Published March 1, 2009. Web Exclusive.
Turkey is pretty bland, so why pay $100 for a mail-order bird when supermarket options cost less than $2 a pound?
Does roasting a better bird start before you even get into the kitchen? Is it ever worthwhile to mail-order a fancier turkey? To find out, we selected five turkeys, including common supermarket brands as well as kosher turkey, a “natural” turkey, and a heritage breed bird from a gourmet retailer.
A great-tasting roast turkey is not just about turkey flavor; the texture and moisture of the meat are important, too, as anyone who has eaten a mouthful of dry, chewy turkey can attest. We talked with turkey experts about the factors that contribute to a turkey's quality, which include its breed, how it's raised and fed, and how it's processed for sale.
In a sense, modern commercial turkeys have been bred to have very little flavor. In the United States, we're a white-meat market, creating a heavy emphasis on genetic selection for breast-muscle growth. The most common commercial turkey, the Broad-Breasted White, has been bred to grow bigger in less time and on less feed (to reduce costs) and to produce the maximum possible white meat. Today's turkeys are up to 70 percent white meat, and they grow fast. Most Americans eat a hen (female) turkey on Thanksgiving. These birds are ready for market in just 14 weeks, when they weigh 16 to 22 pounds, which yields processed birds in the 12- to 18-pound range. (By contrast, older breeds of turkey, called heritage birds, need seven to eight months to grow to full size—roughly twice as long as modern turkeys.)
Rapid growth may be good for farmers, but it's not so great for cooks. Modern turkeys have less fat when fully grown and fat is what provides meat with juiciness and flavor. Commercial birds grow so fast, they don't have time to accumulate much flavor."
Turkey growers have resorted to other means to return flavor—and fat—to the turkey, including injecting "basting" solutions during processing. These solutions can contain salt, turkey broth, oil, sugar, and sodium phosphate (which raises the meat's pH, binding water to the cells), all of which work to season the meat and keep it moist. Turkeys sold this way are often called "prebasted" and can be identified by the ingredient label. While our tasting panel generally liked the two birds in this familiar style, some found them bland and "wet" rather than actually moist.
Another way turkey gains flavor is through koshering. Kosher birds start as the same breed of commercial large-breasted turkeys, but they are processed according to Jewish dietary law and under rabbinical supervision. The carcasses are covered in kosher salt and then rinsed multiple times in cold water, which works to season the meat, improve its texture, and help it retain moisture.
In previous turkey tastings, we tried unconventional turkeys, with little success. One organic, pasture-raised bird was the same breed as commercial turkeys, but it had been free to roam and eat foraged grass and insects. It also ate organic versions of the usual soy and cornmeal feed most turkeys consume, along with wheat. While all this sounds great, our tasters didn't notice a big improvement in flavor. Unless the bird eats 100 percent foraged food, turkey experts noted, most consumers can’t taste a difference in the meat. The texture of this bird was also slightly stringier and tougher than most tasters preferred, probably because it got more exercise.
In this tasting, another unconventional turkey was “all natural,” raised on a vegetarian diet—meaning the bird ate none of the animal byproducts that can be part of commercial turkey diets—and was free to roam. The company claimed its birds are allowed to grow longer than average for better flavor and a broader breast, but also noted that its meat had “55% less fat” than other turkeys. But as turkey experts noted, less fat equals less flavor. No surprise, then, that this translated to a drier bird, with meat that was “nothing special.”
Unlike other unconventional birds, the single heritage turkey in our lineup won favor, with tasters remarking on its "excellent” turkey flavor. Heritage turkeys are directly descended from wild turkeys and nearly disappeared in the mid-20th century as commercial Broad-Breasted Whites were created by the poultry industry. Heritage turkeys have colorful feathers, a more elongated frame, and a narrower breast. This one was also free-range and vegetarian-fed.
But is it worth more than four times the price of a supermarket turkey? Not always. Last year we tasted a different heritage turkey from Walters Poultry, a much smaller farm, with outstanding results. This year, that farm’s birds were sold out well in advance of the holidays, and were unobtainable for our tasting. The substituted bird, from a much larger breeder, was certainly good, but not so much better than other options from the supermarket that it was worth the effort and expense.
We always thought it would be a good idea to buy fresh turkeys wherever possible, assuming they would be better. If you can buy your turkey at a local farm, that might be true, but supermarket birds labeled as "fresh" can actually be tougher and drier than frozen ones.
Why? Turkeys may be labeled as "fresh" if they have been chilled to as low as 26 degrees. But at this temperature, tiny ice crystals can form in the meat. If the temperature fluctuates (during storage or transport, at the supermarket, or on the way to your home), these crystals can melt, combine with neighboring crystals, and then refreeze. These irregularly shaped ice crystals will start to poke the cell membranes in the meat, make holes and the cell tissues in the muscles will start to lose their internal contents. Then when they are cooked, those birds will be dry.