Basting is a time-honored method for keeping a turkey or chicken moist—we wondered, though, if tradition has it right—so we ran a few tests.
Basting is a time-honored method for keeping a turkey or chicken moist and helping brown the skin to improve both appearance and flavor. We wondered, though, if tradition has it right, so we ran a few tests.
We roasted three turkey breasts (which we chose over whole turkeys to minimize variables) in 350-degree ovens until they reached 160 degrees. One breast we left in the oven undisturbed to act as a control. The second we roasted in another oven and basted every 20 minutes. The third we didn’t baste, but we opened and closed the oven door every time we basted the second breast to evaluate the effect of simply opening the door. We weighed all three turkey breasts before and after cooking to determine the percentage of moisture lost and recorded the total cooking time. We also roasted three whole chickens (again, easier to manage than whole turkeys) under the same circumstances and compared the level of browning.
The total cooking time was 59 minutes for the control, 66 minutes for the unbasted breast exposed to the opening and closing oven door, and 69 minutes for the basted breast. Most important, the moisture loss of all three was comparable, ranging from 22.4 to 24.0 percent—a statistically insignificant difference—and tasters found all the birds comparably moist. In terms of browning, the basted chicken was evenly bronzed, while the other two exhibited slightly lighter, less glossy browning that was also a bit patchy.
Basting purportedly keeps meat more moist by cooling the surface and thus slowing down the rate at which the meat cooks. And the more gently the meat cooks, the juicier it will remain. Basting did slow the cooking down more than just opening and closing the oven door but not enough to make a difference in moisture loss. In terms of browning, the drippings used for basting contain a lot of fat and protein, which encourage browning because they provide some of the starting materials (amino acids) for the Maillard reaction.
Basting not only makes a negligible difference in moisture loss but also prolongs the cooking time and requires more hands-on work. For a really juicy turkey, we prefer a more hands-off approach such as brining or salting, which not only helps turkey retain moisture but also seasons the bird. And while basting did improve appearance, we don’t think the difference is significant enough to make it worth it.