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 America's Test Kitchen TV Season 18: How to Roast Everything
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?
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.
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.