on cooking turkey and solving problems

On Thursday, my wife and I hosted our 10th Thanksgiving. We both enjoy cooking and baking, though we remain clearly amateurs and tend to make it up as we go along. There was that one time we realized, the night before Thanksgiving, that a frozen 15-pound turkey requires 3 days to defrost in the fridge. I stayed up most of the night, soaking the bird in the bathtub.

We’ve gotten better over time: she focuses on stuffing and cranberry sauce, me on turkey and dessert, and we collaborate on some kind of sweet potato dish. The stress almost always comes around how long to roast the turkey and whether it’s fully cooked. For the last 4 years, we’ve had the added (but wonderful) complexity of little kids eager to eat. We had great luck once with a high-heat plus start-breast-side-down combination, but we were never able to recreate that success.

This year, I reached out on twitter:

I received this recommendation from a former student and fellow web hacker:

“What in the world is spatchcocking,” I thought. I was ready to try it after this video:

(The New York Times also has a nice take on the technique.)

Roughly, spatchcocking involves cutting out the turkey’s backbone, then breaking open the bird and laying it out flat. One layer of meat, all on the same plane, with the dark meat slightly protecting the white meat, which is what you want since white meat cooks faster. The technique promises shorter cook times, more even cooking, and juicier meat.

Turns out, it’s all absolutely true. Preparation was easy and eminently repeatable, with little risk of screwing things up. The bird cooked in about 2 hours, where typically it would have required 4. The whole turkey cooked at the same speed. The result: amazing fully cooked dark meat, juicy white meat, perfectly crispy skin, and plenty of oven time left for an apple pie and stuffing. Everyone at the table agreed: this was the best turkey I’ve ever cooked by far. Even the little kids ate triple portions.

So what’s the downside? Well, people claim there are two: (a) you can’t stuff the turkey and (b) you can’t present a typical, whole roasted turkey. Instead you’ve got a weird flat thing that indicates you got really angry in the kitchen. Neither of these matters to me, and I’ll go out on a limb and say they should matter little to most people: stuffing a raw turkey significantly increases the risk of food poisoning, and, as it turns out, being forced to carve the turkey before presenting it made serving the meal much easier.

So, first lesson: I will only cook spatchcock turkeys from now on.

And second lesson: even after 10 years of doing something, it’s still possible to find a solution that is faster, simpler, and better, with no real downsides. What’s crazy is that the solution is already out there, used by some, just not widely. Crazier still is that many people know about it, they just refuse to try it because there are “downsides” or the solution is unusual.

But what if the downsides are rhetorical at best? What if it’s really all upside?

I can’t help but link this to software engineering and problem-solving more broadly. There are so many technical solutions we simply accept as necessary and necessarily hard. We fail to search for simpler solutions, even when they already exist. Or if we know about them, we choose to ignore them because they seem too simple, too good to be true. We make up excuses, we make up theoretical downsides.

Why not stick to simple? There’s not necessarily a real tradeoff. Sometimes, even often, you can do faster, simpler, and better. I’m going to work to keep that in mind in everything I do. Kindergarden selection for my kids. Financial planning. And especially software.

Before going complicated, have you tried spatchcocking? The result might just be delicious.

2 thoughts on “on cooking turkey and solving problems

  1. Love the lesson here. Reminds me of when we did elimination communication (aka infant potty training) with my daughter. Started putting her on the potty on Day 6 and the results were pretty dramatic. I couldn’t believe that this technique was not more widely known / practiced given the benefits (our daughter was fully potty trained at 11 months and from 2-11 mos did on the order of 95% of her #2s on her tiny toilet).

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