There are better-cooking birds than turkeys. Take chicken, for example: Roasted in high heat for about an hour, it becomes a delicious paradox, at once moist and crisp. And squab: now, that's a bird with flavor—dark and bloody, even a little scary, but delicious just the same. For dark-meat lovers, there is the velvety, finger-greasing meat of roast goose or confited duck. But a turkey, even when cooked properly, is little more than a quiet complement to the flashier flavors of the Thanksgiving table: the gravy, the cranberry sauce, the stuffing. It is good, it is pretty, it is moist, but it's rarely a thunderbolt. Only in poor execution does it stands out, with dry joyless breasts and leathery drumsticks. Turkey is not so much a delicacy as an engineering problem.
Despite it all, Thanksgiving celebrants still keep searching for their miracle bird. Many now eschew the frozen standard for fresh, free-range, or organic birds, which, by dint of their hale and hearty natural living, must taste better. I was determined to find out how much such provenance mattered, so I arranged an all-day turkey marathon, in which, helped by a team of fellow cooks, I evaluated four different kinds of turkey.
First off, though, it is worth considering in more detail the turkey's imperfect nature. Its main problem is true of all poultry: To be safely cooked, the breast needs significantly less time and heat than the thighs. Yet because the turkey is so large, and its breast so lean, the problem is exponentially graver. By the time the thighs are done, after hours in the oven, the breast can easily go dry. Turkey cooks are constantly trying to tend to that heat-sensitive breast while cooking the rest of the bird fully. Further complicating the matter is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's extremely cautious food-safety recommendation—that the turkey should be cooked to an internal temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit to be fully safe, which overshoots the ideal temperature for a moist breast meat by 20 to 25 degrees. This frustrating split leads people to turkey extremes. It's why people risk grease fires and third-degree burns to deep-fry their birds; why the intricacies of brining—soaking the bird in a salty solution—become a key pre-Thanksgiving discussion; why food-science writer Harold McGee ices down the breast meat of his turkey before he cooks it; and why, eight years ago, Barbara Kafka recommended the high-heat roasting (500 degrees) of a bird that had been warmed to room temperature (much to the dismayed clucking of slow-roasting traditionalists who insist that a gentle oven is the only way to preserve a turkey's moisture).
In restaurants, we don't tend to cook much turkey (unless one serves sandwiches), and when we do we're likely to dispense with all the aesthetic fuss, cut the turkey apart, and cook the thighs separately from the troublesome breast. When I worked at Campanile in Los Angeles, we made a fantastic turkey dinner by brining and roasting the breasts while cooking the deboned legs, stuffed with sausage, in a soothing bath of olive oil.
Of course, such a technique won't fly at home: If you're serving a Thanksgiving turkey, you just can't cut the bird into parts. After all, presenting, then carving, the bird is the closest we get to a sacrificial act in this country. Even though most of us concede that the original Thanksgiving meal was morally ambiguous, we still respect the sanctity of the whole bird. (Until the next day—when, in a rare contemporary instance of culinary frugality, we proudly morph the leftovers into sandwiches, soups, and breakfast stratas.)
So, the bird stays together, and you hope your brine-tinfoil-basting keeps the breast miraculously moist. The next question, these days, is what kind of bird? It's as much a political decision as one of taste: Do you choose a bird that has been raised indoors, whose intake of food and pharmaceuticals is unknown to you? Or do you choose a bird that has been raised outdoors without antibiotics or added hormones and with (presumably) more room to flap about? Is that story worth another dollar or two a pound? Does it affect the flavor? Nowadays, the food-obsessed can even opt for so-called "heritage" breeds of birds that, when alive, are closer in appearance to the strutting fan-tailed toms pictured in a thousand Thanksgiving tableaux than to the scraggly white turkeys that dominate the market today. These birds represent an effort by preservationists to protect classic American livestock breeds from extinction by creating a market for them. Right now, these Bronze, Narragansett, and Jersey Buff turkeys are the holiday choice of the food cognoscenti, and often you must sign up with a farm in the spring for your November bird. Leaner in torso than the current commercial turkey, one of these breeds just may have been the subject of Norman Rockwell's iconic bit of World War II home-front propaganda, the illustration Freedom From Want, whose huge roast turkey has a slender breast for a bird its size. It was painted about 15 years before the Butterball, bred for plump breasts, became the top-selling brand of turkey in the country.
And now, the experiment. I analyzed four birds for taste, appearance, and texture: a Butterball, a kosher bird, a range-raised "natural" bird, and a fully certified organic bird. I also added a fifth, heritage-breed bird on Monday. (Unfortunately, the heritage bird could not be included in the initial parallel taste test because it was still flapping about on the day of competition.)
Cooking method: Although I have had a lot of success with the method in the past, I chose not to soak the turkeys in brine, a salty solution that tenderizes meat and adds moisture, because I thought it would obscure some of the basic qualities of the meat. After defrosting the frozen birds in the refrigerator for five days (it takes a long time!), I patted them dry, then salted each turkey with one-quarter cup of kosher salt and left the salt on them while they sat overnight in the fridge. In the morning, I went to the Harvest Vine, the Seattle restaurant where I work, because there I had enough oven space to cook all four birds at once. I left the birds trussed as they came, with the exception of the kosher bird, which was ungracefully splayed—I bound its legs together with twine. I coated each bird with 3 tablespoons of melted butter and laid each in a sheet pan, atop a bed of chunked onions, carrots, and celery. I then covered each bird with a damp, double layer of cheese cloth, a method I picked up from Martha Stewart's TV show, which, by keeping the basting liquid close to the breast, seems to retain moisture and coax a beautiful mahogany sheen out of the skin. I put the turkeys into ovens heated to 350 degrees, their legs facing the back, and I occasionally basted the birds with a 1-to-3 mixture of butter and chicken stock. When each bird reached 165 degrees on a thermometer inserted at the thickest part of the thigh, I removed it. (This, you may have noted, is below the USDA's recommendation of 180 degrees, but not so much less if you account for the rise in temperature as the bird rests before carving.) After resting for a half an hour, the birds were sliced and tasted by a crew of four hungry and picky cooks, my co-workers at the restaurant, who did not know which bird was which. I've incorporated their comments and rankings into a letter grade for each turkey.
The contenders, listed in order, from best to worst:
Weight and price: 15.75 pounds, $20.32 ($1.29/pound).
State at time of purchase: Frozen.
Distinguishing features: This bird contains up to 7 percent of a solution of water, salt, starch, sodium phosphate, and flavors; "naturally tucked" legs; twine turkey-lifter included; and a Butterball hot line to call if you run into trouble.