Skip to main content

Get instant access to everything. 2-Week Free Trial

Make 2021 the year of “Why not?” in the kitchen with Digital All Access. Get all our recipes, videos, and up-to-date ratings and cook anything with confidence.

Get Free Access ▸

In Defense of Turkey Burgers

By Annie Petito Published

Think turkey burgers are dry, tough, or bland? Then you haven’t tried these.

Confession time: I genuinely enjoy turkey burgers. If you’ve encountered a truly bad version (plenty exist) or consider it a punishment to eat a burger made from anything but beef, hear me out: There’s a lot to like about a well‑made turkey burger. Think a light, juicy texture; savory meat; and a tender, well‑browned crust.

For turkey burger success, you must first make peace with the obvious: Ground turkey isn’t ground beef. It’s very wet—71 percent water versus 66 percent for beef—which makes it hard to work with, yet it can easily cook up dry. That’s because ground turkey must be cooked to 160 degrees. At that temperature, nearly all the turkey’s abundant moisture will have been squeezed out by contracting proteins. Thorough mixing also causes the myosin (a sticky protein) in the ground turkey to link up tightly, so the burger turns dense.

Many recipes mitigate dry, compact patties by adding mix-ins such as vegetables, beans, and grains that either contribute or trap moisture or break up the texture of the patty. Unfortunately, with too many additions, the result often resembles a veggie burger, perpetuating the idea that ground turkey makes a laughable meal for a meat lover. It’s true that to make an extraordinary burger, ground turkey needs a little help. The key is to choose the right mix-ins and use as little of them as you can get away with.

Before embarking on the process of developing our own turkey burger recipe, we sampled five published recipes that ran the gamut from dry and bland to soggy and chock-full of vegetables.

Let’s Talk Turkey

Pulsing a whole cut of turkey in the food processor would have allowed me to produce a coarse grind for a loose-textured patty, but that was too much trouble for an everyday recipe, so I set my sights on improving the preground stuff. Just like packaged ground beef, packaged ground turkey is blended to have a range of fat contents. I knew that the 99 percent lean type was a nonstarter; the greater amount of fat in 93 percent lean turkey (more widely available than 85 percent lean) would provide more flavor and moisture.

Members of the Cook’s Illustrated team evaluate a variety of toppings for our juicy, savory turkey burgers.

To address the dense consistency that the sticky myosin produces, I added panko bread crumbs, which physically disrupted the proteins and made the meat feel coarse and light (rather than tough and dense) on the tongue. For 1 pound of turkey, 3 tablespoons of panko did the job without making the burgers taste bready.

But panko wasn’t a panacea. Kneading and squeezing the turkey to evenly incorporate the bread crumbs created too sturdy a myosin gel, resulting in a springy, sausage-like consistency. To get around this, I broke the slab of ground turkey into ½-inch pieces prior to adding the panko. This exposed more surface area for even dispersal of the crumbs, reduced the amount of mixing required, and kept the meat loose.

Now the turkey had a pleasant texture, but after reaching 160 degrees, it still wasn’t juicy. A couple of test kitchen tricks took care of that. First, I bathed the meat in a solution of baking soda dissolved in a teaspoon of water. The baking soda solution raised the pH, changing the protein structure and enabling the meat to better retain moisture. (It also sped up the Maillard reaction, providing better browning.) Second, I added a bit of unflavored gelatin to hold moisture, creating a juicy mouthfeel.

Fat and Flavor Boosters

A satisfying burger needs some richness, so next I added a bit of melted butter. A single tablespoon solidified when it hit the cold meat, creating tiny particles of fat throughout the patties that remelted during cooking to produce a rich taste and texture.

Turkey Needs Help

Ground turkey is full of moisture—more so than ground beef—but since you have to cook it to 160 degrees, it’s virtually impossible to keep the juices in the meat unless you give it some help. Here’s how we deliver all the qualities that make a turkey burger taste good­—really good.

 

To augment the meat’s savoriness, I experimented with glutamate-rich soy sauce, Parmesan, and ground shiitake mushrooms separately and in combination. The mushrooms overwhelmed the meat, but 1½ tablespoons of soy sauce together with 3 tablespoons of grated Parmesan packed a solid umami punch without being overpowering. When shaping the patties, I used a gentle hand to keep the burger mix coarse and loose.

Cold Turkey

We often cook burgers by searing the patties in a sizzling-hot skillet. The outside of the meat quickly browns while the interior stays cooler. But the interior of a turkey burger needs to be cooked thoroughly, and in a hot skillet the exterior is likely to overcook and turn leathery by the time the interior is done. Unless I wanted to negate all the advances I had already made, I needed to come up with a new method.

Don’t Cook Turkey Like Beef

  • When you cook a burger in a skillet, the metal heats the part of the patty touching the skillet, but the rest of burger has to rely on the meat itself to conduct heat up through the patty. But meat is a poor conductor of heat, so when you need to cook a burger all the way to 160 degrees, the exterior will almost certainly overcook before the interior is done.

     

    Start Cold

    Starting turkey burgers in a cold pan means that the exteriors of the patties will slowly start to brown while the interiors have time to cook through.

     

    Cover the Skillet

    Putting a lid on the skillet bathes the patties in steam so that the interior comes up to temperature while the crust browns.

I made a couple of bold decisions. First, I would start the patties in a cold oiled skillet. Once they were in place, I turned the heat to medium, and then, when I started to hear sizzling, I covered the pan. The lid trapped the moisture that escaped from the turkey, enveloping the burgers in steam so they cooked quickly and evenly. After about 2½ minutes, I flipped the patties (which were nicely browned on the bottom), covered them, and continued to cook them until they reached 160 degrees and the second side was golden brown. These burgers hit all the right notes: deep browning; a tender crust; a pleasantly coarse and juicy texture; and rich, savory flavor.

I melted cheese onto the burgers and then sandwiched them between soft buns with the works: lettuce, tomato, ketchup, and mayonnaise. And for those times when I wanted to go all out, I created a recipe for my new favorite burger topping: quick‑pickled avocado slices. Almost any fruit or vegetable can be pickled, including fatty avocados. The result is both creamy and tangy—the ideal crown for a turkey burger worth bragging about.

Recipe Skillet Turkey Burgers

Think turkey burgers are dry, tough, or bland? Then you haven't tried these.

Recipe Skillet Turkey Burgers for Two

Think turkey burgers are dry, tough, or bland? Then you haven't tried these.

Recipe Pickled Avocado

Steeping avocado slices in a quick brine  makes for a creamy, tangy burger topping.

Leave a comment and join the conversation!

0 Comments
Read & post comments with a free account
Join the conversation with our community of home cooks, test cooks, and editors.
First Name is Required
Last Name is Required
Email Address is Required
How we use your email?
Password is Required
JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.