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still not sure about the best type of turkey

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Advice invited -- I was disappointed once again by my Bell and Evans fresh turkey. I think I know what I'm doing as far as cooking technique goes, generally following Barbara Kafka's advice, and I always do the same thing and sometimes get great results, so I think the variable is the bird itself. (And I seem to get better birds at other times of the year.) Here are my parameters. I don't have refrigerator capacity to thaw a frozen bird and do not want to thaw one in pots of water; I want a fresh bird. I do not want to get involved in brining, or cooking the turkey outside (although I do have a electric rotisserie for my gas Weber and might try that in reliably good weather -- but not as a plan for November, December holidays in the Northeast). I am not too concerned with price, and would be willing to go to a Kosher butcher if there were valid culinary reasons, but it will add a one hour additional errand to my shopping and it can't be done on Saturday, so it's not always feasible. At the other end of the spectrum, I would even consider a commercial turkey, such as a Butterball, although I've always turned my nose up at them. I realized at the dinner table that I've never actually tried one, and maybe I should. I would also consider Costco, which I love for paper towels but I've never tried their turkey. I just want a reasonably tender bird that tastes like turkey, without days in the fridge or brining. (I am reminded, as I open the Pandora's box of turkey preferences, that the Hawaiian state legislature allowed the humuhumunukunuku's status as "state fish" to expire because they didn't want to revisit such a partisan issue.)

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  1. I was disappointed with a fresh turkey from a local poultry farm, years ago. It cost 4 times as much as a supermarket bird and though cooked to the correct temperature, was rather chewy and thick-skinned. I suppose I could have tweaked the procedure in the future to take account of those things but did not think the price was worth it. A few years ago I got a natural bird from Trader Joe's, which was built like a pelican so the meat-to-bone ratio was a waste of money. It cost three times what a supermarket bird would have.

    How would you feel about thawing a frozen bird in the bathtub? No changes of water involved. You fill up the tub - or a basement sink - with cold water the night before and plop the wrapped bird in.

    I live in New England and only brine when it's cold enough to do it in a big pot left on the porch overnight. But I do think the Butterballs and other salt-primed birds are good.

    1 Reply
    1. re: greygarious

      About thawying the frozen bird -- I may be expanding my refrigerator capacity in the future -- is there any reason to believe that a frozen bird will taste better? Is that how the Butterballs are sold?

    2. What aspect of the end product didn't you like?

      Maybe it's that the fresh turkey is too fresh. I buy (pasture raised) chickens from a local farmer on the day of processing. She swears that they are better if left refrigerated for a few days before freezing--that the meat is more tender than a bird that hits the freezer that same day. My health sciences background tells me this theory has merit physiologically, but I think there are a ton of other variables, too. My cooking and eating experience with these chickens, processed and frozen at the same time, tells me there are differences from bird to bird as you suggest.

      FWIW, comparing a non-confinement barn, farm raised turkey to a butterball or any other mass produced, CAFO brand is like comparing apples to coconuts. It's completely, utterly not the same thing on any level. You say you want something that tastes like turkey. IMO an animal that is raised in an environment ideal for its nature and health (i.e. not a confinement barn where antibiotics are required just to keep the animal alive, etc, etc. ) is what is going to give you the most authentic tasting bird. OTOH, "tastes like turkey" means tastes like a CAFO turkey to a lot of people who have grown up eating only that.

      4 Replies
      1. re: splatgirl

        When I get a disappointing turkey, its a lack of flavor, and a tough, stringy texture. I think to some extent its the luck of the draw on the individual unit. Like cantaloupes from the same bin. But I do benefit from the findings of others.

        1. re: swimmom

          IME, pastured turkey--or any poultry that lived a "normal" life--is tougher and has meat with a texture that's a lot less what I would call mealy/mushy than commercially raised. I have experienced this with chicken, turkey and duck. It's also more flavorful, although that seems to vary. I've cooked a turkey from the same farm for the past three years. This years' was meatier, fattier and had more turkey flavor. The first year I was amazed at the difference in meat to carcass, similar to what greygarious describes (hello greygarious, fellow greyhound owner here!). That was definitely NOT my experience this year. The bird I cooked had the biggest, meatiest breast I've ever had on any turkey.

          1. re: splatgirl

            I'm starting to wonder if the problem is that it is "fresh" -- a turkey sold in a supermarket from a large purveyor like Bell and Evan's can't be all that fresh at a high-demand time like Thanksgiving. Maybe it's been sitting too long. I do cook turkey at other times of the year, simply because we like it, and maybe this is why I seem to get a tastier bird at low-demand times. If I do solve my refrigerator capacity problem, I think my next bird will be a frozen Kosher, and we'll see how that goes.

            1. re: swimmom

              I think that could very well be--my experience with "fresh" has always meant killed and processed on Monday, picked up by me on Tuesday and cooked on Thursday. I don't have any experience with "fresh" from a large supplier.

      2. My $39.99 dollar Butterball beat out my neighbors $110.00 Organic Heritage Bird in flavor, texture and moistness. My neighbor is an excellent cook and the heritage was moist and roasted wonderfully.

        We "taste tested" them because the Heritage birds are right up the road from us- and I was thinking of getting a small one to roast up for Christmas. I just got a Butterball for Thanksgiving because of the crowd I was hosting this year...but I hate the thought of the factory farmed birds.

        Anyway, since my Butterball blew the Heritage out of the water on every level- I am not sure what to do. I am coming to believe that the method of preparation is more important than the "kind" of turkey. I still might get a small "hundred dollar bird" and try it...but...whew.....that's alot of money!

        2 Replies
        1. re: sedimental

          two questions: was the Butterball frozen and the Heritage fresh? Did your method of preparation vary from your neighbor's? (I agree that preparation must matter, but I use the same method each time, and yet sometimes there's just no flavor, so there must be more than one variable.) I have always assumed that anything cheap, frozen and heavily advertised must be inferior, but as I sat at the table, I began to question all that! And it's true with vegetables, sometimes the thing frozen on the day it was picked is better than the thing that has sat in a refrigerator and ridden on a truck for 7-10 days.

          1. re: swimmom

            The Butterball was frozen. Nothing fancy. BUT, I used the "low and slow" method this year for the first time (BTW, I am now a believer!). I roasted it un-stuffed (except for an orange, lemon and spice package in the cavity).

            The Heritage was fresh -and roasted using the traditional method, stuffed.

            I honesty thought that hers would have been better. I expected hers to be better. It was NOT. Clearly, NOT.

            So, here is what I think (so far):

            The low and slow method is a winner and should work with all birds.
            The Bird can be great or mediocre depending on the method - not the price or "kind".
            I kind of want to try a Heritage on the low and slow method to see if it is "worth it".

        2. Cook's has explained the science behind all of this, repeatedly. About why free-range birds are likely to be tougher and stringier (because they get more exercise) and why "fresh" birds are likely to be drier (because being held near the freezing point for two weeks -- the typical amount of time between dressing and cooking for all fresh, never frozen birds -- causes repeated formation and thawing of ice crystals in the meat, which damages its ability to hold moisture), and why pre-brined or basted or injected or Koshered birds are going to be juicer and more flavorful.

          Really, just buy a frozen bird and save your money on all those other kinds.

          1. My family and I never bought into the $4++/lb turkeys and always end up with a commercial frozen turkey on sale for well under $1/lb (was $0.69/lb this year). We've cooked them stuffed and not stuffed, and barring over cooking them to too high of an internal temp, the turkey has ALWAYS turned out great. My gf's mom also cooked a frozen commercial turkey this year and hers too turned out great. I have no desire to every try a $100+ turkey unless someone else is paying.

            3 Replies
            1. re: Rick

              I'm getting inspired to have turkey instead of ham this Christmas -- frozen, couch-potato kind, using my mom's extra refrigerator capacity to defrost it, if necessary. sedimental, can you tell me how your "low and slow" method worked? There have been threads on this, debates, variations, and I would be really grateful to have someone who had a positive experience just cut through all that and tell me what they did. As for defrosting -- will I need to leave it in the back of the fridge for a week?

              1. re: swimmom

                Sure. I brined it the night before. Just a regular brine. 17 lb bird.
                Covered it in butter and I roasted it (breast side down) uncovered in a 475 degree oven for about 30 to 40 minutes (until mahogany colored). Then turned the oven down to 250, covered it, and roasted it for another 5 hours or so....checking the temp until it registered 165 to 170. Slight vent for the steam to escape. I took an extra step to flip it over again and roast it for another 10 minutes to "beautify" the breast side too. I like crispy skin :)

                At 250, you almost "can't" overcook it. It also holds out of the oven really well. Some people turn the oven down to 180 and it keeps warm for a very long time.

                I live in a cold climate- so I defrosted mine in an ice chest outside for three days prior to the brine.
                It really DID fall off the bone. Much like a rotisserie chicken does. I didn't realize Turkeys could do the same.

                Next time, I will roast it first at 450, then turn it down to 250. The 475 seemed a bit hot. Some people prefer to turn the heat up to 450 at the end. I don't think it matters much. The high heat is for the color and to crisp the skin- alot of "wiggle room" here, I think.

                1. re: swimmom

                  You'll find a ton of different cooking methods out there, from in a bag to low and to high heat then low heat etc. etc. In the end imho the most important thing is seasoning the bird and cooking the bird to the proper temperature and letting it rest. I'd venture to guess people would be hard pressed to tell 3 identically seasoned turkeys apart if they were cooked in the oven using 3 different methods but all taken out at 165 degrees.

                  Allow 24hrs for every 4-5 lbs of bird

                  Now they say the proper temp for a turkey is 165 degrees measured in the deepest part of the thigh, it used to be 180 or 185 degrees.

                  http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/l...

              2. There are several similar threads on Chowhound, but the folks who have replied to your question have generally not gotten into the discussion on another thread. You may want to check out "What's the best turkey to buy?" thread. It will just "stir the pot" as you try to sort out the pros and cons of type of turkey or method of prep. I gave my positive 2 cents re: Butterball on the other thread. The topics and headings at the bottom of this thread have several variations that may catch your attention. (That story about "I stuffed a turkey with Twinkies" just caught my eye, so I will close and check that piece out. Maybe Twinkies" are really the solution to all this. )

                1 Reply
                1. re: Florida Hound

                  The Twinkies caught my eye days ago, and I now shudder when I pass the Hostess display in the supermarket.

                2. Perhaps you should consider another method. I reviewed the Kafka method and compared it to the James Beard method (from Beard on Birds, 1979, 1989). Kafka uses high heat (500F); Beard roasts at 350F, a substantial difference. Other differences in the Beard method is that he calls for lardons, and he turns the turkey at intervals so that it rests on every side, applying butter at each turn. I expect the lard and butter are important for a turkey which is not "self-basting."

                  The Beard method is more work. I wouldn't think that he would go to the trouble for nothing. The Kafka method seems to me to be a shortcut.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: GH1618

                    It is a little Kafkaesque, isn't it? I have had some good birds her way, but when I was a kid in the 60s in an agricultural area of South Jersey, where much poultry was raised at the time, I remember my mom and other ladies in town roasting turkeys at home for an annual fundraising dinner. They were succulent. Somebody would drive around in a big (probably seatbelt-free) American station wagon and pick up the turkeys at the houses, on a schedule, and take them to the dinner for carving and serving. They roasted them slowly, and they were always tented with a brown grocery bag in the oven. The bag was cut open to make a big flat piece of paper, and the paper was greased or buttered. I should ask my mom about this. She switched over to a more "Kafkaesque" method years ago, maybe out of expediency. I had just assumed that they must have had better birds back then and there, but maybe it's the method, too. Then there were the two ladies who stood all day, making all the gravy for hundreds of dinners. I should ask my mom about their technique.