Sometimes a recipe works the first time; more often it takes many tries to get it right. I had high hopes for the turkey I roasted for Thanksgiving. I did some research, wrote up a plan of action, and kept notes. I chose a hen turkey because hens have proportionally more meat than Toms. It had to be between 12 and 14 pounds–big enough to feed the family, but small enough for me to lift and maneuver by myself. I searched out an all-natural, fresh (never frozen), bird that had not been injected with a solution of sugar, salt, and chemicals. I found one at Costco. At 14.1 pounds and an attractive price, it looked perfect. When the day arrived, my turkey emerged from the oven: beautiful, brown, moist, perfectly cooked–and chewy. Back to the drawing board.
After a bit more research, I learned that turkeys labeled as fresh are kept at temperatures low enough to allow the formation of ice crystals. Slight temperature fluctuations cause the ice crystals to melt and refreeze multiple times, resulting in water loss from damaged cells and yielding tough, dry meat. So fresh is not always best.
Modern turkeys are bred to have more white meat and to grow faster on less feed. The commercially grown Broad-Breasted White breed is ready for market in three and a half months compared to heritage varieties which take seven to eight. This has advantages for the producers, but it makes for lean birds. Turkeys need time to develop the layer of fat that makes them tender and tasty. The turkey growers compensate by using brining solutions containing salt, sugar, oil, and phosphate. The labels say they are “pre-based.” So a natural turkey may not be moist.
Most commercial poultry is fed soy and corn rather than their natural diet of grass and insects and that affects the taste. So is “free range” better? All that exercise makes a bird muscular and stringy.
I checked out what the folks at America’s Test Kitchen had to say. They rated a Kosher turkey as their top choice. In the Koshering process, poultry is salted and rinsed several times, which has the effect of brining.
An “organic” label on a product guarantees that it has no additives. So, now I’m looking for a frozen, natural, organic, Kosher, 12 to 14-pound turkey.
Next I’ll have to decide whose advice to take about how to prepare it. Should I brine it in a tub of ice water, rub it with salt, or loosen the skin and stuff it with herb butter? Should I cook it breast-side-down so the white meat doesn’t dry out, or cool down the breast with ice packs inside and out so the white meat will get done at the same time as the dark meat? Should I cover it with butter-soaked cheesecloth, tent it with foil, or baste it every 15 minutes? Or I could just cook the heck out of it in a covered pan until it is ready to fall apart.
I am determined to have a golden-brown, crispy-skinned, juicy, flavorful, and tender bird for my Norman-Rockwell Christmas fantasy. I’ll let you know when I find it.
(C) 2008, Judy Barnes Baker
I’m doing Alton Brown’s brine recipe for our 22 lb. frozen turkey. We hope it works out!