Published November 30, 2009
From heritage to free range or organic, when it comes to turkey home cooks have more options now than ever. According to Ariane Daguin of D’Artagnan Foods, the single most important thing is choosing a fresh turkey because she says a frozen bird will "lose all its juices during cooking."
An ice box bird may be the choice in some households, because they are generally less expensive, widely available, and can be stored far in advance, while fresh birds should be cooked within a few days of purchase.
However, even value conscious consumers should also scour the label for the percentage of retained water in a bird. Daguin, who's premium food company is where many top chefs go to get their game, explains that buying a bird with eight percent retained water means "for every dollar you spend on turkey, you are paying for eight cents worth of water."
Organic vs. Heritage vs. Free Range
What’s in a name? If you find the different choices out there confusing, here’s a quick breakdown.
While Daguin believes that the word 'natural' on a label "doesn’t mean much," she is certain that "organic and free range make for a better bird." Free range birds have access to outside pastures and the opportunity to build muscle, which Daguin says translates into more flavor.
If you want to taste what pilgrims enjoyed, you want a heritage turkey. These are breeds which have not been genetically manipulated by man. They tend to yield darker meat, have more muscle and texture and, therefore, more flavor. Their growth rate is slower than that of the common white turkey, so these birds also tend to be smaller.
The term 'organic' means the turkey ate only grain that was certified organic, never consumed any medication, and was never given any growth hormones.
Daguin sums up the choice by advising "for wholesomeness choose organic. For taste, choose heritage and free range."
Cooks choosing heritage and free range birds, with their different body structures, may want to prepare then differently from their conventional counterparts. Consider basting more frequently than the recipe calls for, or protecting the skin with a barrier such as unsmoked bacon.
Preventing a Kitchen Nightmare
Just a few mishaps may result in your guests choking down tough, dry turkey meat. But Daguin shares what she calls the totally foolproof "ultimate brine" which is supposed to prevent that.
The day before cooking, simmer the turkey or other bird for 45 minutes in a huge pot full of broth (Daguin prefers duck broth but chicken works too) seasoned with garlic and spices, and let it cool. The process to impregnates the turkey with flavors from that liquid. The next day, prepare the bird according to your recipe.
Even if your guests are late or you lost track of cooking time as you watched the football game, Daguin says your bird should still turn out "extremely moist and very tasty." She also recommends rubbing truffle butter beneath skin of the bird before roasting.
Not a Turkey Fan?
There are some people who just don’t care for turkey no matter how moist and succulent it is, but there are ways around it.
Venison is a top choice for Daguin, who notes that it is actually in keeping with tradition because Native Americans showed the Pilgrims how to survive that first winter with deer meat, as well as turkey.
As far as birds go, Daguin says she loves the moist and tasty capon, which at 10-12 pounds weighs in at a lot lesss than many turkeys. Other good alternatives are goose, duck, pheasant, guinea hen, and poussin.
When considering these , some of which may be smaller and yield less meat than a turkey, keep in mind that experts recommended purchasing about a pound for each adult at your table.