Norman Rockwell Got it Wrong: Why a Small, Salted, and Spatchcocked Bird is the Best way to Cook a Turkey

"Freedom from Want" by Norman Rockwell
Painted in 1942, Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Want" depicts the the quintessential holiday feast. Grandma in her white apron brings out a big, beautiful bird while Grandpa patiently wait for his opportunity to set upon the carcass with a carving knife. Family members large and small, old and young, lean in for conversation, communion, and...dry ass turkey.

You heard me correctly.

Dry. Ass. Turkey. (DAT) 

You see, while Norman Rockwell's painting was wildly successful as a cultural touchstone, and his depiction of a Thanksgiving dinner undeniable appealing to the visual sense, as a gustatory guidebook it falls flat, and dry.

What you see in "Freedom from Want", and what you likely experience year after year at your own Thanksgiving table, is a large bird, traditionally roasted breast side up, and, presumably, without any sort of brining (wet or dry). These three factors literally guarantee DAT and, if there was a "Freedom from Want" part 2, it would likely show everyone frantically reaching for the gravy boat as strands of sub-Saharan turkey meat threaten to obstruct their airways.

Sure, drowning the turkey in gravy or coupling it with equal portions of mashed potatoes or other "wet" foods can make it more palatable, but why subject yourself to the culinary equivalent of Quikrete when you can, with just a few simple steps, do so much better?

Before you answer that, let me say "Do better you can and do better you will!" as tender, flavorful turkey is a simple matter of size, salt, and a little something called spatchcocking.


Automated Turkey Grow-out Barn. Image credit: Minnesota Turkey Growers Assn.

Size

The turkey breed most commonly produced in the United States is the "Broad Breasted White". The Broad Breasted White has several qualities that make it attractive to commercial breeders. For one, as it's name implies, it has large, broad breasts.

With a shorter breast bone and huge pectoral muscles, the Broad Breasted White produces copious amounts of breast meat. All this muscle mass isn't due to steroids however (hormones are illegal to use in poultry production), it is simply the result of generations of selective breeding. This genetically jacked up bird is so over-muscled that it is actually incapable of getting into the right position to consummate a mating dance (yup, no Two Turkey Tango for you Mr. and Mrs. Tom). All that extra weight also makes the Broad Breasted White prone to numerous health issues like turkey arthritis and turkey heart disease.

Industrial farming practices are remarkably efficient, and the Broad Breasted White makes for a neat cog in the industrial farming machine. The process of raising a BBW utilizes fully automated grow-out barns capable of housing 10,000 turkeys at a time. Turkeys and feed goes in, and a few months later, out pops a 40-50lb brick turkey house.

The prevalence of the Broad Breasted all due to producers however. Consumers also like the BBW because, well, we've been taught that bigger is better. Hauling out a huge turkey in front of your friends and family is a sign of conspicuous consumption, proof that you've got that funds, and guns, to manage a big bird.

Another factor that makes the Broad Breasted White appealing to consumers is it's white plumage. While you'll never see a fully feathered turkey at the store, a white turkey means white pin feathers, which are less visible when the turkey is plucked. All those tidy bundles of Butterballs would look a little bit more "real" if their pin feathers were conspicuously present.

The third factor that plays into the Broad Breasted White's Turkey Day dominance is it's price. Like feedlot cattle, battery hens, and other industrially farmed livestock, the price of a Broad Breasted White takes advantage of huge economies of scale, making $1.00/lb turkey a reality.

(For an idea of how much it costs to actually raise a turkey, read this blog post by an actual farmer.)

In summary, here are the problems with big birds:
  • They take exponentially longer to cook, and are therefore more prone to developing both overdone and underdone meat at the same time.
  • Attempts to assuage overcooked breast meat, such as basting, translate into a lack of crispy skin.
  • The rapid growth and relatively sedentary lifestyle of the BBW means less flavor.
  • Large birds encourage unsustainable production systems with less genetic diversity (aka the utilization of a single breed), lower animal welfare standards, greater hardship for farmers, and more environmental impacts.
Luckily, the solution is simple, buy a smaller turkey!

Smaller turkeys (in the 10-12lb range) cook more evenly, have a richer flavor, and are healthier animals.

Heritage breeds (which are typically free-ranged and have a much higher quality of life) are smaller anyway, so if you're leaning towards the ultimate turkey experience, you'll end up with a smaller, but infinitely better bird anyway.

Generally, you should frame your turkey buying decision making as such:

Heritage > Organic > Natural > Conventional

If you're concerned that a 10-12lb turkey is insufficient to feed all of your guests, just buy a second turkey. If you have a large enough oven, you can cook them both at the same time, or, you could roast, carve, and plate one turkey the day before and do the second day of.

Another option if you're doing two or more birds is to mix up the cooking method. While one roasts, the other could be out smoking on the grill. (Check out Russ Crandall's The Domestic Man blog for an easy recipe for smoking a turkey on the grill.)

Additional Resources: Search LocalHarvest.org to find a hertitage breed turkey near you!




Salt 

While it is certain that humans have been salting meat for thousands of years (ancient Chinese, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians were all known for their love of pickled fish) I am almost positive that Norman's Grandma didn't. Despite the global tradition of salted meats, American's didn't start applying this culinary wisdom to their turkey's until ~15 years ago.

The problem with an unsalted bird is simple:

When meat cooks, the muscle fibers contract, essentially "squeezing" out moisture. In an unsalted bird, this moisture loss can be as high as 18%!

Salting, however, changes this equation. When applied to meat, either in solution (a "wet" brine) or directly to the surface of the meat (a "dry" brine) salt penetrates the muscle tissue of the meat in question, disrupting the structure of a protein called myosin. Ultimately, this makes the muscle tissue less contractile and therefore less capable of exuding moisture. Compared to an unsalted bird, a brined piece of poultry can retain 11% more moisture. As an added side bonus, brining also seasons the meat which, as we all know, makes it taste exponentially better.

(Note: If you purchase a "self-basting" or "Kosher" turkey, that means that the turkey is already salted, eliminating the need for an additional brine.)

Unless you want to end up with a DAT on your dinner table, you definitely want to salt your turkey, either with a wet or dry brine. Both will work to ensure a juicier turkey, but if you're wondering which to choose, here is my biased opinion on the issue.

The problem with wet brines:
  • They can potentially pickle your meat. Soaking a turkey too long in a brine, or soaking your turkey in a brine that is too concentrated, can turn your turkey into a poultry version of corned beef.
  • They are messy. A big pot of salted water, sloshing around in your fridge, is an accident waiting to happen. You could potentially brine your bird in a cooler or bucket, but this requires the regular addition of ice and more pain in your ass.
  • They are wet. All that water has to go somewhere. Some of it saturates the meat, which isn't such a bad thing, but some of it also soaks into the turkey's skin. Soaked skin is less likely to crisp when it cooks and the meat can actually become too moist, sacrificing that rich turkey flavor you have been looking for.

The benefits of dry brines:
  • They are more forgiving. Since the salt is only applied to the surface of the meat, it is less likely to over salt and pickle your bird.
  • They aren't messy. Once a dry brined bird is sprinkled with salt, all you have to do is loosely cover it and put it in the fridge until you're ready to roast. No muss. No fuss. No torrent of bacteria laden water covering your kitchen floor.
  • They are dry. Since the turkey isn't soaking in water, the surface of the skin will actually dry out, which is a good thing! Remember: dry skin = crispy skin. The dry brine will also concentrate the turkey's flavor rather than diluting it.
To make a dry brine, I recommend a dry brine recipe that I found on SeriousEats.com

Serious Eats Dry Rub Recipe:

1/2 cup of Coarse Salt (Kosher salt is indicated, but I use coarse sea salt)
2 tbsp Baking Powder (I use aluminum free)

You might be wondering why baking powder is included but no spices or other flavoring agents are. The baking powder makes a nice addition because it creates microscopic bubbles on the skin, increasing surface area and enhancing ultimate skin crispiness. Flavoring agents are excluded because they don't actually penetrate the meat.

Despite the fact that many home cooks, chefs, etc. include garlic, herbs, and other aromatics in their brines, what we perceive as "flavor" is actually large organic molecules that have no chance at penetrating the cellular structure of the meat. At best, they may imbue some surface level flavor to the skin, so if you are going to use them, wait until right before cooking and add them as a rub (salt free since the turkey is already seasoned from the dry brine) or injection.

Additional Resources: The SeriousEats.com "Quick and Dirty Guide to Brining Chicken or Turkey"


It's Pretty but so is the Sahara Desert. Image credit: Butterball.com

Spatchcock

Spatchcoking represents the ultimate carcass configuration for perfect turkey cookery. If you do not spatchcock your turkey, you are doing it wrong.

These might seem like harsh words, but they are true, and sometimes the truth hurts. If you choose to stubbornly ignore the advice in this section, DAT is AYF (all your fault). But, before we get into spatchcocking specifics, lets take a moment to discuss why the traditional roasting configuration of breast side up is so bad.

For starters, the traditional roasting configuration puts the white meat breast portion of the turkey exactly where it shouldn't be. Since the breast is nearly devoid of internal fat, it is the fastest cooking part of the turkey and should therefore finish around 150 degrees fahrenheit.

Secondly, the traditional roasting configuration puts the dark meat wings and thighs exactly where they shouldn't be either. Since the wings and thighs are richer in fat, they cook more slowly and should finish around 165 degrees fahrenheit.

In other words, the traditional roasting configuration is the perfect way to always get DAT.

Why not breast side up then?

You might be thinking that flipping your bird breast side down would solve the problem of overdone breasts and underdone wings and thighs, and you would be right. However, while breast side down gives with one hand, it taketh with the other as you will sacrifice the much coveted golden brown color and crispy skin your diners will be salivating for.

Enter spatchcocking.

By cutting out the turkey's backbone and giving it some overly aggressive CPR, you simultaneously solve the problem of uneven cooking and crispy skin. As an added side benefit, your new, low-profile turkey will cook much faster than any turkey you have ever cooked before.

All you'll need to do this are some heavy duty kitchen or poultry shears and a little elbow grease. Be warned, if you purchased a truly free roaming turkey you might have to put some work into cutting out the backbone and some spatchcockers have had to turn to powertools to do the job. Don't let this discourage you though as any effort put into this step will be paid back ten-fold.

For a great "How-to" Spatchcock video, check out this tutorial from SeriousEats.com



Conclusion

By now you are hopefully convinced that a small, salted, and spatchcocked turkey is the way to go.

Your guests may initially balk at your plans, but once that perfectly cooked turkey meat hits their lips, they will be immediately sold on the concept as well. Be prepared for some problems however, from here on out, you will always be asked to cook Thanksgiving dinner!

If you need a little guidance in putting the three "S's" of turkey cookery together, check out the following two recipes...

Succulent Spatchcocked Roast Turkey and Uber Umami Gravy Recipe

The Perfect Thanksgiving Leftovers Sandwich Recipe

Hopefully you've enjoyed this post and, if you did, please share it as you see fit.

Cheers!

Tony Fed



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About Tony Fed

Tony is the host of the Paleo Magazine Radio podcast, author of "Paleo Grilling: A Modern Caveman's Guide to Cooking with Fire", and Cofounder of Powerful PT, an innovative information resource for Fitness Professionals. He has appeared on numerous local and national television and radio broadcasts and regularly hosts healthy cooking workshops and informational lectures. He is also a full-time Personal Trainer and Wellness Consultant who lives in Jacksonville Florida with his wife Jamie.
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