Talking Turkey is all the rage during these early days of November and I’m reluctant to start this discussion by letting you know that Ben Franklin’s favorite bird is actually a descendant of T-Rex . Who wants to eat a dinosaur for their Thanksgiving or Christmas meal? Let’s just try to move beyond that little giblet, I mean tidbit.
Like their much larger predecessor, the T-Rex, both the domestic and wild turkey are native to America. From northern Mexico, up through the mid west, across to the east coast and into southern Canada, the wild turkey extends his natural habitat. After the birth of our nation, the turkey was a contender of birds which were being considered for our national emblem. The bald eagle won out, much to dear old Ben’s chagrin.
The male (tom) is the heavier of the sexes, (25 lbs. max) and also more colorful then the female (hen). The male turkey can be spotted by the size of his wattle, the fleshy mass of loose skin which starts around his lower beak and runs down the front of his neck. Male turkeys also have a much larger snood, the wobbly length of skin that hangs over, around and down their upper beaks. These appendages both change color with the tom turkey’s mood. Red for excitement, from the rush of blood (breeding time), blue for fear, (lack of oxygen in the blood) and if the turkey isn’t particularly healthy, lighter in overall color. Beards also extend from the males chest, normally about 8 inches in length. Females can also support any or all of these features, but on a much smaller scale, if noticeable at all.
Wild turkeys scratch the ground for sustenance, eating wild vegetation, gleaning harvested crops, munching both bugs and frogs. Their diet depends mostly on the time of year and what happens to be available. One might think that these large birds, because of their size, would sleep on the ground in a group, keeping each other company (they don’t like to be alone). In fact, they roost and perch in trees, an effort to avoid predators. Yes, turkeys can fly and actually have been clocked at 55mph, in short bursts of movement (up to a mile) with the aid of their powerful legs and wings. A running turkey can attain a speed of 30mph!
It wasn’t too many years ago that wild turkeys were nearly wiped out, due to excessive hunting. Their one time number of an estimated 11 million had plummeted down to 30,000 birds by 1930. Now, thanks to over 50 years of conservation efforts, wild turkey numbers have increased back to upward of 5 million. This number seems small when compared to the US production of domestic turkeys, which is estimated to be around 270 million birds per year. Since wild turkeys are indigenous to America, it should come as no surprise that they were first domesticated by native Americans around 2,000 years ago in Mexico. Interestingly enough, they weren’t raised for their meat but for their feathers which were used in clothing and for rituals. It wasn’t until later, that turkey also became an important food source for them.
Because it has been bred for meat, the domestic turkey can weigh in at a whopping 50 lbs. Flying has become an impossibility because it’s now too heavy for it’s wings to support flight. The shorter legs of the domestic turkey also mean that the bird which we buy at the grocery store is unable to walk as quickly as the wild turkey, whose well exercised legs are long, and give aid when taking off for flight. Wild turkey breast is dark. The exercise of flight promotes blood flow to the breast region of the bird. Conversely, the domesticated turkey breasts are white and the entire bird is of a milder flavor, which is due to the decreased blood flow from relative inactivity of the bird.
Steps for Choosing and Roasting a turkey
- Normally, a dinner sized portion of cooked turkey is from 3 to 6 oz. per person. You will loose about 40% of a raw turkey to bone, skin and shrinkage. With this information, you can plan on what size bird you need for the number of guests at your dinner table.
- If you buy a fresh turkey, you can skip the next step. Although a fresh turkey is always ideal, they are also considerably more expensive and can be difficult to come by. A frozen turkey can be perfectly delicious, if prepared correctly. If your turkey is frozen thaw your turkey in the refrigerator, allowing about 24hrs of thaw time per 5 lbs. of frozen turkey. Allow 4-5 days for a 20 lb. turkey.
- When your turkey thaws and is and pliable, remove the package of goodies from the neck flap or cavity which contains the neck, liver, heart and gizzard. Reserve for later use in stuffing and/or gravy. I usually put the neck in some stock that is heating for use in the gravy.
- Generously shake salt inside the cavity of the turkey and massage it thoroughly into all the nooks and crannies. Rinse your turkey in cold water, inside and out and then pat dry. Set the oven for 325°F.
- Time to make the stuffing. Use the recipe of your choice. Whether you have a traditional family recipe or use an “instant” boxed variety, is entirely up to you. Plan on making at least 3/4 cup of stuffing per person. Once the stuffing is ready, loosely fill the turkey. This allows for expansion of the dressing and promotes an evenly cooked turkey. Fill the small neck cavity at the top of the bird with stuffing, too. Fold neck skin under body. I usually make enough stuffing to fill a low (2”) casserole dish too. Everybody at our dinner table loves stuffing, and there is always plenty.
- Once the stuffing process is complete, place turkey, breast-side up, on roasting rack set in a roasting pan. If you don’t have a rack, don’t stress. You can make a rack with celery ribs. This will add flavor to your drippings when making gravy. Brush or spray the turkey all over with melted butter or olive oil. Sprinkle with Kosher salt.
- Next, tent the entire roaster with heavy duty aluminum and fold at the apex to make a stiff tent top. I find that this holds it shape better then regular aluminum foil. Don’t let the aluminum touch the turkey because the skin can adhere to the foil while cooking which would result in the skin peeling off with the foil. This would be a tragedy, IMHO. Be sure the edges are snug and secure. This will help hold in steam and help your turkey cook better. Plan on allowing 4.5 to 5 hours of cooking time for a 20 lb. turkey at 325℉. Remove turkey from oven before the last 1/2 your of cooking. Adjust temperature of oven to 375°F. Remove foil from roaster for last half hour of cooking. for a nicely browned skin. It’s a good idea to baste twice during roasting and once after the foil comes off for final step of browning.
The turkey is safe to eat, once the food thermometer reaches an internal temperature of 165℉. Allow the bird to stand about 30 minutes before removing the stuffing. When the turkey roasts, much of its juices move to the outer edge of the flesh. Letting it rest for 30 minutes or so give the juices time to be reabsorbed back into the meat, making for a more moist and flavorful turkey. The resting time can be used to make the gravy, reheat side dishes, pour water and do all of your last minute finishing touches before calling your guests to the table.