In the U.S., everyone has an experience with turkey because it is the centerpiece of our national meal: Thanksgiving. Benjamin Franklin suggested it as our national bird over the eagle. I would have voted with him. Every cook has their own story about how they roast the large bird on the holiday, either by brine, straight roast, deep-fry, or perhaps dividing the pieces before roasting so ensure proper cooking of the various parts.
Turkey, a large wandering bird with a thick plume of feathers that resists even bullets, is now domesticated and grown on large factory farms, much to the pity of their potentially delicious meat. I’ve never had the luxury of feasting on a heritage turkey, a hand-me-down legacy bird whose nobility ranks higher than my own. I generally settle for an all-natural bird, a turkey of dubious heritage but in all likelihood better than the bottom rung of the frozen boulders most people choose. I jest, for though fresh turkey is purported to be better than frozen, with today’s flash-freezing methods, frozen turkeys aren’t a bad choice for the modest gourmand.
My first experience with turkey centers around my father, who would cook Thanksgiving turkey every year, basting it prodigiously until crispy golden perfection, then carving it like a maestro. I’d ask for a few slices of white meat – glistening, steamy, and plain, dousing it with giblet gravy. Then I’d tackle a few pieces of dark meat, fatty and tender. My sister and I would do our annual wishbone break, which I’d almost always win. Dad would then gather the leftovers and make a fantastic, hearty turkey soup for the morning after.
Turkey is probably one of the scarcest meats at high-end restaurants, but culturally it provides us with so much more. I daresay you find turkey on a multi-course degustation menu, but you’ll have to wrangle this animal from our cold, dead hands come holiday season. Let’s explore how the turkey edges into The Pantheon:
Part by part, why is turkey delicious?
Though there was a period in the ’80s when health nuts and contrarians touted turkey as the other, other white meat, turkey features a variety of parts that can appeal to gourmets. The most prized piece is probably the leg, a handheld feast most easily and happily consumed with direct bite rather than the trouble of utensils. I remember feasting on a juicy leg at Disneyland not too long ago, glad that I’d taken a step up from the chicken drumsticks of my youth. The jerky-like skin from a roasted turkey leg is also a joy. At our most recent holiday dinners, we have a lad by the name of Frank who claims a leg just after saying grace and devours it to the flinty bone. It’s a sight to behold.
The white meat is probably the most often consumed, both in sandwiches and at the dinner table, with its prodigious offerings. If not properly brined or seasoned, the white meat could be an abomination, a hated, spiteful collection of dry, tasteless mash. Sometimes even good gravy or cranberries cannot salvage badly prepared breast meat.
On the other hand, dark meat is almost always good eating, superior in texture and more likely to be moist thanks to additional exercise exerted upon it. It is not to be skipped.
Though not directly associated with turkey, stuffing is the most common accompaniment, other than cranberries and gravy. I generally recommend preparing stuffing outside of the bird because cooking them separately offers better control of each.
What is the historical significance of turkey?
Originally dubbed “Indian chicken” by Spanish conquistadors, who thought they had stumbled upon the Indian subcontinent, turkey was eventually adopted by the French and especially the English, who replaced the Christmas goose with the turkey in the 17th century. Turkey ran wild in North America, though it was domesticated by the Aztecs and used in mole poblano de guajolote. Though we like to gush that turkeys were eaten at the proverbial “First Thanksgiving,” it is more likely that turkey was simply a partner in the meat selection, along with other wild game and venison. Today more than 250 million turkeys are produced each year in varying degrees of industrial quality. However, there is an ever-increasing trend toward high-quality heritage and organic turkeys. The revered rancher Bill Niman, who formerly marketed high-quality livestock, began raising his own heritage turkeys. Though in 1970, 50 percent of turkeys were consumed during the holidays; today only 29 percent is consumed during such time, as the meat is more generally accepted all throughout the year.
What are some good turkey recipes?
I’ll keep it quick with my own recipe, but I either brine my turkey for at least 12 hours before roasting, or pack a hefty layer of salt on the outer skin before the roast. I don’t baste since it’s a hassle and only effective at browning the skin. The continual change in temperature from opening the oven isn’t worth the potential effect on the final product.
When it comes to pairing turkeys with wines, I will direct you to a good-quality Zinfandel, that banished child of oenophiles. The straight-forward red wine will match with almost anything on the Thanksgiving table, including of course, the main event.
What makes turkey great?
Perhaps the best and most notable feature of turkey is that it is the pain part of a large gathering, of family, friends, and loved ones. It brings together strangers and acquaintances like no other food can. Everyone in this country experiences turkey at least one day a year, whether the man in a homeless shelter, the homesick college student at the cafeteria, or the newlywed couple blending their traditions for the first time. Of course other cultures have foods that bind the country on one particular occasion, but the turkey represents so much more, the historical foundation of a country built on freedom, as well as the hope for a bright future. Turkey more than makes up for its culinary shortcomings with a dash of cultural significance that imbues it with a beautiful trio of humanity: joy, good-will, and gratitude.
Every self-respecting cook has a recipe for roast turkey. I suggest you consult at least 5 recipes before tailoring your own. Every year, the major food publications put together their ideal recipes for roasting turkeys. I think the only drawback of brining is the time commitment before hand, as well as a less-than-superior texture. However, I think the promise of perfectly seasoned meat, given by the salt which penetrates the whole bird, as well as a more flexible roasting schedule, is worth it. Cook’s Illustrated and other such publications offer recipes that are as exhausting and difficult as one could imagine. Try them if you’re the type of person who won’t settle for a 99 on a midterm.
Easily serves 8
1 12 pound turkey
Salt and fresh ground pepper
Kitchen twine, for trussing
1 pound of butter, softened
Brine (1 cup of salt per gallon of water)
Load the turkey into enough brine to cover the entire turkey. A large stockpot is useful (every cook should have one). If this cannot be done, a large bowl or even laundry container (sealed of course, no holes) kept overnight on the garage or basement floor would suffice. Keep brine for at least 12 hours, overturning the bird of the container does not cover the whole turkey.
Take out of brine and rinse thoroughly with water. Pat down with paper towels and let sit in the refrigerator perhaps an hour or two. Truss the bird, tucking in the wings, legs, and thighs to the breast for a more even roast. Cover the bird with a thin dusting of black pepper. Tuck in softened butter underneath the skin for extra flavor. Roast at 375 degrees until the thigh shows 160 degrees on a meat thermometer. Take out the turkey and let sit, covered loosely in aluminum foil, for 20 minutes before carving.
Dad’s Turkey Soup
Every year the big question after Thanksgiving is what to do with all the leftover meat. Some settle for turkey sandwiches packed for lunch the following week. Instead, my dad always made a huge vat of turkey soup, a labor of love which consumed his mind from the minute Thanksgiving dinner was over until the next morning. I’ve adopted his recipe for everyone, but I think it’s worth trying for your next holiday meal.
Serves 4-6, hungry or hungover
Bones/Carcass from a large turkey
Any extra turkey meat, ideally 2 pounds, chopped
2 handfuls garlic
2 whole white onions
2 cups diced sweet potatoes
1.5 cups diced carrots
1.5 cups diced celery
½ pound dry macaroni
1 pound Uncle Ben’s or other long grain rice
2 fistfuls of parsley
Boil the bones in a large stockpot with at least 5 gallons of water. Add in garlic and onion to the water. Simmer for at least 6 hours, or until liquid is reduced by half.
Remove bones, season the broth with salt and pepper to taste, throw in parsley, and add in vegetables/starches slowly, with the hardest elements first. Rice, then carrots, then potatoes, then celery, then macaroni (I know macaroni is “hard”, but it cooks quickly). This should occur over a period of 1 hour. Turkey meat can go in the last minutes, just to soak up the broth and warm up. Serve with crusty bread in large bowls.