Editor’s note: Our longtime Discerning Diner returns via the following reprint from a column written for us many
Thanksgivings ago—for which, of course, we offer our enduring thanks.
As November wanes and visions of pilgrims dance in our heads, it’s hard to avoid the obvious
seasonal discourse on, what else, turkey.
One caveat before proceeding, however: If you worry that a discussion of poultry mating habits might offend,
please avert your eyes now and withhold your regular reading of this column until it appears again, when we
will no doubt explore something less prurient, like eggnog or fruitcake.
Still with me? Okay. The white breast meat of the turkey is so prized that today’s domestic turkeys have
been bred to be extremely top-heavy—so top-heavy, in fact, as to render ineffectual the birds’ natural mating
Since the birds are unable to breed, turkey eggs are now fertilized by artificial insemination.
Moral concerns aside, people seem divided on the merits of turkey. Most of us like it in a lunch meat capacity,
but were it not for the crushing weight of holiday tradition, I suspect that many Americans would as soon have a
Personally, I love turkey. I’m not a turkey nut or anything—I don’t remember the last time I bought turkey
off-season—but I do look forward to Thanksgiving.
Perhaps the turkey-tired have had only bad turkey, tough and tasteless.
By its very nature, this big, lean bird hovers on the brink of blah. It’s easy to dry it out.
Here are two things you can do to keep it moist. First, consider brining your bird: four to six hours in a solution of two cups salt, two gallons water. Use a big stockpot if you have one, otherwise a clean bucket, and keep the brining bird in the fridge. Be sure you use a regular turkey, nothing “self-basting.”
Brining works wonders to keep the meat juicy. It’s a big pain in the rear, but so is cooking a turkey at all. I think
the extra step is worth it.
Also, don’t overcook it. This sounds obvious, but it’s not: If you follow U.S.D.A. guidelines, your turkey will
be overcooked every time. Yet roasting it to a lower temperature does not necessarily compromise your safety.
The excellent magazine Cook’s Illustrated points out that salmonella and campylobacter are killed at 160
degrees. Turkey tastes best, says Cook’s Illustrated, when the breast reaches 165 degrees and the legs 170 to 175. I
If you’re concerned about food safety, mind your stuffing instead.
Stuffing cooked inside the bird doesn’t always reach its safe temperature of 165 degrees, even when the rest of the
turkey is overcooked. Cook it in a separate pan instead. It will taste just fine, and get a nice crust to boot.
In at least one previous column, I mentioned the world’s biggest pumpkin, which tipped the scales at
1,458 pounds before succumbing to pumpkin rot.
This time, I can’t resist trotting out another statistic: the weight of the world’s biggest turkey. According to the University of Illinois Extension, honors go to a bird that reached 86 pounds before succumbing to…well,
Thanksgiving dinner or something. I’m not really sure.
Still, it’s amazing, the stuff you can learn on the internet.
Here are some more turkey facts with the University of Illinois
• Turkeys used to be seen as cunning, in a good way. Ben Franklin thought the turkey was a “bird of
courage” and a suitable candidate for our national bird.
By contrast, the bald eagle, he wrote his daughter, is “a bird of bad moral character.”
• There are probably still some wily wild turkeys running around, but today’s domestic turkeys are pretty dopey. Turkeys have been known to drown in the rain—really. Turkeys will sometimes stand in the rain with their beaks pointed skyward, while rain pools in their nostrils. Talk about “duh.”