Introduction: Sous Vide Turkey Breast

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Sous vide is the way to cook a turkey breast that actually tastes good this holiday.  If you can get your hands on a temperature-controller and some zip-lock bags, you're in business.  Just follow these easy instructions to precision-cook the most moist, flavorful, and delicious turkey breast you've ever eaten.

Step 1: Tools & Ingredients

Turkey breast, de-boned, skin on
1 stick of butter, unsalted
2-4 sprigs fresh sage
2-4 sprigs fresh thyme

Plastic vacuum bag or zip-lock freezer bag
Vacuum sealer/food saver (if using vacuum bags)
Knife (if deboning your own turkey breasts)
Kitchen scale
Sous vide equipment (or a pot, thermometer, and careful attention)
Heavy pan and tongs for finishing

For more on sous vide equipment, including sourcing and prices, read ewilhelm's write-up on our current set-up and other options.

Step 2: De-bone Turkey Breast

Starting with a whole turkey is likely the most economical way to go.  If you're starting with a bone-in breast, modify as needed by jumping in later in this list.  Check photonotes on the pictures to see exactly what I mean.
  • Defrost turkey if frozen by sitting it in your fridge, preferably in a roasting pan to collect any leaking juices.  This may take a couple of days, depending on size of the turkey.
  • Remove neck and giblets.  These are usually in the main body of the turkey, though sometimes they're hiding under the flap of skin at the neck.  Set aside for giblet gravy.
  • Grab turkey leg, pull away from the body, and slice through the loose skin between thigh and body.  
  • Bend out the wings at the shoulder joint, and slice through to remove the entire wing.
  • Bend the leg/thigh piece backwards until the hip joint pops, then cut at the joint and through any remaining muscle/skin to separate the leg/thigh meat from the body.
  • Slice down the center of the turkey's breast on both side of the keelbone, the big bone dividing the breast.
  • Grasp breast meat in one hand, and continue slicing down against the body to separate the meat from the carcass.  Work from the tail area forward.
  • Continue slicing towards the front of the bird, trimming as close to the body as possible, and ending at the missing wing joint and wishbone. Cut through any remaining meat/skin to fully separate the breast.

Step 3: Bag It

Fold the top of the bag down 1-2 inches to keep your sealing surface clean.

Place the herbs, butter (sliced into pats), and turkey breasts into the bag. 

Weigh the bag, and add 1% salt by weight.  (Eg if the meat weighs 1200 grams, add 12 grams of salt.)

Seal the bag, getting as much air out as possible.  If you're using vacuum bags, this is self-explanatory.  If you're using zip-locks, use the Archimedes principle - slowly dip the bag into water to squeeze the air out, closing the zipper as you go.  It won't remove 100% of the air, but will get you close enough.

Now you can refrigerate the prepped turkey breast until you're ready to cook it.  (Note that I mean for a day or two - treat just as you would fresh meat stored any other way.)

Step 4: Deal With the Carcass

You've already nabbed the breasts and the leg/thigh quarters to cook sous vide, so here are two ways to use the rest of that turkey carcass.  You can also bag and freeze them until you've got more free time.

1) Roast all the remaining parts in the oven to generate pan drippings for a proper gravy.  Just toss them all in a roasting pan, add salt, and bake at 350 until golden brown.  Remove parts, pour off drippings, and deglaze pan to access all the tasty fond. You can then re-use the parts for the next option:

2) Use the remaining parts to make turkey stock.  You can use them fresh or roasted.  Either way, I chuck them in my pressure cooker with two chopped onions, a couple of carrots, celery, and relevant herbs, then cook at 15psi for an hour - see this recipe for basic instructions.

Step 5: Cook

Stick your bagged turkey breast in a 145F water bath, and cook en sous vide for three hours.  

It's OK to go a bit longer (say another hour or so), but the minimum cook time is more important: you want to make sure the turkey has cooked long enough to be properly low-temperature pasteurized.  While the exact pasteurization time varies according to the size of your turkey breast, three hours will definitely take care of it.  

If you don't have a sous vide water bath, you can carefully maintain a large pot of water on the stove at 145F for those three hours.  It will be a pain in the neck, but doable for this period of time. Just be sure to check your water temp every 5-10 minutes to ensure your turkey is cooking at the right temperature.  Swigs of up to plus or minus 5F are OK, just so long as you cycle around 145F.

Step 6: Pan FInish

Open the sous vide bag, and pour out any accumulated liquid.  Save it!  This stuff is perfect stock to use for gravy, or add to some post-holiday turkey soup.  It's basically fragrant, turkey-flavored liquid gold.

Remove the turkey breasts and pat dry, paying particular attention to the skin.  Heat a high-temperature oil or grease in a fry pan (I'm using bacon grease here), and quickly sear the turkey breast.  Start with the skin-side down, and fry until the skin is golden-brown and nicely crispy.  Flip, and sear the meat side briefly - you don't want to crisp the meat, just give it a proper finish.

Now fry any sage leaves remaining in the bag, and drain on paper towels.  They're extremely tasty, and will make an amazing garnish.

Step 7: Serve

Allow the meat to rest for a minute or two after frying, then slice and serve warm.  Garnish with the fried sage leaves, if using.

The meat will be much more moist and flavorful than any other turkey breast you've eaten, so don't bury it under too many side dishes and condiments.  I prefer a simple fresh cranberry relish to provide some bite, but will also eat this turkey plain - not something you can do with regular over-cooked turkey breast!

The meat stores beautifully, and makes fantastic leftovers.  Happy holidays!