Truth to Power: Turkey Sucks

By Matthew Yglesias


Ever noticed that your favorite dishes from your traditional family Thanksgiving are all sides? And that that one time you had Thanksgiving dinner outside your traditional family gathering the best dishes there were sides? And how when your friends organized a fauxsgiving festival the week before Thanksgiving the best dishes were sides? That’s because turkey doesn’t taste good. Not that it has to be terrible. But at best, you come out with a neutral flavored bit of protein that’s not so dry as to have a repugnant texture and therefore becomes a decent vehicle for gravy. But note that you could have just bought a very unimpressive Safeway Select Artisan Baguette and accomplished the same thing for way less money in way less time.

Everyone knows this to be true, but for some reason nobody wants to say it. The other day, I was flipping through my How to Cook Everything (thanks Ezra!) looking for duck advice and found Bittman’s introduction to “the basics of turkey”

I know of no one who prefers turkey to other birds, but you can’t buck tradition, and the Thanksgiving feast is among the few national holidays that transcend all divisions (or at least most divisions: vegetarians have a hard time with it).

This is crap. In a day and age when Michael Pollan can urge the United States to buck the farm-and-beef lobby and radically revise national agriculture policy surely a cookbook author and recognized food expert can urge the discerning cookbook reader to buck the turkey lobby and cook something that tastes good for his (or her) family. Keep the parts of Thanksgiving that people like — the cranberry sauce, the stuffing, the yams — and for a main course cook something good. Multiple chickens! A goose! Spencer’s bacon-wrapped pork!

But instead of doing this, I see all manner of foodies wracking their brains for ways to make turkey taste good. By which they mean “tolerable.” But the problem lies not with your recipe or with your technique — it’s built into the birds. As everyone knows, commercial tomatoes have been bred to (a) look very red and (b) hold up well during shipping. Consequently, commercial tomatoes are very red and can be shipped long-distance. But no matter what you do with them, they don’t taste very good compared to seasonal tomatoes that have been bred for taste. Similarly, turkey breeders aren’t trying to breed a tasty bird. They’re trying to breed a big bird and counting on the false god of “tradition” to force you to buy their crap. And when you breed something for size rather than flavor, you get a big, not-very-tasty animal. Resist!


71 responses to “Truth to Power: Turkey Sucks

  1. I like turkey

  2. verplanck colvin

    so…are you saying that turkey sucks, or that commercially-raised turkey sucks?

    brined commercial turkey is perfectly fine, but more for what the brine does to the bird than the bird itself. But if you do have access to a wild turkey a hunter bagged or put down the serious cash for a heritage turkey, you can have a great turkey that actually tastes like meat. Our preconceptions that turkey is bland and dry have come from a lifetime of eating bland, dry turkey. There are other options out there.

  3. Turkey legs are delicious.

  4. From your description it sounds like you’re eating the driest part of the white meat. So yeah, that turkey sucks. Get a nice juicy slice of darker stuff, though — preferably with a piece of crispy skin attached — and no, turkey doesn’t suck.

    It also makes delicious sandwiches.

  5. Thanksgiving day – turkey’s a decent protein that’s a nice break from chicken but not as good as beef

    Thanksgiving night and days after – white bread, mayo, turkey. Damn fine eating.

  6. Nicholas Warino

    Burn him at the stake.

  7. Pingback: Matthew Yglesias » The Case Against Turkey

  8. Cornish game hens. Everyone gets one, so no one has to carve. They take 2 hours to cook instead of 10. You don’t have leftovers for weeks. And they taste better.

  9. Much like Iron Chef, sometimes it’s significantly cooler to try and do the best you can within certain constraints.

  10. my experience is everyone's experience

    I seem to remember some phrase, about how there’s no point in arguing about taste….it’ll come to me…

  11. Burn him at the stake.
    Brine him, and roast him at the stake. Baste frequently.

  12. “Everyone knows this to be true, but for some reason nobody wants to say it.”

    Calvin Trillin has been saying it for many years. Have some spaghetti carbonara.

  13. Deep-fried turkey. You deep fat fry the whole turkey. Apparently its really good.

  14. Most turkeys are poorly raised and poorly cooked. Get a smaller one, no natural turkey will weigh 25 lbs. cleaned, and a natural or organic bird. Get your clean hands dirty and rub some butter, mixed with herbs (fresh parsley and thyme are nice), under the skin next to the breast. This makes up for the lack of fat over the breast meat (one reason why it’s so dry). Wipe the excess butter into the (empty) cavity. Then fill the cavity with chopped aromatics: onions, apples, carrots, celery and maybe a garlic clove or two. These aren’t for stuffing as you can’t control the safety of these ingredients. They help keep the turkey moist. Then roast it covered with foil until about 45min to an hour before done, uncover to brown the skin. And don’t OVERCOOK it. Use a thermometer and when it reads 10-15 degrees below where you want to finish, pull it out, cover it with the foil you saved and let it rest for twenty minutes. There’s enough heat to finish cooking it and it will be deliciously moist.

  15. Did you really post that photograph? Really? Did you “go there”?

  16. ever tried a smoked turkey? that’s the way to go

  17. Matt you are one unpatriotic person. You profess sacrilege. In Massachusetts in the 1600’s we would have burned you at the stake.

    Joking aside you must not like turkey or you have never had one cooked properly.

  18. Turkey is my favorite part of thanksgiving, it is delicious. how can you say its not good.

  19. I quite like the smell of a roasting turkey. Turkey stock is excellent for things like risotto (it’s a bit more “meaty” than chicken stock) and you can do cool things with a good brine and a good bird. That being said this year I’m doing ham just for kicks — I have a feeling it’ll be pretty killer with the right stuffing on the side.

  20. You acknowledge the distinction between commercial tomatoes and real tomatoes – why can’t you do the same for turkeys? Your thesis is that “Turkeys suck the same way tomatoes suck” – but I suspect you think tomatoes can be delicious.

    Get yourself a locally raised heritage bird and help change things.

    Oh, and commercial chickens and pork and bacon suck, too. I don’t know if anyone is raising large-scale commercial geese, but if they do they suck too.

  21. Water-smoking. Kind of like foolproof barbecue. Works very well with the Goloptious Fowl. All is moist. Deep fat frying also good, but very dangerous.
    But I’d still go for goose. And the goose grease makes for cookies most excellent.

  22. Pingback: Happy Thanksgiving! « The Tulsa Initiative Blog

  23. Some thoughts:

    1) Unless you prefer dark meat, buy a turkey breast or two, rather than the whole bird. Cooks in ~3 hours, more or less, depending on size of breast.

    2) Cook the breast like Ethan @12:11pm said.

    3) And cook the breast ‘upside down’, with the hollow of the ribcage on top. That way, the juices will sink down into the breast meat.

    4) If no T-Day turkey, then no turkey sandwiches over the rest of the weekend. And I do love my turkey sandwiches.

  24. Vegetarians have an AWESOME time with it.

  25. Pingback: Thanksgiving Blasphemy? « Brew Cityzen

  26. Speaking of Michael Pollan, this is a phenomenon that’s right up his alley. The problem isn’t turkey, it’s commercial turkey. Naturally bred and raised turkeys like heritages and free range and whatnot are both better for you and…get this… they taste good.

    If you don’t like turkey, you shouldn’t buy it just for tradition any more than you should make a fruitcake for Christmas. I highly recommend a good ham if you’re not into turkey; it complements holiday sides very well. I will contend, however, that happy turkeys taste a lot better.

  27. Hey, bro- just because apparently nobody in your family knows how to cook turkey right, don’t shit on my parade. Frankly, I find it a little pathetic that Benjamin Franklin could make a turkey delectable without the benefit of an Asian spice market and a Whole Foods, while your insecurities in your own culinary deficiencies compel you to write some sort of anti-turkey manifesto. Didn’t you go to Harvard? Don’t they teach anything worth knowing?

    You don’t like turkey? Fine. Don’t eat turkey for Thanksgiving. But considering most of the rest of the country seems to enjoy it, maybe it ain’t the turkey, maybe it’s you.


  28. eponymous coward

    I wrap my turkeys in cheesecloth soaked in olive oil (basically, you’re putting another barrier for evaporation in between the oven and the turkey- and in a pinch, you can use a plain white T-shirt, though it will trash the T-shirt), except for the last 30-45 minutes to crisp the skin, and stuff them with aromatics (as was suggested above by Ethan). I’ve never had one with dry white meat- if you do it right, the whole bird is moist- and I don’t have to baste, either.

  29. Joe S.: Please tell us more about these goose fat cookies of which you speak?

  30. That’s funny, I love turkey.

  31. anonymous coward

    Heritage turkey! Heritage Turkey!

  32. Where’s Petey?

  33. My brother-in-law loves turkey. So I cook one at Thanksgiving for familial peace.

    But it’s the traditional roast goose at Christmas.

    I cook the goose slow, on a rack, with quartered apples inside to soak up the goose grease (those of us raised on Warner Brothers cartoons know about goose grease). When the bird’s done you throw away the apples and serve it with a wild rice dressing cooked in the de-fatted goose juices. (It’s fun typing goose juices.)

    You’re right about side-dishes being the stars of a turkey dinner. Giblet gravy is the best part of a commercial turkey but the key is my grandmother’s cornbread dressing with enough sage to start a chain of sweat lodges.

    Instead of cranberries, my Mom (and three other ladies in the neighborhood; it was that big a job) would make orange ice from fresh squeezed orange juice, made in the hand-cranked ice-cream maker, and served in the orange shells (which had been trimmed with pinking shears).

    I think that jellied cranberry stuff in the shape of a tin can is a sin against… something. My brother-in-law likes that stuff, too.

    He plays golf.

    Need I say more?

  34. Your logic is deeply flawed, which I’m stoked about because I’ve always wanted to be smarter than you about something, anything frankly. But your intimidating knowledge of world affairs helps you not in the culinary world.

    You are correct, if you are talking about commercial turkey, it’s flavorless overfed crap. But Heritage Turkeys and free range birds can be absolutely delicious with the right ingredients (or without, frankly.) Adding flavors and brines to turkeys is a gourmet’s attempt to take it to the next level. Just because one adds arromatics, brines, etc, doesn’t mean the bird was flavorless to begin with.

    Of course you could take things to the logical conclusion, go completely out of control and give this a try.

  35. Organic George

    Conventional meat of any kind lacks taste. organic an/or heritage birds are excellent.

    To avoid a dry turkey roast it upside down so the fat in the dark meat baste the white. Flip it over with a hour left to bake and brown the top of the bird.

  36. Whole roasted turkeys stick to my teeth. Stuffed turkey breasts, on the other hand, are phenomenal. And you get to pound them with a tenderizer, which is a bonus.

    And I don’t think Ben Franklin’s delectable turkeys were produced by today’s, ahem, commercial standards…

  37. I wish it weren’t sacrosanct to ditch the bird. It bores me. Jane Black wrote a great post about it over on Table Matters, too.

  38. I used to feel this way too. When the kids were younger, my whole family (parents, 1 aunt, 2 sisters+husband & once a mother-in-law) used to come. My wife was astonished after one of them to note that my sisters and I hadn’t had a bit of turkey.

    3 or 4 years ago, we started buying just turkey breasts, marinading them in commercial marinade/bbq sauce for 36-48 hours, and then bbq’ing them for a couple of hours on the big day. I now find that I have to work not to eat too much, because EVERYTHING tastes good.

    Of course, this doesn’t contradict the basic assertion that turkey is bland to the point of tasteless, but w/o too much work, that can be overcome. E.g., the turkey breast comes double wrapped in 2 large plastic bags, just the thing for marinading – pull the turkey out of the bag to give it a good rinse, then put it back in the bags, dump the marinade in, & put it in the fridge. The next day, turn it over. Then on the big day, stuff it and bbq it for several hours in aluminum foil.

  39. […] — everyone feels compelled to eat a sub-par bird merely for the sake of tradition. I make the case for overthrowing the monstrous […]

    Truly, you are like a truth-telling Christopher Hitchens of the Foodie World, standing boldly and nobly against flaccid, cowardly, status quo-worshipping traditionalists.

    Put me down as one who also likes turkey.

  40. Pingback: A Harmonious Union Of Thanksgiving Meat « The Internet Food Association

  41. Try Cantonese Duck, I made it awhile ago. Yum.

    Surprisingly good are the King Cole frozen cooked half ducks, don’t know if you have them in your area. They’re $10 each. You thaw the cryovac-packed cooked duck by pouring boiling water over the packet and letting it sit for about 15 minutes. Then run it under the broiler for about 10 minutes. It’s really good (duck is my favourite meat after lamb) and the orange sauce they provide is nothing to sneer at.

    Turkey is great when you use way more sage, parsley, rosemary and thyme than you think you need in the dressing. Lots of celery and onion, leave out all the sausage, nuts and other junk people put in these days.

    I almost hit a wild one with the car the other day, there are lots of them around here (sw Ontario).

    Why oh why did I slam on the brakes? What was I thinking?

  42. Pingback: The View From The Left » Blog Archive » Let’s Talk Turkey

  43. I spent a decade as a professional chef, much of which I spent catering. I have roasted literally thousands of turkeys. Your thesis is a big load of horse manure. The only reason turkey is usually bland is that people don’t know how to cook the damned things. There is nothing inherently bland about turkey. Poultry is poultry, you couldn’t tell the difference between chicken and turkey in a blind taste test, and likely couldn’t tell the difference between turkey and duck either. Bird flesh is bird flesh, and unless you are comparing wild game to battery-raised THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE.

    It’s a great big bird, it needs a lot of seasoning, and the seasoning needs to permeate the flesh, hence the brining, which should not just be salt, but herbs, spices, even liquors as well. stab holes, lot’s of em, into the thickest parts of the breast and thighs, it helps. use spice rubs, and don’t forget to put them under the skin as well. You should be doing the same with smaller birds like chicken as well.

    Because it is both huge, and oddly shaped, it’s hard to ensure that the thighs are done cooking before the breast is dried and nasty, hence if you are smart, you cut the turkey into pieces, and roast them spread out in the pan: Now you can control the speed of cooking much more quickly. Sure you don’t get to haul in a barbaric roast beast, but it tastes better. If you simply must keep the bird in one piece, then butterfly it and roast it flat.

    Because it’s mass-produced poultry, it is heir to the curse of all mass-produced meat: it gets no exercise, and a bland diet, hence, buy a free range bird, or if you are truly fortunate, go out and shoot a brace of wild ones.

    None of this is rocket science, quite whining.

    And if you just don’t like turkey, that’s fine, but understand that it’s YOU, not the bird.

  44. What I thought. Matt’s not a foodie at all.

  45. Pingback: In Defense of Turkey or How to Cook Everything Turkey « The Internet Food Association

  46. Pingback: While we’re on the subject of Yglesias… « All Good Naysayers, Speak Up!

  47. totally agree! Turkey sucks! I love almost every other meat, but have always disliked Turkey. Now that I plan the meals for my family for the Holidays, we don’t have Turkey (or ham, that’s weekend breakfast food). Instead, I make lasagna, BBQ Ribs, or steaks. Or maybe chicken cacciatore with spaghetti alla carbonara! Or maybe atrichoke-spinach enchiladas! Anything is better than TURKEY!

  48. Pingback: Turkey Mitigation Strategies. « The Internet Food Association

  49. There is nothing inherently bland about turkey. Poultry is poultry,

    Mammal is mammal! Beef is pork! Pork is bacon! Bacon is lamb! Lamb tastes like chicken! Which is just like horse!

    you couldn’t tell the difference between chicken and turkey in a blind taste test, and likely couldn’t tell the difference between turkey and duck either.

    Horseshit. Absolute fucking horseshit.

    Bird flesh is bird flesh, and unless you are comparing wild game to battery-raised THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE.

    You must have been a chef in DC.

    [‘Attack of the tasteless honkies!’]

  50. Want good turkey? Inject your marinade into the meat. That’s right, with a needle.

    I did a bird last year with this stuff and when I was cutting into the breasts, the moisture literally dripped out. And the whole bird was cooked through.

    I also did it over apple wood smoke on the BBQ pit, with slices of bacon on top, and that didn’t hurt either. :)

    Turkey is wonderful. It’s a blank canvas that you can do great things with.

  51. 1)If you can’t tell the difference between turkey and chicken blindfolded from across the room, you have no business cooking anywhere outside a prison kitchen and should be forced to subsist on frozen TV dinners for the rest of eternity.
    2) Turkey is as good as chicken, especially if you go the heritage bird route, but even commercial birds are tasty if prepared properly (think sage and onions and lots of them, and then add more sage)

  52. Pingback: Happy Thanksgiving! § Unqualified Offerings

  53. Going to Uncle Matt’s house for the holidays will be the thing that makes all the grandkids moan.

    You go expecting turkey like all the other kids and you come away with pork chops or goose or some such nonsense.

  54. I’m with you on turkey. Those of us who have spent too many years ordering the turkey sandwich when we really wanted the corned beef have learned that turkey is about denial, not bounty — or at least it has become so in our diet-obsessed culture.

    At Casa la Brilliant, we finally weaned ourselves off the need for a turkey dinner for two on Thanksgiving two years ago after spending 35 bucks a head at our local Fine Dining Establishment and finding that turkey in a place with snippy size zero waitresses doesn’t taste any better. Last year I made lasagne for Thanksgiving, and today we’re having a lovely Greek meal of pastitso, homemade pita, and a salad of cucumber, grape tomato, red onion, olives, and feta. Photos and step-by-step instructions to come. And no, we are not Greek.

  55. American cooking in general during thanksgiving is usually bland and uncreative.

    Turkey just taste more neutral than pork and chicken because it lacks the kinds of high fat contents that flavors the meat *in the chicken’s case its in the skin, a turkey’s is more lean and unwielding*

    The ingrediant of Turkey is not hopeless, the traditional way of just baking it is. Though its flavor is slight it still provides a good base (sort of like tofu) For example, boiling a turkey in a pot with hints of stock/broth/ for a brief period, then baking a crust on it after brushing on a layer of sauce can enrich the moisture content and and flavor significantly.

    I personally just strip and stirfry

  56. In my experience the white meat of turkey is always bland, always too dry, and always has a ribbed texture. It’s like eating corduroy trousers.

    In my experience the dark meat of turkey has a better texture, is a little moister, and has a little more flavour. But it’s hit and miss as far as the flavour is concerned as it can range from bland to unpleasantly strong.

    In the UK it’s traditional to eat turkey at Christmas and the traditional side-dish is brussels sprouts – something I find even less appealing than turkey. British recipes for sprouts appear to include adding a handful of sand whilst cooking so that every bite grinds against the teeth. The taste is vile. Oh, and the Belgians pretty much adopted them as a national dish, which is another good reason not to eat them.

  57. Matt is playing another of his moronic games. No one but pud pullers like himself listen to him.

    I’d refer to him as the turkey to avoid, but that would be an insult to a great bird.

    Do yourself a favor, consider the fact that the policies Matt has supported as long as he’s been pulling his pud online have lead to our current economic crisis. Of course, if you want to follow a moral relativist, go ahead. You will find that you are in a distinct minority.

  58. Oh my God, you’re insane.

  59. Pingback: My Eponymous Site » Thanksgiving

  60. Cross posted from Yglesias Major:

    “leading food authorities support me on this.”

    Julia Child’s turkey recipe:

    Alton Brown on turkey:

    Emeril’s turkey:

    Cook’s Illustrated has much to say about turkeys. See The Best Recipe pg. 171-183.

    The Joy of Cooking has about 15 recipes for turkey.

    Food god Harold McGee writes: ” The little used breast muscle is tender, mild and lean; the leg muscles that support the breast are well-exercised, dark and flavorful.” Food scientist Shirley Corriher says much the same. I’d put either of them light years ahead of Bittman. I have his recipe book and it is atrocious.

    “The best restaurants” also avoid things like hamburgers, fried chicken (unless they’re being “playful” or slumming on a special Southern menu item) or fish and chips, three things which, well executed, are among the most flavorful dishes on Earth.

    They also call green beans “haricots vertes” — French for “green beans.”

    Frankly, snooty is not equal to good.

  61. my decent sized family allways got a small turkey and a really big ham.

  62. Pingback: Turkey is a fine bird | Porch Dog

  63. Pingback: Truth to Power: Turkey Sucks « The Internet Food Association | Hunger Hut

  64. So true!
    I hate turkey! How a meat manages to taste both dry AND gamey is beyond me. Mealy too. Maybe if you wrapped it in bacon and deep-fried it, it would be just okay… And I’m well and truly confused by how excited people get for turkey. I’ll take stuffing, gravy, mash and HAM! Or sausage. Or Cornish Hen. Or… just giant helpings of stuffing, mash and gravy, hold the lurkey, thank you very much.

  65. Pingback: ‘Nothing Will Stop The Turkey Inferno’ « The Internet Food Association

  66. Thank you. Thank you. I’ve been screaming this for years

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