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.
The best-selling turkey in America is produced by a division of ConAgra, the agricultural giant. There is a surprising amount of product engineering with this bird, from the removal of leg tendons for easier slicing, to the "natural" trussing, whereby the turkey's legs are tucked into an incision in the skin made near the tail. While you can get a lot of information on how to cook turkeys on the Butterball Web site—information on the food, medication, or growth stimulants the birds receive during their lifetime is tellingly scant. Butterballs also contain added water (and salt, and sodium phosphates); 7 percent of the bird may be this solution.
Tasting notes: The breast meat is finely grained and quite moist—"tastes like my mom's turkeys," says one nostalgic taster—and the dark meat has a distinct flavor of its own, more lingering and baritone than the breast meat, but not as rich as the organic and range-grown birds. The skin is a little blubbery in places, and when eaten cold out of the refrigerator the next day, the flesh is more pronouncedly "deli" than the other birds. But the counterpoint of lively light and dark flavors, the moist, tender texture, and the streamlined form made this a favorite among the tasters. Grade: A-
Rubashkins Aaron's Best Turkey, processed in Iowa
Weight and price: 16.03 pounds, $15.87 (99 cents/pound).
State at time of purchase: Frozen.
Distinguishing characteristics: Long narrow bird, untrussed, with no neck skin, all of which gives it an open appearance; wing tips removed; salted and soaked in processing.
Kosher birds have gotten a lot of media attention lately: The double inspection by rabbis and USDA inspectors helps ensure quality, or so the story goes. How is a kosher bird different from other birds? For starters, it is not stunned before slaughter, as most commercial birds are. It is killed by a specially trained slaughterer who slits its throat swiftly with a sharp blade; a humane method, according to Jewish tradition. It is also salted, and then rinsed, at the processing plant to draw out blood, which Orthodox Jews may not eat. Because there are more rules surrounding the neck area, sometimes, as with my bird, the whole skin-flap is just cut off. For more details on kosher poultry processing click here.
Tasting notes: Without trussing or neck skin, the bird looks feral and less roast-worthy than the tucked-in birds. "This is too erotic to be a Thanksgiving bird," said my boss, referring to the bird's gaping cavity. But the early salting of the bird seems to act upon the proteins of the meat, making it distinctively "tender" and earning a "thumbs up" from one full-mouthed taster. Flavor is curiously neutral, with little variation between light and dark meat. Yet the texture, so supple the bird seemed almost to have been stewed, was maintained when the meat was sampled cold out of the refrigerator. Grade: B+
Bronze Heritage, Wishard Farms, Ore.
Weight and price: 16.55 pounds, $49.65 ($3/pound).
State at time of purchase: Still alive on day of marathon testing; on Monday the 24th, refrigerated, no trace of ice.
Distinguishing characteristics: Small commercial distribution, raised outdoors, no added hormones or antibiotics, physical attributes: leaner torso, narrow, highly peaked breast, long legs; breed near extinction.
The heritage turkey was not available in time for the group testing, so I picked up my heritage turkey, distributed by Slow Food Puget Sound, on Monday morning. (In general, fresh turkeys of any kind are very hard to get until the week of Thanksgiving because of the short shelf-life of the unfrozen meat.) It was the old Bronze breed, with a narrow breast that dropped off sharply after the equator of the torso. I roasted it in the same manner as the other birds, but because the accompanying literature said this breed was easily overcooked, I pulled it at 162 degrees, 3 degrees shy of the other birds. I had three friends come over to taste: two who, like me, had already tasted all four birds, and one excited neophyte.
Tasting notes: Both veteran tasters liked the bird, especially the delicious, well-rounded flavor of the breast meat, which was moist, and "full of the essence of turkey." "It rates right up there" when compared to the Butterball and kosher turkeys, all veterans agreed. "This is like brisket!" exclaimed our new taster, and indeed, much of the turkey's dark meat seemed pleasantly beefy, even if the stringy leg muscle was "pretty tough" and laced with prominent tendons. The rarer meat closest to the bone had some of the metallic twang of blood, and yet to cook the breast anymore would have meant overdoing it. Nibbling on a "lucky carrot" that had soaked up the roasting juices, we deemed the gravy-making potential of the bird promising. Still, the engineering issues of this pricey bird aren't easy to overcome without cutting it apart. I'd be a little hesitant to brine these turkeys—heritage bird veterans don't recommend it—because it might neutralize the distinct qualities of the meat. Ideally, I think two smaller Bronzes might do the trick, cooking more quickly and evenly, while providing the same big flavor. Grade: B+
Heidi's Hen, Diestel Ranch, Sonora, Calif.
Weight and price: 15.21 pounds, $30.27 ($1.99/pound).
State at time of purchase: Fresh but deeply chilled, icy on the surface.
Distinguishing characteristics: Organic certified; range-grown; up to 3 percent water retained from processing; distinct physical attributes like still-dimpled skin, broad breast, fleshy wings.
The Heidi's Hen is the organic version of the popular Diestel turkey (see below), which means that the bird itself, its feed, the farm, the processing plant, and the distribution network have all been vetted through the national organic standards. Along with eating an organic, non-genetically modified, vegetarian diet and not receiving growth hormones or antibiotics, it is raised outdoors. As a result, the appearance of the raw bird is markedly different: It has a broad muscular breast and fleshy wings as a result of a fair amount of flapping. The skin seems thinner and still feather-dimpled (perhaps because it is not frozen, or plumped with water).
Tasting notes: The bird's hefty stance is enhanced by its tight binding with a nylon truss, and this density may contribute to a longer roasting time. Despite being the most "gorgeous bird," the breast, after cooking, has a thick, dry "Styrofoam texture" and received the most negative comments. When the meat is eaten cold, it is tougher still. And yet the leg meat is lush and richly flavored, and described as "meatier" and "gamier" than the other birds. The thin skin crisped up admirably. It should be noted that both the Heidi's Hen and the Diestel turkey won accolades for the flavor of their cooking juices—a crucial component in gravy and stuffing flavoring. Still, the organic bird came in a distant third to the kosher and Butterball birds. Grade: C
Diestel Range-Grown Bird, Sonora, Calif.
Weight and price: 14.91 pounds, $25.25 ($1.69/pound).
State at time of purchase: Fresh, but deeply chilled, icy on surface.
Distinguishing characteristics: Fed a vegetarian diet and administered no antibiotics or growth hormones; range-grown; nylon truss; physical attributes: broad breast, still dimpled skin, fleshy wings.
Like its cousin, the Heidi, the Diestel bird is the prototypical fresh, free-range bird, raised on the same farm in the Sierra Nevada foothills, but it has not gone through every step of organic certification. It, too, is short and broad for its weight.
Tasting notes: Like the organic roast, this is one good-looking bird, but "I don't like this one" was a sentiment shared among testers, and, as with the organic bird, the unyielding "chewy" breast texture was the key reason behind such statements. The leg meat was assertive and "flavorful," but "not as tender" as the favorites. Grade: C-
Weight and price: $18.49 for 2 pounds.
To satisfy vegetarian and vegan readers, I also roasted this ersatz vegan turkey. The UnTurkey is cleverly wrapped in soy "skin," creating a crackly surface over a wheat-gluten meat substitute and bread stuffing. Despite the effort, its appearance is not exactly regal. "Look at the turkeys," said one horrified observer, "they are sad to be compared to it." It was to be ranked with the rest, but after one taste of its over-oreganoed "flesh," we unanimously concluded that vegans would do far better with a nice stuffed squash.
Conclusion: I have never seen faces so crestfallen as when I revealed that the two least favorites were the standard pasture-raised birds. But the Butterball, as the typical turkey of our youth, had a key Proustian advantage, and cooking without brining worked because the Butterball already has a good bit of salty water added to it. The Butterball and the kosher turkey are also more highly processed and thickly muscled than the range-grown birds, making them ideal for cooks who seek relatively little stress when it comes to preparing their turkey. For those who like a culinary challenge, or who want a bird with a more traceable husbandry, the range-grown birds are still a good option, especially the pricey Bronze bird, which had outstanding flavor. (The organic hen also had admirable dark meat.) But these birds should be more thoroughly prepped before cooking. For the Diestel or Heidi, I advise brining the turkey before cooking, to help break down its proteins and to conduct added moisture into the breast meat. In any case, it seems worthwhile for all to try McGee's breast-icing trick, too. And cook the meat as lightly as you feel you can, safely: The Diestel birds did well in other tests where the meat was cooked to a cool 160. Or you could just relax, realizing that one's energy is more greatly rewarded for exceptional pies than for outstanding turkeys.