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The Best Supermarket Turkey
The holidays are no time to gamble on a bird that cooks up dry and bland—or, worse, exhibits off-flavors.
Published Nov. 1, 2017. Appears in Cook's Illustrated March/April 2009, America's Test Kitchen TV Season 18: How to Roast Everything
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What You Need To Know
Is there any holiday food more fraught than the turkey? First it hogs the refrigerator, and then it hogs the oven. Never mind the logistics of thawing, seasoning, and roasting. After all that, it often turns out dry and bland. A well-tested recipe and the right equipment go a long way toward a better bird, but there’s another variable: The turkey itself matters just as much. To find the best supermarket bird, we purchased eight best-selling turkeys from both national and regional brands. All birds were in the 12- to 14-pound range, which we like for its 10- to 12-serving yield and easy maneuverability. Four were processed without added flavorings or seasonings, and four were treated: one was kosher, which means it was completely covered in salt and rinsed in cold water during processing in accordance with Jewish dietary law, and the other three were injected with salty broths that could also contain other flavorings such as sugar and spices.
We cooked the turkeys according to our recipe for Easier Roast Turkey and Gravy (November/December 2016), which calls for salting the birds for at least 24 hours before roasting. This step seasons the meat and helps it retain moisture while also ensuring crispy skin and good browning. Because the kosher and injected turkeys in our lineup were already treated with salt, we didn’t salt those birds. A panel of 21 tasters evaluated the flavor, texture, and overall appeal of each turkey’s light and dark meat.
Surprisingly, half the turkeys disappointed. Tasters complained that the meat tasted “weak and washed out,” or worse, had musty or funky off-flavors, like “canned tuna” or “dirty water.” Turkey is naturally lean, so we expected some of the meat to be a little dry. We didn’t expect samples to suffer from the opposite problem. Tasters described some of the slices as “wet” or “gummy,” drawing comparisons to a “dampened washcloth” or a “waterlogged sponge.” But there was good news, too. Four turkeys were “amazingly flavorful,” juicy, and tender. What made these good birds good?
Breed, Feed, and Seasoning
First we looked at breed. Seven of the eight producers confirmed that they sell Broad-Breasted White turkeys or other similar breeds that mature quickly and have an abundance of white meat (the eighth, Butterball, declined to comment). Despite the similarities among the breeds, Professor Michael Lilburn of The Ohio State University’s Turkey Center explained that producers work with outside companies to make genetic modifications that fit their specific requirements, so there are bound to be natural differences in flavor, even within the same breed. But other factors were surely also at play.
Everything We Tested
“Tastes like what I think turkey should taste like,” wrote one happy taster. Our new winner, which is from the same company that produces our winning chickens and heritage turkeys, has relatively high fat levels and is fed a vegetarian diet. As a result, it had “clean,” “robust” turkey flavor and a slightly “nutty aftertaste.” It had “great texture” and was “very tender and juicy.”
Our new Best Buy was “amazingly flavorful.” Tasters especially liked the “rich, meaty” flavor of the dark meat, which was so good that there was “no need for gravy.” Its dark meat had the highest fat level in our lineup and was deemed “firm, juicy, tender.” Many noted that it was “just what I want in a turkey.” Best of all, it’s half the price of our winner.
Raised for six months—the amount of time that heritage birds generally require to grow to full size—this turkey had dark meat with a purplish hue, “very savory” flavor, and “subtle minerality” that reminded us of duck and expensive heritage turkeys. In evaluations of texture, panelists commented that even the white meat was “perfect.”
“Oh, this is good!” wrote one taster. Our panelists loved the “roasty,” “surprisingly flavorful” meat and “nutty aftertaste.” This bird also hit the mark with “tender and moist” meat. The white meat had by far the highest fat level of the bunch, and its dark meat was almost purple in color—a sign of older or relatively well-exercised birds.
Recommended with reservations
The best of the injected birds was a far cry from the untreated turkeys. Given its lack of fat—the lowest in the lineup—tasters unsurprisingly found the white meat “very bland” and wished the dark meat were “a little richer.” Some praised its texture, but others found it “almost mushy.” A few detected “funky” off-notes.
“Weak” and “generic” were apt descriptions of this bird’s flavor. Some also found it “liver-y” and “musty.” Its texture also took criticism: Like the Jennie-O bird, the Honeysuckle White turkey contains 9.5 percent absorbed moisture, prompting remarks such as “leaning toward mushy” and “a little waterlogged.” The dark meat was a very similar color to the white meat, which may indicate that the birds get little exercise, and it tasted similarly mild as well.
The sole kosher bird in our lineup didn’t exhibit any of the off-flavors that we detected in the injected birds (perhaps due to its vegetarian diet), but it was still “bland with a touch of generic turkey flavor.” It had fairly high fat levels, but it also had the highest retained moisture level, 10 percent. The resulting texture was puzzling. Tasters described it as “too moist and too dry at the same time.” As one taster summed up: “doesn’t taste like much of anything.”
Although ubiquitous in supermarkets during the holidays, this injected turkey met with strong dislike from our tasters. It had “no meaty flavor” and very noticeable off-notes. Tasters described it as “musty” and “greasy” and noted that it tasted “like fish” or “canned tuna.” Although the dark meat was “relatively moist,” the white meat was “too dry.”
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Kate is a deputy editor for ATK Reviews. She's a culinary school graduate and former line cook and cheesemonger.