Up until now, on Thanksgivings when I cook, I’ve been satisfied with small fresh turkeys that didn’t seem to be injected with anything weird. I was never one to sign up for the expensive “organic” birds through the local food co-op. In my view, the breast meat is bland and boring no matter what you do to it, and the supermarket turkeys are fine as a vehicle for dark meat, crisp skin, and dressing.
But this year, I could no longer ignore the fact that Western New York has a bunch of local farms where you can buy fresh, heritage turkeys with interesting names like Bourbon Red, Standard Bronze, Black Spanish, and Royal Palm.
I finally broke down. This year, I will be serving the meat that Marian Burros says has “turkey flavor that is merely hinted at in the supermarket turkeys.” After ordering up the two birds (I’m galantining one of them), I went online to see if there would be special cooking instructions for them. There wasn’t much info out there specific to heritage birds. What I did find was a bizarre and maddening mix of contradictory advice. I am finally beginning to understand why Calvin Trillin thinks our national Thanskgiving dish should be changed to spaghetti Carbonara.
When is the turkey done? The official Butterball site is rigid on this. The thigh should be 185˚; the breast 170˚. The USDA recommends 165˚ throughout the animal. But in 2008, Marian Burros wrote that taking the turkey out when the leg/breast intersection reaches 150˚ and letting it sit for half an hour (while the temp inches up) might be the secret to a moist bird. Many professional chefs insist that taking the bird apart and roasting breast and dark meat separately is the only way to make sure the white meat doesn't taste like cottonballs.
To brine or not to brine? If you have a fresh, uninjected turkey, you can moisten and flavor it with brining. I love the step by step Pioneer Woman instructions. Such copiously illustrated precision is only possible on a blog. Brining is huge now, with apple cider brine the flavor of the moment. But wait! Food scientist Harold McGee remains a non-briner; he says it makes the meat and drippings too salty; he instead recommends bathing all the cooked meat in a pan sauce before serving. In a similar revolution against decades of turkey wisdom, some experts strongly advise against basting.
Finally, one of the most controversial issues of all. Where does the stuffing go? A recent New York Times column said it most poignantly: Will I Kill My Family if I Cook the Stuffing Inside the Turkey? (The answer, you'll be relieved to hear, is no. More or less.)
By the time you’ve finished reading all the advice on this topic, killing somebody—or something—is going to sound like a good idea. When those thoughts arrive, step away from the turkey, and pour yourself a big cocktail. Any recipe will do.