Thursday, November 21, 2013

Time to Talk Turkey

With prices ranging from 40 cents to 9 dollars per pound, it is very difficult to decide what kind of bird it makes sense to buy. Today's legal and marketing terminology makes the choice  confusing.  I have put together a glossary along with some facts that are important to best determine which turkey to buy so that you and your guests can enjoy the culinary experience Thanksgiving can and should be. 

Age of the turkey

he flavor and tenderness of turkey meat is primarily determined by the age of the turkey at the time it is brought to market. A fryer/roaster is a small turkey of 4- to 8 pounds, usually no older than 4 months. A "Young" turkey is 4- to 8 months old has soft, smooth skin and tender meat. It is the optimum age for turkey roasting.  The meat and skin of a "yearling" (about 12 months old) are still reasonably tender but not quite as tender as in a young turkey. A "mature" or "old" turkey (15-plus months) is not suited for roasting because the meat is too tough.
Turkey gender
Hens are generally smaller than “tom” turkeys of the same age. Hens weigh less than 16 pounds, while toms always weigh more than 16 pounds. Tom turkeys have larger bones and fewer edible portions, which may be reason hens are preferred. Age, not gender, however, is the determining factor for tenderness, and all commercial turkeys are young and tender.
Turkey size
You should plan on about 1.5 lbs per person. This will ensure that you have enough on the day plus some leftovers.
Smoked turkeys
The smoking process cures and cooks the meat with indirect heat, so the turkeys are ready-to-eat. They are available in many different flavors depending on the type of fuel used for the smoking process.

Basted, self-basting or enhanced turkeys
To increase flavor, juiciness and weight, these processed turkeys are injected or vacuum-treated with salt, broth, spices, seasoning, various fats, flavor enhancers and other "approved substances."

"Fresh" or "frozen" turkeys?
If buying your turkey in a supermarket, it is hard to know just how fresh it really is. Labels can be deceiving. Turkeys are labeled "frozen" if they were chilled below 0° F. These flash-frozen turkeys are an economical choice and are frozen immediately after being butchered, so that they maintain their freshness. If marked "previously frozen," the turkey has been defrosted and cannot safely be refrozen. “Fresh” only means that the turkey has never been chilled below 26° F; it may have been butchered weeks or up to two months before being sold to you. Turkeys that have been chilled below 26° F, but not below 0° F, may not be labeled as "fresh" or "frozen," so they are often marked something creative, such as "hard-chilled" or "deep-chilled." 
Thawing a frozen turkey
The safest method is in the refrigerator. It can take up to 5 days for a 20-pound turkey to fully defrost.

Free-range turkeys
These birds are allowed to roam outdoors, which many people believe has a positive effect on the flavor of the meat, especially if the roaming area was not too crowded. The amount of space that a turkey is given to roam, regardless of whether it is indoors or out, actually affects the quality to a greater degree than if the bird is simply allowed to be outdoors.

Organic turkeys
They may be marked "organic" if they are allowed to roam outdoors (free-range), eat only organic feed and never receive any antibiotics or growth hormones. 

“Natural” turkeys
These free-range birds have very limited processing and no artificial ingredients or coloring.

Pastured turkeys
Raised outdoors, these turkeys have spent time hunting-and-pecking for insects and grass. Their varied diet and active life makes their meat more flavorful. 

Free-range birds are fed only on grain and never given antibiotics. They are individually inspected and raised and processed with strict guidelines, under rabbinical supervision. When they are processed, the turkeys are soaked in a salty brine solution to provide maximum tenderness and to give the meat a unique flavor.

Broad-Breasted Whites
These “modern" turkeys have been bred to maximize the conversion of feed to white breast meat in the shortest possible time. This is the perfect turkey for those who prefer the white meat to the more flavorful dark meat.

“Heritage” turkeys
Turkey breeds raised on small farms before turkeys were mass marketed are known today, collectively, as "Heritage Turkeys." These free-range birds generally have longer bodies and smaller breast muscles and are bit leaner than most Broad-Breasted Whites. They require an additional 2- to 3 months to grow to the proper size, making them more expensive than commercially raised birds. Their excellent flavor, texture and tenderness make them well worth the money. 

Bourbon Reds
These turkeys are named for their striking red plumage and for Bourbon County, Kentucky, where they were first bred in the 1800s. They're known for a delicious, full flavor and are considered one of the best-tasting heritage turkey breeds.

New England's traditional turkey. Flavorful meat.

Midget White
A smaller variety than most, these are a cross between Royal Palm turkeys and Broad-Breasted Whites. They are known for their deep, delicious flavor.

White Holland
Originally bred in Holland, this turkey has average flavor and tenderness.

Standard Bronze
Over American history Bronzes have been the most popular turkey variety. Originally they were a cross between the domesticated turkeys brought to the colonies by Europeans and the native wild turkeys of America.

Royal Palm
These turkeys were bred more for their good looks (striking black and white plumage) than for their  flavor. 

Black Turkeys
Black Spanish, or Norfolk Black, turkeys, were domesticated from Mexican wild turkeys brought back to Europe by the first Spanish explorers who visited the New World.

To brine or not to brine?
The greatest controversy amongst foodies these days is whether or not to brine turkey before roasting.
Many cooks swear by brining because it makes for a moister, more tender meat. On the other hand, brining makes it harder to get a crisp skin, leaves the cooking juices too salty to use for sauce or gravy, and gives the breast meat the texture of deli turkey (which I hate) rather than roasted turkey breast (which I love). So I personally prefer not to brine.
The most important roasting tip for turkey is to remember that the breast cooks much faster than the dark meat, and the bigger the bird, the greater the difference. There are many methods to avoid drying out the white meat while waiting for the dark meat to cook thoroughly. Some people like to cook the bird in aluminum foil or a special plastic roasting bag, but this stews the meat rather than roasts it. The secret I learned from Cordon Bleu many years ago is to soak a cheese cloth in melted butter and cover the breast with it, changing the cloth whenever it gets too brown and leaving it off for the last hour of cooking. 
Do not stuff your turkey ahead of time, as harmful bacteria growth could spoil the uncooked turkey. Just before roasting, stuff the body and the neck of the turkey. Do not pack the stuffing/dressing in the turkey, because the stuffing will expand during cooking. If packed in too tightly, it will be very dense instead of light. Using kitchen twine or skewers, tie or truss the abdomen closed and the legs together close to the body so that the stuffing cooks evenly. Alternatively stuffing can be baked in a separate pan.
Roasting pans
Use a shallow roasting pan. In a deep roasting pan, the meat will steam, not roast. If your turkey is 12 pounds or more, beware of the aluminum foil disposable roasting pans; they are not sturdy enough to hold a large bird and can buckle up and cave in when you are trying to remove the hot turkey from the oven.
Roasting times
A turkey is ready to be removed from the oven when it reaches 165° F at the thigh. How long this takes depends on the temperature of the oven, the size of the bird, whether it was frozen or fresh,  and whether it is stuffed or not. Plan on 20 minutes per pound in a 350° F oven for an unstuffed, defrosted turkey, or 15 minutes per pound for fresh. Add 5 minutes per pound if stuffed.

The purpose of basting is to produce a golden brown, crispy skin. It does not really produce moisture or otherwise improve the flavor of the interior turkey (that is accomplished with the cheesecloth dipped in melted butter—see "Roasting," above). You lose oven heat by opening the door too often, so keep the basting to a minimum, especially during the last hour of cooking.
“Resting” the bird
Allow the turkey to rest under an aluminum-foil tent (loosely placed to cover the turkey) from 20- to 30 minutes before carving so that the juices can redistribute throughout the bird. 

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