Turkey madness


Photo by kc kratt.

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.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. Yes, I agree that turkey-cooking can provoke violence in an otherwise enthusiastic cook! Even wrestling with a 20 pound piece of meat in the sink feels like a chore.

    But let us know how the heritage breed tastes.

    And you gotta cook the stuffing inside the turkey. It’s just better than stuffing cooked in a casserole dish.

  2. So the CSA who provides all our meat did turkeys this year. Unfortunately, he ordered them a little earlier than he should have, and it turns out that the problem with turkeys is not getting them big enough to cook…it’s keeping them SMALL enough for people to fit in their ovens. You’re supposed to order the pullets late in the season, because they grow very…efficiently. (Cue farmer asking us if perhaps we could invite…oh…a couple dozen more people to Thanksgiving? Enough to eat a thirty-five-pound turkey, say?)

    He’s got, like, veloci-turkeys or something. They’re fifty pounds plus live. He had to rig 55-gallon drums to scald the feathers. (I’ve met them–they’re free range, organic, and they look like angry little dinosaurs.) We’re getting ours cut in half and my boyfriend’s going to part it out and roast it over root veggies, but…wow. Stuff I never knew about turkey-kind…

  3. Comment for Garden Rant

    Although I am a vegan who celebrates Thanksgiving without turkeys, I found your article very interesting. I’ve been totally oblivious to the fact that there is so much variety and a plethora of options for selecting and preparing turkeys of this holiday of thanks.

    Enjoy yours.

  4. If I cooked a Thanksgiving turkey differently than my mother, her mother, and probably her mother before her, there would be violence. Traditions make for easy decisions.

  5. Brining has always worked great for us, and the result is not too salty, but very moist meat (then again, my husband the cook is a biochemist by training and has tweaked the brine recipe over the years, so maybe he’s got some sort of secret). But the big plus to brining for us has been that it cuts the cooking time down dramatically–by hours.

  6. Hmmm, I may have to search around and see if there are any farms in the Finger Lakes region that grow heritage birds. That’s a really tempting idea. Otherwise, I may have to make a road trip out to your neck of the woods, Elizabeth! Barring either of those options, I have for several years now been buying Plainville Farms turkeys. They come from out of PA, they don’t use antibiotics or growth hormones, they’re vegetarian fed, and they’re always moist, tender and flavorful. Happy Thanksgiving!

  7. One year I roasted a free range turkey. It was 28 lbs. I had to make a foil cantaliver (sp?) for my roasting pan. I thought it was tasty. The in-laws prefer the pre basted ones so that is what I do.

    I find turkey is the easiest meat to cook. I buy one of those prebasted whatever brands, stuff it with the cheapest white bread (cut in cubes and dried in oven) tossed with lots of chopped onions and celery and moistened with homemade chicken broth, add some sage, wrestle it into the roaster, spray in with a nonstick spray, slap the lid on, pop in a slow oven (325) and don’t look at it for 2 hours at least. I never baste and peek at it as little as possible. Always roast it for longer than they say. Comes out quite moist. And use more homemade chicken broth to make gravy from the turkey drippings. Turkey broth is pretty blah. I love butter, but don’t see the need for the gallons of melted butter in the stuffing or rubbed all over the bird.

    Now if I could only have the courage to do a standing rib roast.

  8. I heard a program about Heritage Turkeys on NPR recently. Sounds like they are VERY expensive.
    My friend and neighbor, Karen, brines her store-bought turkeys then cooks them in the bar-b-q. MOIST! Yummy! Best ever!

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