Oven Roasted Turkey Thighs: Dos and Don’ts
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How do you prepare oven-roasted turkey thighs that aren’t rubbery and chewy?
Unlike a turkey breast, a turkey thigh is high in connective tissue and collagen that benefits from longer cook times at lower temperatures and pulling them out of the oven at an internal temperature of 180°F.
Cooking a turkey thigh relatively quickly to an internal temperature of 165°F will result in a meat texture very similar to chewing gum.
Here’s a video showing the stubbornness of a turkey thigh cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F after an hour in a 350°F oven:
Not very appealing.
A turkey uses its legs and thighs more than any other muscle in its body, hence the high percentage of collagen and connective tissue.
Check out how to smoke a turkey breast here.
Cooking turkey thighs at a lower temperature allows the meat to become tender and its tough collagen to convert to rich gelatin.
Similar to the internal temperature of a chicken thigh, a turkey thigh is at its best at an internal temperature of 180 to 185°F.
Cooking turkey thighs at an oven temperature of 300°F until you reach an internal temperature of 180°F yields meat that is more tender than if you cook them quickly to 165°F.
Also, if you allow some extra time for seasoning your turkey thighs you will have vastly better results than just pulling them out of the fridge, seasoning them, and cooking them straight away.
Want to smoke your turkey thighs? Check out How to Smoke Turkey Thighs.
Oven-Roasted Turkey Thigh Tips
Cooking turkey thighs in the oven isn’t complicated, but you do need to pay attention to certain details to achieve better results.
The first detail is to be patient and allow extra time for seasoning and cooking, your thighs will taste so much better.
The next detail is to elevate your thighs out of the pan or sheet so that both the top and bottom parts cook evenly.
And finally, you really need to know the temperature of your turkey thighs while they’re cooking as well as your oven’s temperature.
A good dual-probe thermometer will help you monitor your turkey thigh’s progress and let you know when it’s ready to serve.
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Here’s a more in-depth look at the key components to preparing delicious turkey thighs.
Dry-Brine the Thighs
Turkey thighs seasoned with salt and other spices for at least four hours and up to twenty-four hours will have a noticeably better flavor than those seasoned right before cooking.
Why? Turkey thighs can be quite bland. Seasoning them just before cooking only seasons the outer surface.
Salting and resting food before cooking is also known as dry-brining. (Here’s a great article about the benefits of dry-brining.)
Dry-brining your turkey thighs not only seasons them at a deeper level than the usual season-then-cook method, but it will also help them retain more of their natural moisture while cooking.
Extra tip: Adding baking powder and milk powder to your seasoning mixture will aid in crisping and browning.
Here’s an article on the role that baking powder plays in helping poultry skin crisp up.
Here are the benefits of adding milk powder to a rub.
You don’t necessarily need to add baking powder and milk powder to your rub, but doing so will definitely boost the texture and aesthetic appeal of your thighs.
After cooking and observing over 20 turkey thighs I can attest to the superior texture and appearance when these two ingredients are added to your rub.
Below is an example of a turkey thigh seasoned right before cooking with butter slathered on top and underneath its skin, then cooked at 350°F until an internal temperature of 165°F.
Below is the skin of the turkey thigh above, pretty flabby. This is the same turkey thigh in the first video.
The taste and texture can best be described as bland chewing gum.
The turkey thigh below was dry-brined overnight with 1/2 tablespoon of salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, 1/4 teaspoon of baking powder, and 1/4 teaspoon of milk powder, then cooked at 300°F for around 2 hours.
Here’s the skin of the turkey thigh above.
The taste and texture of this thigh are far superior, with the salt penetrating deeply, resulting in a tender and flavorful turkey thigh.
Elevate the Turkey Thighs for Even Cooking
Many roasted turkey thigh recipes tell you to place them in a baking dish to cook in the oven. This leads to your turkey thigh cooking unevenly.
Elevating your turkey thighs out of the pan will cook them more evenly by allowing the oven’s heat to flow all around them.
To illustrate this point I tracked the internal temperature of a turkey thigh in two places using a highly accurate thermocouple meat thermometer.
I inserted one temperature probe right below the surface of the meat and one probe near the middle of the meat.
I also tracked the oven’s temperature inside the pan and outside the pan as well using another highly accurate thermometer.
The ambient oven temperature inside the pan near the turkey thigh averaged around 30 to 40 degrees lower than the ambient oven temperature outside of the pan.
This temperature discrepancy leads to the turkey thigh cooking unevenly, with the middle-to-lower parts cooking slower than the upper parts.
Notice the 16-degree difference between the middle part and upper part of the turkey thigh in the picture below.
Please note that you will still see a temperature discrepancy between the upper and lower parts of a turkey thigh even in an elevated pan.
However, this temperature difference is exacerbated in a baking pan that shields the lower parts of the thigh from the oven’s heat.
Turkey Thigh Cooking and Serving Temperatures
Tracking both the internal temperature of your turkey thigh and the temperature of your oven are the two most important steps to ensuring a delicious and juicy end result.
- Use a dual-probe oven-safe meat thermometer.
- Keep an oven temperature of 300°F.
- Pull your turkey thighs out of the oven when they reach an internal temperature of 180°F.
The dark meat parts of a turkey such as the leg and thigh, have a lot more connective tissue and collagen, especially compared to a lean turkey breast.
This dark meat benefits from lower and slower cooking that allows for some time to break down the tough collagen and converting it to gelatin.
By allowing your turkey thigh’s internal temperature to spend more time between 165°F and 180°F, you will dissolve more of the tough connective tissue and convert its collagen into smooth gelatin.
Cooking your turkey thighs at 350°F and pulling them out of the oven at an internal temperature of 165°F leads to rubbery meat as seen in the first video in this post.
Here’s the temperature graph of that cook:
As you can see, the turkey thigh spends very little time at internal temperatures of 150°F and above, which is necessary to break down its tough collagen.
Now here’s a time and temperature graph of a turkey thigh around the same size cooking in a 300°F oven:
Notice that the turkey thigh’s internal temperature spends over an hour between 150°F and 180°F.
This extra time spent in this temperature range leads to the breakdown of the collagen into gelatin and you see the results in the second video of this article.
You get juicy and tender meat with crispy skin.
Here’s a recipe that incorporates everything I’ve discussed in this post.
Oven-Roasted Turkey Thighs Recipe
- Baking sheet with wire rack insert
- Dual-probe oven thermometer
- Aluminum Foil
- 2 1.5 to 2lb Turkey thighs
- 1 tablespoon Kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon Black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon Baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon Milk powder
Optional seasoning additions
- 1/4 teaspoon Dried thyme
- 1/4 teaspoon Dried Rosemary
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder (instead of garlic cloves, don't use both)
- 2 cloves Garlic (minced)
- Season the two turkey thighs with the seasoning mixture, making sure to get underneath the skin, seasoning the meat and underneath the skin. Refrigerate uncovered for 4 hours up to overnight.
- When ready to cook, preheat your oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the turkey thighs skin side up on an elevated rack above a baking dish or sheet pan. If you're not using the pan juices for making gravy, cover the bottom of the pan with aluminum foil to minimize cleanup. Insert a temperature probe in the deepest part of the thigh to track its internal temperature. Also, attach a temperature probe to the pan to track the ambient temperature of your oven.
- Place your turkey thighs in the oven on the middle rack and cook them until they reach an internal temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit. This will take around two hours, more or less depending on the size of your thighs.
- Let the turkey thighs rest for 10 minutes and serve.