan, which is a special type of cookware designed to elevate a piece of meat so that the oven’s heat can penetrate it evenly on all sides. It is common to fill up the bottom portion of the pan with vegetables, herbs, and water or broth. As the meat cooks, its fat will drip into this area as well. Many cooks will use a basting bulb or brush to redistribute the liquid collected in this part of the pan over the meat during cooking.
One of the most common problems with roasting has to do with crispiness. When the meat is elevated, it may burn more easily, or at least brown faster on the top than anywhere else. Cooks looking for a more even heat distribution often either lower the oven’s temperature part way through cooking or tent the breast with foil as soon as brownness starts to appear. The foil will help distribute the heat while protecting the skin from drying out or cooking too rapidly.
Cooks who do not have a roasting pan may choose to bake their turkey breast, usually in a shallow dish. Glass dishes tend to work best for heat distribution, though metal pans are often fine as well. If you are using a metal pan, you may need to alter the oven’s temperature to compensate for the way in which the pan will conduct and store heat.
Liquids are also very important in the baking process. Most cooks will surround the breast with water or broth in the dish before putting it in the oven. Adding other ingredients, like sliced potatoes or broccoli florets, can create something of a one-dish meal, since these vegetables can later serve as side dishes.
A turkey breast can also be broiled, which is when it is cooked under direct heat from above. Broiling tends to work best with a half breast, or else a breast that has been thinly sliced. If the meat is too thick, it may not cook all the way through. Cooks who choose to broil their turkey usually need to pay particular attention to the internal temperature in order to ensure that it is cooking as evenly as possible. It is sometimes a better idea to start out baking or roasting, then transition to broiling for the final hour or so in order to make sure that everything is cooked through.
For the cook in a hurry, cooking turkey breast in a skillet may be the fastest choice. Skillet cooking works best for thin cuts of meat, though, which means that the larger breast piece must usually be sliced and almost always de-boned before beginning. Cutting the breast into thin “tenders” is common practice for this style of cooking.
It is usually a good idea to coat the skillet in some sort of oil before beginning, and marinating the tenders or strips of meat can also improve their flavor. Though frying the meat is fast, it can also strip out a lot of taste. Adding seasonings whether before or during cooking can be a quick and easy way to improve the overall result.
Cooks with access to a grill may choose this method for turkey breast preparation. Meat prepared on a grill often has a naturally smoky taste and a crispy exterior that is difficult to duplicate on the stove or in the oven. Marinating the meat is almost essential here, though, as the high temperatures of most grills will dry your bird out in a hurry. It is also a good idea to keep a close eye on the meat as it cooks and rotate it regularly. Exposing all sides of the breast to the flame in turn will help create an evenly-cooked meal that is pleasing to the eye as well as the tongue.