November 8, 2006
As Six Turkeys Tussle for a Title, Degrees Challenge Pedigrees
By MARIAN BURROS
SOME of the greatest discoveries are inadvertent. Columbus sailed for China and landed in the Bahamas. And while a turkey taste test by the Dining section took us on a far shorter voyage, at least we stayed on course — and learned something more significant than what we set out to find.
In two experiments, we roasted six kinds of turkey: Bourbon Red and American Bronze, both heritage birds; farmed “wild” turkeys; the common broad-breasted whites, one raised organically and one bearing the “natural” label; and finally a Butterball, the national best seller. We wanted to see if the wild turkeys and heritage breeds, reintroduced to the American public in 2002, were worth the premium price.
In the end we concluded that temperature is nearly as important as breed. When most turkeys are properly cooked, the differences diminish.
Anyone who wants a flavorful, juicy main course this Thanksgiving can dispense with the brining pail, the cheesecloth and the propane-fueled deep-fryer. The only necessities are a properly calibrated oven, a basting brush, some aluminum foil and an instant-read digital thermometer.
And, crucially, the will to ignore the Agriculture Department’s advice to cook the bird until dry as dust or risk poisoning all your guests.
Every November the battle over turkey roasting is joined: the Agriculture Department insists that the temperature between the thigh and the breast should be 165 to 180 degrees (the department has given different advice in different places), but professional chefs scoff, saying that’s a guaranteed formula for dryness and for a texture that crumbles like plaster.
The government’s advice about harmful bacteria in poultry parallels its suggestion for ground beef: cook it until everything is killed, including the taste. The chances of running into harmful bacteria in both poultry and red meat are reduced if the animals have not been raised in confinement, but instead on pasture, as are all the premium turkeys.
Most nervous cooks take the government’s advice, making quarts of gravy and cranberry sauce not just an option but a necessity.
Caught between these irreconcilable differences, over the years I have finessed the thermometer and simply cut into the thigh to see if the juices run clear instead of pink. My turkeys have been moist and flavorful, and no guests have been harmed yet. (If any of your guests are elderly, children or women who are pregnant, or if their immune systems are compromised, err on the side of caution and return their servings to the oven till they reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees.)
In a first taste test more than half the birds were inadvertently overcooked (prompting someone to say that they were probably closest to what most people get on Thanksgiving).
Despite that, two things stood out in a blind tasting. The Butterball, though not overcooked, was tasteless. It was juicy because it was injected with broth and salt (not butter, as the name implies). The Bourbon Red heritage turkey, from a limited supply at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and the American Bronze heritage turkey from D’Artagnan, though cooked too long, had the best flavor.
In a second test, we cooked two heritage birds, a Bourbon Red and an American Bronze from Heritage Foods; a domesticated wild bird from Quattro Farm; an organic free-range broad-breasted white from D’Artagnan; and two naturally raised broad-breasted whites, one from Griggstown Quail Farm, the other from Eberly Poultry.
This time, with the help of a professional chef, the turkeys were cooked to a uniform 150 degrees, removed from the oven and then tented with foil and allowed to rest until they reached 160 degrees.
Dan Barber of Blue Hill and Peter Hoffman at Savoy follow similar procedures, cutting off the thighs before or after roasting and cooking them longer, since they are not quite done when the breast is.
When we were finished I would not have been ashamed to serve any of the following birds on Thanksgiving, though the heritage turkeys were still my favorites.
HERITAGE Both the white meat and the dark delivered the essence of old-fashioned turkeyness. The white was succulent; even the richer dark meat was tender. If this turkey were a wine, it would be a fine old red. The additional cost is considerable, but for a once-a-year treat I will spend extra for either a Bourbon Red or an American Bronze. Available from heritagefoodsusa.com for $119 for a bird weighing 8 to 10 pounds, shipping included, or from dartagnan.com for $71.50.
ORGANIC The D’Artagnan organic free-range turkey was moist; the white meat had a mild turkey flavor and a fine, firm texture, and the dark had deeper flavor and was slightly chewier. This would be a Beaujolais. At retail stores for $3.49 to $3.99 a pound.
NATURAL The turkeys from Griggstown Quail Farm and from Eberly were similar to the organic: tender and juicy. The white meat had the light turkey flavor that most Americans are used to. The dark meat was a bit richer. Griggstown turkeys are available from www.griggstownquailfarm.com; a turkey weighing 15 to 18 pounds costs $100.95. Whole Foods sells the Eberly for $3.69 to $3.99 a pound.
WILD These turkeys were a little disappointing: somewhat chewy, a little dry. To my surprise, the white meat was not bursting with turkeyness. The dark meat, however, was moist and had a nice gamey flavor. Maybe even 150 degrees was too high a temperature for such lean birds. The Quattro Farm birds are available at the farm’s stand at the Union Square Greenmarket on Saturdays, and on Wednesday, Nov. 22, for $5.79 a pound. The birds must be ordered in advance from (845) 635-8202, and are available now. Quattro birds are also sold through dartagnan.com, where one weighing 8 to 10 pounds costs $71.50.