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Which turkey tastes best? Is it ever worthwhile to mail-order a $100 bird when supermarket options cost less than $2 a pound? “Cook's Illustrated” conducted a taste-test of eight turkeys, including common supermarket brands as well as kosher, organic, pasture-raised, and heritage birds:
The top choice of the 24 members of the tasting panel was a kosher bird, treated with salt during processing. The salt makes the bird taste better and helps it retain moisture as it cooks, so the roasted turkey is juicier. The tasters at “Cook's Illustrated” also liked the “self-basting” birds, injected with a salt solution that generally contains turkey broth, oil and sugar. The extra fat and sugar made the meat juicier and more flavorful.
The big surprise of the tasting was the heritage bird, an old-fashioned breed with more dark meat than modern turkeys. Tasters praised its “robust turkey flavor.” Lab results revealed that this turkey had three times as much fat as the leanest birds, which translated to better flavor and juicier meat. This bird finished a close second.
What didn't the tasters at “Cook's Illustrated” like? Plain fresh turkeys, even those raised on organic feeds or allowed to roam in pastures, were downgraded as being dry and bland.
Here are the taste-test results, with the turkeys listed in order of preference:
Rubashkin's Aaron's Best
Price: $1.99 per pound
Lab tests revealed that this frozen kosher bird had the most salt and one of the highest levels of fat among the birds in our lineup; tasters noticed, finding this kosher turkey "very moist, with excellent texture" and boasting "both white and dark meat that are moist and flavorful."
Walters Poultry Heritage Breed
Price: $50 for 13- to 15-pound bird (plus shipping); contact www.walterspoultry.com
Virtually tied for first place, this heritage bird is raised on a small Missouri farm. Lab tests showed that it had nearly three times as much fat as the leanest turkeys. It offered "robust turkey flavor" and was "very tender." Both the light and dark meat were juicy. This turkey is frozen when shipped second-day air in an insulated container; shipping costs about $50.
Price: $1.49 per pound
Tasters generally liked this frozen self-basting turkey, calling it "nice and moist, with fairly good, unremarkable flavor," though some found it "too salty," "almost wet rather than moist" and "rather bland." Lab tests showed it had the second-highest salt level in the lineup.
Price: $1.49 per pound
Tasters dubbed this fresh self-basting turkey "middle-of-the-road," with "mild flavor, but it's good." A few described it as tasting "more like chicken," calling the white meat a bit "dry and chewy." Its salt level was quite low, closer to the natural birds than the self-basting Butterball.
Price: $2.69 per pound
"A good consistency, with good moisture and texture, but lacking flavor," was the consensus on this fresh kosher turkey. "White meat tastes like nothing: What am I eating?" A few noted a "metallic," "almost bitter" aftertaste. Lab tests revealed that this kosher bird had just over half the salt of the top-rated Aaron's bird.
Shady Brook Farms
Price: $1.29 per pound
"Bland-o-rama" white meat, with a "chewy" texture that was "too dry" was general consensus about this fresh turkey. "Like my mother used to make, unfortunately." Tasters were divided on the dark meat, with some finding it good and others complaining of a "gamy" taste and "stringy" texture.
Good Earth Farms Organic Pasture-Raised
Price: $3.21 per pound
Tasters found this organic bird grown on a small Wisconsin farm to be "tough," with a "dense, chewy quality." They noted its "clear turkey flavor," which was "very good," but felt it "needs gravy!" "Not a good stand-alone turkey." It had the lowest salt level in the lineup.
Diestel Family Turkey Ranch
Price: $1.99 per pound
"Even the dark is dry," tasters said of this California-raised frozen bird, noting the dark meat was "rubbery, dark, and funky," with a "fishy flavor." The light meat fared better, with "great turkey flavor," but again, it was "too chewy."
5 secrets to the perfect roast turkey
The “Cook's Illustrated” test kitchen has roasted thousands (yes, thousands) of turkeys over the years and has figured out where turkey preparation often goes wrong. Here are the most common mistakes — and how to avoid them.
A frozen bird that hasn't fully defrosted is a disaster. Don't try to speed up the process on the counter — it's just not safe. A turkey must defrost slowly in the refrigerator. Plan on 1 day in the fridge for every 4 pounds of turkey. A 16-pound turkey needs 4 days to thaw.
Brine if necessary
If you don't buy a kosher or self-basting bird, you really should brine the bird a day in advance. Place the turkey in a bucket filled with cold water and salt. Use 1/2 cup table salt for every gallon of water. (Two gallons of water should cover all but the largest turkeys.) After 12 hours in the refrigerator, rinse and pat the turkey dry. The salt seasons the bird and helps it retain moisture as it cooks.
Baste before roasting
Brushing butter or pan drippings over the bird as it cooks is a messy proposition and actually makes the skin less crisp. To promote browning, brush the bird with melted butter before it goes into the oven.
Roast upside down
To prevent the breast meat from drying out, roast the turkey upside down in a V-rack set inside your roasting pan for the first hour. This shields the breast meat from direct heat and causes juices in the bird to run down into the breast. After an hour, flip the turkey breast side up so the skin on the breast can brown.
Ignore the thermometer
The plastic pop-up thermometers in most turkeys are designed to pop when the bird is overcooked. Instead, use an instant-read thermometer to measure the progress of your bird.
For more tips to ensure the perfect Thanksgiving, go to cooksillustrated.com and read the Thanksgiving Problem Solver, which answers frequently asked questions about preparing turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, stuffing, pumpkin pie and more.