The Chemical Keys to Thanksgiving Dinner

The Chemical Keys to Thanksgiving Dinner

“The Chemical Keys to Thanksgiving Dinner” A short presentation followed by Q&A with speaker Dr. Harold McGee, scientist and author of a regular column in the New York Times, The Curious Cook.



No Slides For This Presentation


Joy of Science: Food Chemistry Series

“A good meal must be as harmonious as a symphony and as well-constructed as a Norman cathedral.” Fernand Point, ‘Ma gastronomie’ (1897-1955).  This can be said of Thanksgiving.  Home cooked meals that traditionally took a full day and a host of hands to prepare now take just hours. So what have we lost with these age-old preparations? Chemistry.  It’s in techniques like brining, marinating, basting, and slow cooking. It’s where seasons marry and interact – producing tender, succulent and flavorful dishes. Learn why old-fashioned, time-staking approaches to cooking still provide the best results.


You might also like: Top Five Chemistry Tips for the Kitchen with Guy Crosby!


Winners of the Book Giveaway!

Congratulations to our three winners of an autographed copy of Harold’s McGee’s latest book, Keys to Good Cooking!

Jennifer Shapiro

Kenneth Roche

Haim Grinspan (See the question below that made Haim a book winner and Harold’s response!)


What You Will Learn

  • The pros and cons of brining your turkey
  • The two kinds of turkey muscle and how they’re best cooked
  • How heating rates affect the flavor of sweet potatoes
  • Why traditional persimmon pudding is almost black, and how to make it persimmon-colored
  • And much more…


Webinar Details

Date: Thursday, November 17, 2011

Time: 2:00-3:00 pm ET

Fee: Free


Meet Your Experts

ACS member Harold McGee has been writing about the science of food and cooking for 30 years, and was recognized with the 2008 Grady-Stack Award for interpreting chemistry to the public. His encyclopedic book On Food & Cooking: The Science & Lore of the Kitchen is a standard text in culinary schools. His latest book, a cookbook companion, is Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes. He also writes a column, “The Curious Cook,” for the New York Times.


Bill Courtney is the chef/owner of Cheese-ology Macaroni & Cheese, located in the University City Loop, just west of the city of St. Louis, Missouri.  Following completion of his undergraduate degree in Chemistry at the University of Missouri – Columbia, Bill worked a short time as a Q.C. Chemist for ConvaTec.  A shift in interest eventually took Bill to The Genome Institute at Washington University, where he spent 9 years working with the leading genetic and genomic research scientists in the United States. In a radical move, Bill struck out on his own to open Cheese-ology, the culmination of years of a self-described “un-natural obsession” with Macaroni & Cheese. Open since June 2010, Cheese-ology Macaroni & Cheese features over 15 varieties of Macaroni & Cheese to satisfy any Mac & Cheese craving.


The Fine Print

ACS Webinars™ does not endorse any products or services. The views expressed in this presentation are those of the presenters and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the American Chemical Society.



Haim’s Question:
Mr. McGee made a comment regarding to the optimal internal temperature of a cooked bird being at around 150F. It is often taught that poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of about 165F according to HACCP/ServSafe guidelines. Is this not correct? Would it be hazardous to cook it to 150F rather than 165F or is this just designed for restaurant and manufacturer safety parameters?


Harold’s Response:
This question is an excellent one because it highlights the difference between cooking for deliciousness and cooking for safety. I specified 150 degrees in the turkey breast, and 160 or above in the leg, because these are temperatures at which the two kinds of meat are done but still juicy. The USDA specifies 165 degrees because this is a temperature at which most microbes that cause foodborne illness are killed instantly. The common food microbes are also killed at 150 degrees. It just takes longer for their numbers to be sufficiently reduced–on the order of 5 minutes, a period that will be maintained in a roast as large as a turkey. And a turkey that has been handled properly won’t have microbes deep in its tissues anyway–they’ll be on the surfaces, where the temperature will be higher and for much longer than 5 minutes. The USDA guideline puts safety first, and produces a dry turkey breast. My recommendation balances safety and quality, and produces a moist turkey breast. For more about balancing safety and quality in home cooking, visit the website of Dr. O. Peter Snyder at




111 Responses to “The Chemical Keys to Thanksgiving Dinner”

  1. Henrique says:


    I wonder what is your view on the different sources of heat generation and their contribution to the overall results of a dish?

    ps: I am the guy who asked about the Thanksgiving mith – thanks for the answer!

  2. Judy Summers-Gates says:

    Does irradiation alter the essential properties/flavors of foods? It does have some advantages for making food safer but how does it impact the characteristics/flavors?

  3. Eric Driscoll says:

    Hi, I had a few questions regarding methods for deep frying a turkey. It’s my understanding that a variety of oils can be used for this and that canola oil is generally considered a healthier option because of its high cis-unsaturated acid content. I was wondering if the deep frying temperature (~350 deg F?) and time (I have no idea for this one) is enough to cause the acids to isomerize into the dreaded trans fats? Is there any additive to negate or limit this effect that would still result in an edible turkey? Also, I’ve heard that one can reuse the frying oil multiple times. Is there a limit to where this is practical? I would think multiple uses would increase the trans fat content should this process occur.

    Thanks for the info, I enjoyed the talk!

  4. Lisa says:

    Would butterflying (spatchcocking) the turkey be a good method to use to get both the white and dark meats to cook to correct temperatures and doneness?

  5. william deines says:

    From your experience, is there any “scientific” basis for selecting an heirloom turkey over others?

    P.S., really enjoyed your webinar yesterday and next time in SF we will try to connect with you. Thanks.

  6. Rick says:

    I was interested in your discussion of persimmon pudding and how baking soda helps with the browning reactions. The “Modernist Cuisine” team also exploits this for their excellent carrot soup recipe.

    Can you talk more about why this works & if there are other alkaline food ingredients that we might consider in other recipes?

  7. admin says:

    Thank you to everyone that submitted a question to Harold before 12 noon ET. Harold is reading your questions and we will post his response and announce the winner shortly… stay tuned!

  8. Doug Eveleigh says:

    I’m curious about the thermal stability of the amylases of the sweet potato in relation to the oven temperature. The longer the potatoes are at moderate temperature, the sweeter the products. But these enzymes I assume would also be denatured in the oven. I wonder at what temperature.

  9. Frank Kusiak says:

    You mentioned using xantham gum in gravy as a thickening agent. As an informal science educator, what other fun, Thanksgiving themed (or just food science in general) thing can we do to show our audience what xantham gum is and show off its chemical properties?

  10. Anna Debska Chwaja says:

    Comment: During my childhood in Poland, my chemist mother used to keep potatoes outside on the balcony of our kitchen during the winter “to change starch into a sugar”, as she used to explain to us, children, before making marzipans. I wonder if sweet potatoes would benefit from such a precooking procedure? There was a shortage of everything at that time including sugar and of course almonds.

  11. admin says:

    Dear Jack –Sorry you missed the live presentation because of work. While this speaker chose not to use slides, we have provided the recording of the webinar on our website at Please watch. — ACS Webinars

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