When it comes to fair and festival food, few items match the popularity and novelty of the colossal turkey leg. All around the country, fairgoers line up for them in droves and brandish the legs like Fred Flintstone clubs.
“Every year we sell thousands,” said Aimée Shapiro Sedley, General Manager and Co-Producer of the King Richard’s Faire, which claims to be the largest renaissance fair in New England and is hosted every year in Carver, Mass. “We average 125,000 guests over the 18 days we are open, and the turkey legs are our absolute number-one best seller.”
The oversized shanks have become an iconic treat amid the costumed merriment of Renaissance festivals such as King Richard’s, as well as at state and county fairs, and at a particular mouse-themed amusement park.
The appeal is obvious: Besides their comical extravagance, they taste really good. They have crisp, golden-brown skin encasing bouncy meat that’s deeply seasoned, juicy, smoky, and pink. Suspiciously pink. Like ham.
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“Every year we have people at the fair like, ‘These are ham!’ And I say, ‘They’re not ham!’” Sedley laughed. “We’ve had to pull out the boxes we get them in and show these people that it says turkey.”
Admittedly, I’m among those who’ve doubted that fair turkey legs are actually turkey.
But the ham comparison is no coincidence. According to Sedley, whose parents founded the King Richard’s Faire in 1982 (the event is named after her father), the turkey legs are cured and smoked much in the same way as a city ham.
Here’s how they’re made.
Step 1: Wet-Cure
Immersing the legs—two-pound behemoths that the fair special orders—in a saltwater solution, known as wet-curing, seasons the meat and helps it stay moist during cooking.
The process looks a lot like brining, but the salt concentration is higher and sometimes includes additional salts such as sodium nitrite, and the soak time is longer because the historical intention of curing was preservation.
Showcasing a historic method of preservation feels on-brand for a medieval festival, but the main reason the method has endured is the flavor and texture it imparts to the meat.
The results depend on exactly what ingredients are in the cure, but according to Senior Science Research Editor Paul Adams, the high concentration of salt both draws out moisture from the meat and also starts to dissolve the muscles’ protein structure. When the cured meat is cooked, its structure can’t tighten up in the same way as uncured muscle tissue, which gives the cooked meat a particularly smooth and dense “hammy” texture.
Sodium nitrite, a common curing salt often used to make bacon and ham, causes the meat’s texture to firm up even more and is responsible for the distinctive pink color found in these turkey legs and other cured meats.
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Step 2: Smoke
After curing, the turkey legs are smoked to achieve their signature aroma and depth.
Smoking dries the exterior of the meat, forming a bark of polymerized protein imbued with smoke flavor from volatile compounds that are deposited on the surface during smoking.
Below the surface, it generates distinctive flavor through reactions between smoke compounds and fat and protein in the meat. The process can also produce the "smoke ring" where nitric oxide reacts with myoglobin right below the surface, giving it that rich, golden-pink color and enhancing the ham-like quality.
Almost all of the turkey leg prep—butchering, curing, and smoking—is done at the plant where the Sedley family sources the meat. The smoked legs are then frozen and transported to the fair, where they are spread on huge trays and baked to be served hot.
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So while these turkey legs may look like ham, taste like ham, and even be prepared like ham, rest assured that they are in fact poultry. Delicious, smoked poultry.
However, Sedley insisted that perhaps more important than flavor to the enduring allure of the turkey legs is their stature. “For that picturesque, huge hunk of meat," she said, only two-pounders will do.
And you can't argue with proof.
Photo courtesy of King Richard’s Faire.