15 Tips You Need When Cooking With Ground Turkey

Ground turkey is a versatile type of ground meat made by combining the remainder of white and dark meat and leftover skin from meat processing. According to ButcherBox, the majority of ground turkey is made from darker portions of the bird because the white meat is significantly more expensive and hard to come by. The fat percentage of ground turkey is close to 15%, making it a comparatively lower fat content than ground beef. ButcherBox notes that ground turkey tends to run a bit leaner than ground chicken too.

Because of its leanness, ground turkey has a reputation for being a bland ground protein. But instead, you should think of ground turkey as a blank canvas for your favorite recipes and applications where you would instead use ground beef or chicken. Here are some of our tips for working with ground turkey, regardless if you're adding it to your favorite taco night, slow cooker chili, or grandma's homemade meatball recipe.

1. Ground turkey may require more seasoning than other ground meats

The leanness of the ground turkey makes it a worthy opponent for your spice cabinet. Beef has a higher saturated fat content than turkey, which makes it both unctuous and increases the flavor-holding capacity of the meat. Under-seasoning is one of the biggest mistakes people make with ground turkey. You'll find the meat bland and flavorless if you don't add a hefty serving of dried herbs and spices, as well as the unforgettable salt-and-pepper combo. 

The exact seasonings you should use for ground turkey depends on how it's prepared. For meatballs and Italian-inspired recipes, you can't go wrong with salt, pepper, Italian seasoning, and oregano. If you're making a taco, lift the flavor of your ground turkey with ground cumin or taco seasoning. As a meat, turkey is very conducive to the heat from ingredients like ground cayenne and ancho chili powder. 

2. Ground turkey isn't always a healthier alternative to ground beef

Ground turkey this, ground turkey that. Many folks adhering to low-calorie meal plans choose ground turkey as a replacement for ground beef. But are there any health benefits to cooking with ground turkey instead of other popular ground meats?

Healthline notes that unless you're substituting out especially fatty and rich ground beef for 100% lean ground turkey, there are very few health benefits to making the swap. A bit more protein can be found in 93% and 85% lean ground beef than in turkey with the same fat percentage. Although beef has lower total fat than turkey, turkey is especially low in saturated fat. The website also notes that the micronutrient and mineral profiles of beef and turkey are relatively similar, but the turkey might have a higher sodium content because it needs to be seasoned more than the beef. 

3. The texture of ground turkey isn't synonymous to ground beef

There are major textural differences that set ground turkey apart from other types of ground meats. Ground turkey is drier and chewier because it is not made with the chewy, fatty cuts of chuck and sirloin like ground beef. If you want to get the closest texture to ground beef, you should use 85% lean ground turkey or one only made with dark meat turkey rather than white meat too. 

The low saturated fat content of ground turkey can cause the turkey to dry out faster and not hold flavor as well as ground beef, so you need to be careful when you cook the ground turkey to preserve its precious moisture. This may include altering your recipe for a lower temperature and including the addition of supplemental moisture like oil or stock. While you can keep the same seasoning and flavors between the two recipes, your mouth might be able to tell the difference between ground turkey and other ground meats.

4. Ground turkey needs to reach a higher internal temperature than other meat products

Ground turkey is a type of poultry, so you will have to cook it to a different internal temperature than ground beef to ensure it is safe to eat. According to information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ground turkey should be cooked until it has an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. Ground red meats (including beef, veal, and pork), in comparison, should be cooked to a minimum of 160 degrees F and do not require a resting period. 

The only way you can tell if your ground turkey is adequately cooked is to use a food thermometer. You should stick the metal part of the thermometer in the thickest part of the meat and avoid touching gristle, bone, or fat. Allow the temperature reader to stabilize before removing the probe. To prevent disease transfer, rinse off the probe with soap and water each time. 

5. Color change may indicate your ground turkey has gone bad

To keep ourselves safe in the kitchen, one of the best things we can do is to examine foods with our eyes and nose before we prepare them. Fresh and safe ground turkey is light pink in color and moist. If you notice your ground turkey is graying in color or moldy, it is surely time to toss the container in the trash. Poultry that has gone bad will give off a sulfuric smell as well, so your meat must pass both the color and the smell test before you prepare it.

You can extend the storage life of your turkey by keeping it sealed in an air-tight container and avoiding temperatures in the bacterial "danger zone." According to the Foods Guy, bacteria can multiply four to five times faster at warmer temperatures, while exposing ground turkey to air can increase bacteria transfer by up to two times.

6. Transform your meatloaf by adding ground turkey

Meatloaf is a Sunday-night dinner staple, and what other way to make it better than to add a bit of ground turkey to the mix? If you're adding a medley of meats like ground beef and veal along with the turkey, you should remember to turn up the seasoning. If you plan on adding turkey to meatloaf, you should consider seasoning with onions, garlic, chili powder, or hot sauce to enhance the flavor. The benefit of using vegetables and sauce-based seasonings for turkey meatloaf is that you won't contribute to a higher fat content (which is arguably the reason why most people choose to use turkey instead of other meats). You can also stick to earthy flavors with the addition of thyme or mint. 

Our go-to seasoning recommendation for meatloaf, though, is either barbecue sauce or Worcestershire sauce. Barbecue sauce is common in southern meatloaf recipes and is more savory than ketchup. Worcestershire sauce is an umami flavor bomb made with fermented anchovies, tamarind paste, molasses, onions, garlic, spices, and vinegar — all of which sit in a tub for months until perfectly flavored. Although Worcestershire sauce is a flavorful addition to any meatloaf, it is not suitable for folks with seafood allergies and depending on the brand, may not be gluten-free either.

7. Adding a bit of oil to your ground turkey can help keep turkey burgers moist

Turkey burgers are a delicious way to use up ground turkey. But if you've ever made turkey burgers, you've probably come across a big challenge to working with the protein — the dryness. To keep the turkey meat moist and flavorful, you should consider adding 2 tablespoons of oil per pound of meat. In retrospect, this amount of oil is very small compared to the amount of meat you're cooking with. Plus, you can use your favorite oil — whether it's old-fashioned olive oil, peanut oil, or sunflower oil. Fold in your choice of oil with seasonings (don't forget to be generous with onions, dried seasoning powders, or vegetables like chopped mushrooms) and prepare your burger for the grill.

To keep the moisture in the turkey, you should avoid overhandling the meat and keep the patties cold until you plan on cooking them. Once your burgers are in the pan or on the grill, avoid squishing the juices out and flipping too much, since flipping and moving will slow the cooking process. The longer the cooking time, the more opportunity the precious juice has to evaporate from the burgers.

8. Cook the turkey before adding it to turkey chili

To cook or not to cook — that is the question. When you're making a hearty turkey chili recipe with ground turkey, you should always cook the turkey first before adding other ingredients, like beans and chopped tomatoes, to your stock pot or Dutch oven. Browning the meat, regardless if you're using venison, beef, or turkey, is a critical step in crafting a flavorful chili. This is because of the Maillard reaction — a chemical change in color, flavor, and aroma that occurs when sugars and amino acids are heated. The Maillard reaction only occurs when meat is dry cooked, like searing on a pan, rather than if the meat is wet cooked, like boiling. This is due to the Maillard reaction occuring at temperatures higher than the boiling point of water. And not only does boiling your turkey sound disgusting, but it won't create the dark color or the flavorful, meaty aroma that makes chili so appetizing.

9. Use goat milk to keep your ground turkey burgers moist

You might have never thought to consult dairy products to help enhance the flavor of your turkey burgers. But the hidden weapon in a delicious turkey burger is not from a cow — it's from a goat. Goat's milk is a thick, unctuous, and flavorful pairing to lean turkey. We recommend combining goat's milk with Worcestershire sauce, a scoop of mayonnaise, and breadcrumbs to create moisture that will stick with your burger as long as it cooks. If you are wary of working with goat's milk, you can substitute dairy or oat milk instead.

Once you've added your secret ingredients, you can decide to either bake the burger patties or pan-sear them in batches on the stove. Pan searing provides a crispier exterior than baking but requires an additional splash of oil in the pan for a desirable texture. We recommend pairing your turkey burgers with cubed feta and fresh arugula.

10. Substitute ground turkey for pork in lettuce wraps

Lettuce wraps are a delicious, filling appetizer or light entree. These wraps are traditionally made with a meat filling, veggie topping, and flavorings from a mix of Asian sauces (like hoisin sauce). Then, the wraps are folded in a fresh lettuce leaf for both portability and crunch.

If you're looking to cut back on saturated fat without skimping on flavor, you should try substituting turkey for other meats in your lettuce wraps. You'll need to cook the turkey in a pan until golden brown; we recommend using sesame oil as a flavorful oil choice that will also keep the meat moist as it cooks. Be careful not to overcook the meat and beware of smoking. According to SFGate, plain sesame oil has a higher smoke point (around 410 degrees F) than toasted or cold-pressed sesame oil (around 350 degrees F), so we recommend choosing your cooking oil with care.

Once the meat is finished cooking, season liberally with dark soy sauce, honey, hoisin sauce, chili flakes, and salt. Serve with fresh veggies and toasted cashews.

11. Use ground turkey for a healthier version of a walking taco

The walking taco is a tailgate special and a seemingly unique American invention. The walking taco is made by adding seasoned meat and taco toppings like salsa and cheese to a bag of corn chips. While beef is a traditional walking taco filling, we recommend substituting ground turkey for a lighter yet still flavorful option. Moreover, ground turkey is the perfect pairing for a walking taco because it absorbs the seasonings — adobo sauce, cumin, chili powder, and tomato sauce — like a sponge. You can play with these seasonings based on your palate. We recommend piling on the adobo sauce, but folks looking for a more mild flavor may look to pre-packaged taco seasoning instead.

When you're ready to assemble your walking taco, open the bag of chips (we recommend nacho cheese tortilla chips, but corn chips will work, too), and pour in your cooked, seasoned turkey with your favorite toppings. Depending on how much cheese you add, you might convince fellow tailgaters that this is just regular ole taco meat. 

12. Seamlessly substitute ground beef with turkey in a shepherd's pie

When the weather starts to get colder, you'll want to have easy, filling meal ideas on hand. One way to use up the ground turkey in your fridge is to add it to a shepherd's pie. A turkey shepherd's pie has less saturated fat than the typical beef recipe — and you likely have all the ingredients you need to make a shepherd's pie in your pantry or freezer.

You'll want to start by browning your turkey in a pan until the turkey has an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, turkey can still appear pink after its temperature has reached the safe temperature of 165 degrees F. Therefore, the only method to reliably check your ground turkey to see if it's done cooking is to keep a meat thermometer handy. After your ground turkey has reached this temperature, you should liberally add tomato paste, broth, and Worcestershire sauce. Turkey is bland, so you will have to add more seasoning than you would with a beef-only shepherd's pie.

13. Use oats to keep your turkey meatballs from drying out

The low saturated fat content of ground turkey can make it difficult for meatballs to hold their shape during baking. The solution for many meatball recipes with ground chicken or turkey instead of the fattier ground beef is breadcrumbs. Oats are a much better alternative to breadcrumbs in meatballs because the oats can hold more liquid. Starting with dried oats means that your meatballs will absorb the seasoning, flavor, and liquid that comes from your turkey as it cooks. Plus, moist oats will provide texture and softness to your meatballs. 

The major drawback of using oats as a binder in the meatballs instead of breadcrumbs is that you won't get any crisp edges on your meatballs. But you will get a much healthier meatball if you use the oats; the ingredient is higher in fiber and lower in sodium than breadcrumbs.

14. Use honey for a boost of sweetness in turkey meatballs

You'll need ingredients to draw flavor to ground turkey. Food personality Antoni Porowski adds a bit of homemade hot honey — made by combining sweet honey with a subtle heat from red chili flakes. He goes on to note that this trick works for drizzling on the meatballs in the last couple minutes of baking. Cooking the meatballs on the stovetop with honey will only cause the meatballs to burn. You can add as much or as little hot honey as your tastebuds desire, but Porowski goes on to recommend adding a pinch of flakey sea salt for texture regardless of how much honey you use. 

If you want to go a step further with the sweetness of honey, you can make a teriyaki sauce with honey, soy sauce, ginger, and brown sugar. Once the meatballs are finished baking in the oven, you can simmer the meatballs on the stove for about 10 minutes before serving. This sauce is flavorful and viscous enough that you may not even be able to tell you're eating ground turkey.

15. Overhandling turkey can cause it to be tough

Turkey, like other types of ground meat, should not be overhandled. If you are too touchy with ground turkey, you may render it too tough — which will cause problems with moisture retention and texture later on. Like other types of meatballs, you should use binders like eggs, flour, or breadcrumbs to help your meatballs come together round rather than just brute force. As you're working with turkey meatballs, you should stick to using your hands rather than a spoon so you can more accurately feel when the meat starts to tighten up. Additionally, lightly oiling your hands before shaping the meatballs will help keep the meat from becoming too tough as well, and assist in keeping the precious moisture in the meatball.

Feeling squeamish about handling cold ground meat? You can use an ice cream scoop to plop the meat mixture onto your baking sheet. Not only will this method minimize the contact you have to make with the meatballs, but you'll also ensure your meatballs are all the same size.