Talkin’ Turkey

by The Gilded Fork

a test kitchen dossier

I hate turkeys. If you stand in the meat section at the grocery store long enough, you start to get mad at turkeys. There’s turkey ham, turkey bologna, turkey pastrami. Someone needs to tell the turkey, man, just be yourself.
-Mitch Hedberg

Foodstuff: Turkey

Etymology
Europeans enjoyed the African Helmeted Guinea fowl, a bird that was imported from Madagascar by way of Turkey. Visitors to the New World encountered the bird we now know as the turkey, but mistakenly identified it with the helmeted guinea fowl that reached Europe in the hands of “Turkey traders,” and hence the turkey was named. In other languages, the word for turkey reflects the bird’s exotic New World origins (and often mirrors the fact that Christopher Columbus thought he had reached India when he had in fact reached the Americas). In French, for instance, the word for turkey is dinde, abbreviated from poulet d’Inde (chicken of India).

Area of Origin: Mexico

Description
The turkey is a large bird with a mild flavor that can be found either domesticated or running in the wild. Domesticated turkeys cannot fly, but wild turkeys are quite agile and can fly and run at high speeds (we know this from personal experience – don’t ask). The female turkey is smaller and less colorful than the male, and also less vocal, as only male turkeys can make the famed “gobble” sound (females make a clicking noise). Turkey meat is approximately 70% white meat and 30% dark meat, and while in the United States white meat is more popular, in most other places in the world the dark meat reigns supreme (we find it far more delicious, too).

Incidentally, whoever said bigger breasts make for better sex clearly has not spent time as a turkey. Given white turkey meat’s popularity in the U.S., many domesticated turkeys have been bred to produce large breasts. Now, most males would not object to such attributes in their female companions, but sadly these large breasts prevent the male turkey from properly bending the female forward for insemination, so today many turkey eggs are fertilized artificially. Bigger isn’t always better, folks.

Turkeys are also rumored to be rather simple-minded birds, and it is said, in fact, that if they look up while it’s raining they will drown. They also have weak hearts: Scores of turkeys reportedly dropped dead when the Air Force tried to break the sound barrier in a nearby testing area. All in all, it’s not great to be a turkey. To their credit, however, turkeys have excellent peripheral vision (270 degrees), which often helps wild turkeys to outsmart human hunters. Thankfully evolution gave them something to work with.

History
The turkey originated in Mexico, and archaeological evidence hints that the bird was domesticated as early as 200 B.C. By the time the Spanish conquistadores arrived in the Americas, the turkey had spread throughout Central, South and North America. Around 1520, explorers in the Americas brought the turkey back to Europe, and from then on it rose steadily in European popularity, often taking the place of the goose in traditional holiday meals. Later European explorers and settlers thought they were crafty in bringing turkey with them to settle in North America, and were often surprised to find the bird already living there in the wild.

Enjoyed for almost as long as there have been people around to eat them, the turkey has held a celebrated place in the United States’ history and culture. When it came time to pick a national bird for the United States of America, Benjamin Franklin proposed the turkey as the official bird, and when the bald eagle was chosen instead, poor Mr. Franklin was dismayed. He believed the bald eagle had “bad moral character” for poaching other animals’ kills, and thought the turkey was “a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.”

The turkey even has a special place in modern White House politics: Since 1947, it has been an annual tradition for the President of the United States to “pardon” a turkey each Thanksgiving. The turkey, spared from becoming dinner, peacefully lives out the rest of its life in a petting zoo.

In the past half century, thanks to improvements in breeding and disease control, turkey consumption has been steadily on the rise in the United States, with annual per capita consumption reaching 16.7 pounds in 2005. Each year, about 46 million turkeys are eaten at Thanksgiving (compared with 22 million at Christmas and 19 million at Easter). Approximately 96% of Americans eat turkey at Thanksgiving.

Buying Turkey
Turkeys are available fresh and frozen all year long, and you can buy them either whole or in separate parts. Turkey can be used in almost anything, thanks to its mild flavor. The bird’s large size often leaves behind a generous proportion of leftovers, so it is a comfort to many chefs that turkey works wonderfully in everything from soups and stews to salads and sandwiches. In recent years, the Southern method of deep frying the turkey has risen in popularity, while the traditional roasting of turkey remains ever-popular. The gizzards of the turkey can be used to make a flavorful gravy.

Although male (tom) turkeys can reach 70 pounds, those over 20 pounds are becoming less and less available. The female (hen) turkey usually weighs from 8 to 16 pounds. Gaining in popularity is a smaller version of both sexes (sometimes called a fryer-roaster) which weighs in at about 5-8 pounds. The trend toward these compact turkeys is the result of both smaller families and the desire of turkey producers to make turkey everyday rather than exclusively holiday fare. Turkeys are available fresh and frozen year-round, and sold both whole and as separate parts, such as breasts or drumsticks.

Cooking with Turkey
Some words of caution: Many turkeys come with a built-in plastic thermometer that pops up when the internal flesh has reached the proper temperature. Please do be aware that given our litigious society, these often cook the bird well past the point of being done to “so cooked no one can sue us” land, resulting in a dry, unappealing bird. Do yourself and your guests the service of purchasing a good thermometer and keep track of the bird’s temperature with that instead. Once the turkey reaches 165° F it is ready to come out of the oven and rest for 30 minutes.

Another important note: “Self-basting” turkeys have been injected with vegetable oil to make the cooking process “foolproof”. Unfortunately, this is big business taking us for fools. The best way to keep a turkey moist is to brine it yourself prior to cooking, or to buy a kosher bird, which has been salted to draw out the blood. To brine, make a simple solution of water, salt and sugar, and feel free to add any other aromatics you like to add flavor. The salt opens the pores of the flesh to help it draw in the moisture, and the sugar is hydrophilic, meaning it helps to keep the water inside those pores. Brine the turkey at least a day ahead of cooking, and BE SURE to rinse it off well before cooking. We don’t mean a little spritz: Wash it out very well under running water for several minutes to get rid of any saltiness. Pat dry inside and out, and then proceed with your favorite way to cook it.

Our Approach
Rather than craft an overdone array of turkey preparations merely for the sake of overdoing them, we’ve decided to give you some very straightforward yet elegant preparations for your holiday meals. We’ve also crafted a few recipes for the leftovers, because we know how tiresome that turkey starts looking on Day 3.

Happy holidays!

Recipes

Turkey Preparations: Brine, Compound Butters and High-Heat Roasting
Turkey Gumbo (perfect for leftovers!)
Turkey and Wild Mushroom Sauce (also perfect for leftovers!)

Other ideas to consider for glazing and dressing poultry:
Apple Cinnamon Glaze
En Demi-Deuil (with truffles)

Dossier research by Ava Tramer

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Anthony Robert October 26, 2009 at 2:17 pm

Excellent article, however every source I have come across recommends cooking until the internal temp reaches 180F-190F, possibly as low as 170F in the thickest part of the breast. You recommend 165F, then allow to sit for 30 mins. Is this enough to cook the bird though completely?

Jennifer Iannolo October 26, 2009 at 9:32 pm

That’s a great question, Anthony. Typically, the turkey will increase another 10 degrees while sitting, which is why we recommend taking it out before then to avoid overcooking it (we do this with all our meats and poultry).

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