In Search of the Great Turkey

 Holiday Cooking

How do you roast a turkey? Make mashed potatoes? Cranberries? Stuffing? We've got everything right here that you need to know.

Deputy Food Editor

Fresh or frozen? Free-range or organic? Basted or not? There are enough debates at the Thanksgiving table without throwing the turkey into it.

So, while barbecues were firing up for summer, the Times Test Kitchen started testing turkeys. Fresh turkeys. Frozen turkeys. Free-range and organic turkeys. Supermarket brands, national brands, small specialty brands. In all, we roasted more than 20 birds over four months, each time using the same basic recipe.

What makes a good turkey? It depends.

For instance, our fresh Willie Bird--a premium mail-order turkey from a small grower in Sonoma--perplexed many tasters; its meat had a more fibrous texture and a wild, gamy taste. The flavor was unfamiliar to those who grew up eating plain, unexciting turkey meat. But three or four of the more refined palates among us said this was a pretty good bird.


On the other hand, a frozen Butterball--pleasant but unremarkable--had its fans too. Those tasters liked it because it was familiar.

The basic consideration for most of us is fresh versus frozen. What we found was not surprising at first. In side-by-side blind taste comparisons of turkeys in the 12- to 14-pound range, fresh turkeys usually were preferred by the majority of our tasters. As they nibbled dark and light meat, tasters said they liked the moistness of the fresh birds.

“This tastes like your grandmother’s house in the country,” one taster said, striving for the right metaphor to explain the fresh-turkey taste.

Another fresh bird that drew thumbs-up was described as so fresh “it must have flown in by itself.”

In comparison, tasters wrinkled their noses at most of the frozen turkeys, calling their meat “sawdusty,” “crumbly” and “chewy and stringy.”

But then a funny thing happened. One frozen bird was chosen over a fresh. A few weeks later, it happened again. “Succulent.” “Lots of turkey flavor.” “I think this one’s going to be a sandwich,” our tasters said.

Our final favorites, prepared and sampled for a second tasting, challenged some of our existing notions about turkeys. Of the three turkeys we liked best, one was fresh, one was frozen and one belonged to the nebulous new category that’s neither fresh nor frozen but somewhere in between: a fresh Empire Kosher, a frozen Shelton’s and a “refrigerated” Norbest.

About 40% of the turkeys consumed this holiday will be fresh, according to figures from the National Turkey Federation, an industry trade group. The federation expects that number to rise in coming years; time-pressed consumers prefer the convenience of fresh turkeys. A frozen turkey needs days to thaw, eating up refrigerator space, while a fresh turkey is ready to go in the roasting pan as soon as it’s brought home.

Besides, say some producers and other experts, freezing can result in a dry turkey. That’s because when turkeys are frozen, the cell structure of the meat can be disrupted, allowing the moisture to leak out when the bird is defrosted.

But if turkeys are frozen immediately after processing--"flash-frozen” in blast freezers where temperatures are about 30 degrees below zero and wind speed of 60 mph is created--and then carefully defrosted, meat cells can be kept from breaking down, manufacturers say.

To counter dryness, manufacturers inject or “baste” turkeys with a liquid solution equal to between 3% and 12% of a turkey’s weight. Labels must list the percentage of solution and the ingredients--often turkey broth, water, a fat such as vegetable oil, spices and salt.

A number of the turkeys tasted by The Times were salty right off the bat, and sometimes the salt seemed unevenly distributed in a turkey. A bite of white meat from the center of the breast, for example, might have been much saltier than a chunk of dark meat from the leg. Some tasters found the salt overbearing or thought it gave a more “processed” taste, and others thought the salt improved the flavor. It turns out that in most cases, those birds were frozen; few fresh turkeys are basted.

In a couple of instances, the saltiness masked an underlying flavor that was described as “gamy” or “fishy.” It was difficult to tell whether the turkey had been lying around a freezer case for a while, which could have caused a slight off-taste. (Manufacturers say that for the holidays, frozen turkeys are shipped to retailers at most a few months before November, while fresh turkeys are shipped no more than a week or two before Thanksgiving.)

“A lot of manufacturers inject their [frozen] turkeys to enhance the turkey and end up with moisture to maintain that flavor profile,” says Janice Price, vice president of marketing for Empire Kosher Poultry Inc., which two months ago decided to start injecting its frozen turkeys with a 3% turkey broth and salt solution.

Because its turkeys must meet strict kosher requirements, Empire’s frozen and fresh turkeys are salted, then soaked in cold water, rather than processed in hot water, the method used by other processors. The salt, Price says, acts as a tenderizer as well as maintaining a turkey’s juices. Occasionally Empire receives complaints of an overly salty turkey, but the two prepared in the Times kitchen were not noticeably salty.

Rather, another turkey in the final tasting--the Norbest--was pegged for its saltiness, but that seemed to add to its popularity. Norbest Inc., a Utah-based cooperative of turkey growers that produces fresh, frozen and refrigerated turkeys, bastes its birds with a 5% solution of broth, salt and “natural flavors” all over--"legs, thighs, drumsticks, all parts of the breast and wings,” says Paul Reed, director of marketing. Some producers baste turkeys only in a few spots, Reed says, usually the breast meat.

The Norbest turkey was the only one in our tasting that is part of a new and fairly obscure category of turkeys that as yet has no official name. In a ruling last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said turkeys could be labeled “fresh” only if stored at 26 degrees or above, and turkeys stored at 0 degrees or below must be labeled “frozen.” But in between is the odd category of not quite fresh or frozen--turkeys stored between 1 and 25 degrees--which Norbest calls “refrigerated.”

The California Poultry Industry Federation had campaigned for some sort of ruling to prohibit producers from using words like “never frozen” on turkeys that were clearly colder and thawing.

The percentage of these mid-range birds on the market is small, says Bill Mattos, president of the poultry group.

Whether it was because the store where we purchased our Norbest had put it in the freezer, or whether it was at the low end of the 1- to 25-degree range, ours was pretty hard and did need some thawing.

The third turkey that did well in our tasting, from Shelton’s Poultry Inc., a small producer in Pomona, brought another characteristic to the table: It was a frozen “free-range” bird.

“Most commercial turkeys are raised in barns--they live in houses their entire lives,” says Gary Flanagan, president of Shelton’s. “We move ours to a range pen. . . . They have plenty of feed and water, and we think they’re just healthier.”

A free-range bird is one that has access to the outdoors. Some free-range turkeys also are free of antibiotics, used to promote growth, but not all. And, according to government regulations, no hormones can be given to any poultry.

Shelton’s is one of only a few producers that raise organic turkeys, which eat only costly organically grown feed. Organic turkeys are among the priciest for consumers; prices run about $3 per pound and higher, compared to $2 to $3 per pound for other fresh turkeys.

Our tasters thought the Shelton’s “had a good turkey flavor,” but no one identified a taste that might have indicated this was a free-range bird.

Often those who buy specially labeled poultry--whether free-range or organic--do so for other reasons. “There is an emotional attachment to the idea of free-range,” says Sarah G. Birkhold, an assistant professor in the poultry science department at Texas A&M University.

Birkhold has found only one thing that affects the taste of a turkey before it reaches the oven, and that’s whether it has been injected with a baste. Though the baste may make a turkey more moist, it also imparts a perception of moisture, she says. “A small amount of oil or fat will enhance salivation; the turkey will seem juicier [as one eats].”

Likewise, people assume that dark meat is more moist, she says, but it really has only about 1% more moisture than white meat. Indeed, tasters in the Test Kitchen often described a turkey’s dark meat as juicy and its white meat as dry. The difference, again, is one of perception, Birkhold says; dark meat has more fat, which makes it juicier, though not necessarily more moist.

“Flavor is a combination of taste, aroma, texture, mouth-feel--it all works together,” she says.

Other questions were raised during our tastings: Does a turkey’s age affect taste? Its size? Whether it’s a hen or a tom?

Not all turkey labels list the bird as hen or tom, but manufacturers use size as a rule of thumb: Hens generally are smaller, typically not much larger than 12 pounds; hens also are slaughtered younger, typically between 14 and 16 weeks old. (Toms usually are processed at 18 to 20 weeks.) Most manufacturers say that younger turkeys are more tender, but the only clue a consumer may have to a turkey’s age at processing is whether the label says “young,” as in “young tom.”

As for that fishy taste, we can’t be sure, but we may have had a turkey that had suffered freezer burn or dehydration. A turkey can be frozen up to a year, according to the National Turkey Federation, though companies such as Butterball recommend freezing for no more than six to seven months for peak freshness.

It could have been, too, that one of our tasters had an extremely sensitive palate and actually was detecting creatine, a substance present in muscle tissue that could lend a slight bitter taste, Birkhold says.

But there’s no debate about this: A slathering of gravy will hide most anything.