Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Turkey

You know how the story goes: the Pilgrims were hungry, so as an act of hospitality, goodwill and camaraderie, leaders of the Wampanoag in Massachusetts brought them turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy - followed by a dessert of pumpkin pie.

[Record scratch!]

Actually, the first Thanksgiving story may have very well involved turkey, along with other wild fowl and game hunted by the Wampanoag, such as duck, geese and deer. We might wonder why America chose not to focus on those other meats for an annual feast instead of turkey. Here's an easy answer: a turkey is big. And while deer is big, too, we've domesticated other large mammals for food production like cattle much more easily. (And, let's face it: Walt Disney played a large role in discouraging deer consumption in the US.)

Geese and ducks have exceptionally deep layers of surface fat, and while delicious if roasted slowly on a spit like the Wampanoag might have done (read: no basting!), their drippings can flare up easily in a conventional oven if you're not careful. Still, roast geese and duck were commonly eaten on holidays throughout early America along with turkeys until fairly modern times. Records of Thanksgiving dinner menus around the late 1800s show that oyster soup, cod, roast goose and chicken were popularly eaten to celebrate the holiday, too.

Turkey took center stage on the Thanksgiving table a bit later on, by the mid-1900's, once home ovens became a staple of the modern household. The idea of everyone eating the same type of protein solely on the same holiday is a modern phenomenon encouraged by mass media and marketing (Norman Rockwell's 1941 Freedom From Want painting notwithstanding).

A Brief History of Turkeys

Indigenous people have domesticated turkeys for at least 2,000 years in America. Evidence points to turkeys being raised by Native Americans and Mexicans as far back as 25 AD. This was replicated by the colonists who settled in the Americas during the 1500s.

Both Native Americans and European settlers also hunted wild turkeys for food - by the early 1900s, they'd been hunted nearly to extinction. Today, thanks to regulations and restocking efforts, wild turkey populations have revived and are estimated at a population of 7 million throughout 49 of the States.

So why do we call it "turkey"? That has to do with some confusion in Europe. Wild turkeys and the domesticated turkeys that were bred from them are indigenous to North America, but they were commonly mistaken by the early colonists in America for guinea fowl, a smaller bird native to Africa that were eaten in Europe. The guinea fowl wasn't just called guinea fowl in Great Britain, though: The Brits may have called them "turkeys" because they came to England by way of Mediterranean merchants in Turkey.

When the Spanish began exporting turkeys from the New World to Europe, they also came to England by way of Turkey, and were hence named Turkey fowl (or alternately, Turkey coq or Turkey bird). The name stuck. And so would, it seems, the bird's name discrepancies around the world. In modern-day Turkey, for example, they are referred to as "Indian fowl," because they were once thought to have come from India.

Factual Nibbles

  • Benjamin Franklin criticized the choice of the bald eagle as a symbol for America, arguing that the wild turkey's American origins and better character would have made it a preferable choice.
  • Wild Turkey brand of bourbon whiskey was named after a wild turkey hunting trip that one of the company's executives, Thomas McCarthy, took in South Carolina. Friends later asked him for more of the "wild turkey bourbon" he had brought on the trip.
  • Female turkeys don't have wattles, and they don't gobble. They make clicking or chirping noises. The gobbling sound made by a male turkey, or tom, is his mating call, and each one is unique!
  • Wild turkeys can fly, whereas commercial turkeys, which have been selectively bred for more breast meat, are non-avian. Those same giant breasts keep these commercial turkeys from natural reproduction, so they are artificially inseminated.
  • Breast meat makes up about 70 percent of the weight of a typical domesticated turkey (a broad-breasted blonde breed).
  • Turkeys have better color vision than humans. They can also see movement up to 100 yards away.
  • Eating turkey throughout the year - not just on Thanksgiving - is on the rise in the US. Turkey consumption has increased nearly 110 percent since 1970, with the top turkey products being whole birds, ground turkey and breast deli meat. It is the #4 protein choice behind chicken, beef and pork.
  • The annual Thanksgiving presidential turkey pardon has its origins in the former practice of giving (live) turkeys to presidents. Abe Lincoln may have been the first president to officially "pardon" a turkey.

Turkey Production

Domesticated turkeys raised for food production are typically hatched in the spring or summer months, when temperatures are warmer. Commercial turkeys are often hatched and reared indoors in lighted pens for the first few days, to encourage more eating and quicker growth. Then, the chicks may be allowed access to larger pens or coops. Females are typically slaughtered at around 14-16 weeks of age, and males, which take longer to grow, at 18-20 weeks. The amount of space, light, ventilation and other welfare concerns, like access to eating bugs, grass and other natural behaviors such as spreading their wings, vary among commercial turkey farms. Turkeys often have their beaks trimmed to reduce pecking amongst one another. Like chickens, turkey sexes are commonly raised separately to alleviate fighting and pecking, especially once the birds reach sexual maturity.

Seasonality of Turkeys

Americans eat roughly 46 millions of turkeys on Thanksgiving, about 17 percent of all turkeys produced in the year. Many producers raise turkeys year-round and sell them frozen for the holiday, too. Needless to say, the turkey industry is a madcap place for the month of November; in order to get turkeys into stores the week of Thanksgiving, most birds are slaughtered and shipped out to retail outlets the same day, during late October and early November. To prevent overage and waste and to ensure you have a turkey on your table, many stores and farms appreciate it when you place an order for your bird a few weeks ahead of time.

If you are planning to buy a pasture-raised bird for your Thanksgiving feast, we recommend you get on it - many local producers sell out well in advance of the big day. 

Environmental Impact of Turkey Raising

Like chickens, turkeys have traditionally have played a harmonious part in small, integrated farms: they provide protein through eggs (yes, you can eat turkey eggs) and meat, their waste provides nutrients for soil, and they will eat bugs, grass, weeds and kitchen scraps. If you're concerned about the water footprint of food you eat, here's the info: one pound of turkey represents 491 gallons of water - that's 93 gallons per three-ounce serving. Today, the vast majority of turkeys are raised for commercial food production on indoor concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) - the environmental impacts of which are enormous.

Problem one: CAFO-raised birds are typically fed corn-based feed laced with antibiotics. The issue with commercial poultry feed is two-fold. One, as of 2014, upwards of 89 percent of corn grown in the US is genetically engineered. The biological effects of using GE crops as feed have not been adequately studied, so it is unclear whether a diet of GE corn affects the birds (or those who eat them). Herbicide-resistant GE crops also contribute to the "superweed" phenomenon (described in more detail in this New York Times article), frequently (and ironically) necessitating the use of even more noxious herbicides. On turkey factory farms, the birds are crowded into poultry sheds with no access to the outdoors, lights blazing 24/7. The birds' beaks are clipped, and the filthy, crowded conditions cause disease in the animals. Antibiotics are used at "subtherapeutic" levels in feed on commercial turkey farms to prophylactically protect the animals from disease and to fatten the birds quickly. As we recently discussed, this contributes to the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which threatens public health.

Problem two: poultry CAFOs generate an enormous amount of waste concentrated in one place, causing water pollution, toxic algae blooms and human health concerns (not to mention the smell). (Here's a very detailed report on the impact of CAFO waste on community, occupational and public health, if you want to go down that rabbit hole.)

Finally, breeding for specific qualities in turkeys - namely, more white, breast meat in proportion to dark meat - has led to the extinction of numerous types of turkeys, the few remaining of which are now called "heritage breeds." Since the 1960s, this selective breeding of commercial turkeys has resulted in 99 percent of all domestic turkeys today being of the breed called Broad-Breasted Blondes, those with the freakishly large breasts. (Incidentally, hormones are not approved for use in turkeys in the US, so when you see a turkey labeled "hormone-free," you can call marketing BS.)

Losing heritage turkey breeds isn't just a matter of taste or preference, though; biodiversity helps ensure healthier animals, ones that aren't bred from a smaller pool of genes, and are hence more tolerant to disease. That's why there have been efforts from non-profit organizations as well as determined small farmers who are still raising heritage turkey breeds to keep the strains alive. Since purchasing them for food is one way to support these farms (and the survival of heritage birds), heritage breeds have been making a comeback in recent years, even though they only amount to a small fraction of the rest of total turkey production.

Turkey Characteristics

For as much turkey as the US eats today, its meat is generally considered to be lean, tough, and lacking in rich flavor amongst gourmands. That's why you're more likely to find duck and smaller fowl like quail or poussin on the menus at high end restaurants. These very same characteristics, however - leanness, high proportion of white meat - are what make it popular amongst the masses. Ground turkey is commonly substituted for beef or pork in hamburgers and sausages; sliced turkey meat is served in sandwiches instead of ham. This lean protein comes with challenges, though: many find its breast meat becomes too dry when roasting whole turkeys for, say, Thanksgiving. This has prompted a boon in recipes and tips for brining turkeys, which keeps the breast meat moist.

This might seem ironic given that we've selectively bred turkeys to have such a high amount of lean breast meat. More dark, succulent, and naturally moist and flavorful meat is what we've left behind in the gene pools. In fact, heritage turkey breeds differ from Broad Breasted Blonde turkeys in many other ways besides flavor. Unique plumage, sizes and shapes as well as behavioral tendencies can be drastically different amongst traditional turkey breeds.

Turkey Nutrition

Along with its cousin the chicken, turkey is hailed as a relatively low-fat animal protein. Due to its disproportionate amount of white meat to dark, turkey is associated with its white breast meat, the leanest part of the bird. Commercial turkeys today are high in protein and low in cholesterol, but they're often processed, such as in deli breast meat, adding much sodium and other additives to their overall nutrition.

Furthermore, turkey meat's nutrition can vary greatly depending on the lifestyle of the bird before being slaughtered. As with other meats, the diet of the animal is crucial to its nutritional offerings. Pastured turkeys are held to have much higher rates of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in their meat, thanks to eating greens like clover amongst the pasture.

What to Do with Turkey and How to Cook It

It's practically impossible to separate the notion of cooking turkey with the holiday that falls on the last Thursday of November in this country. At least, that's when it comes to roasting whole turkeys, which is seldom done outside the annual feast. Ground turkey meat has found its way into American staples like meatballs, meatloaf and the aforementioned burgers, however, and leftover turkey breast meat (after Thanksgiving) is commonly made into sandwiches after the holiday.

Here's a great guide to cooking a whole bird

But there are so many things to do with turkey besides - and with all parts of it. Its legs are particularly succulent for roasting whole on the bone for an impressive main course (check out the recipe below), or the dark meat can be pulled and shredded after roasting or braising for a delicious stew. Whole breasts can be used to make turkey mole and homemade roast turkey breast for sandwiches.

How to Store Turkey

Experts advise to store leftover, cooked turkey in a refrigerator of 40 degrees Fahrenreit or below for no longer than three to four days. The storage time of fresh turkey greatly depends on its point-of-purchase date and its slaughter date. There are expiration dates on most commercial turkey products purchased in the US, but be warned that exposure to warmer temperatures or improper handling may corrupt the sell-by dates shown on packages. The best way to know whether your turkey is fresh is by its smell, color and texture; fresher turkeys should have no off-smell and will not have any sticky residue on their surface.

And if you have a lot of extra scraps from roasting a whole turkey, don't let it go to waste! Try making a soup, stew or chili (or more - here are some ideas) with the leftover meat. You can even repurpose the pieces for a pulled pork-style sandwich, too.

Recipe: Turkey Legs with Apples, Parsnips and Onion

Cooking for just a few on Thanksgiving (or year round, even)? This recipe is a good choice if you don't want to go all out and purchase a whole bird.

From Not Eating Out In New York

(makes 2 servings)

2 large turkey drumsticks
1 large apple (any kind, but preferably on the tart side), peeled, cored and chopped to 1-inch pieces
2 medium parsnips, peeled and chopped to half-inch pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
12 cup fine yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
salt and pepper
pinch of cayenne pepper


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pat drumsticks dry with paper towels and rub with a few pinches of salt, pepper and cayenne pepper. In a heavy-bottomed, oven-safe skillet with a lid, heat the oil over a high flame. Place the turkey legs down and reduce heat slightly. Let cook 1-2 minutes or until gently browned on bottom (do not turn legs until checking). Flip with tongs and brown the opposite sides for another 1-2 minutes. Add the onions, apple and parsnips to the pan. Let cook for a minute, stirring occasionally. Season with a few pinches of salt and pepper. Cover pan with the lid and transfer to the oven. Cook approximately 25 minutes, depending on the size of the drumsticks, or until the internal temperature of the thickest part of the drumstick reads 180F.
  2. Meanwhile, bring two cups of water to a boil in a small saucepan. When water begins to boil, reduce heat to a simmer and stir in the cornmeal while whisking rapidly. Continue whisking for about 2 minutes, or until mixture is smooth and about the consistency of a thick custard. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Distribute the polenta (cornmeal mixture) evenly among two serving plates. Arrange the turkey drumsticks on top of each plate of polenta. Scoop the apples, parsnips and onion from the pan with a slotted spoon and arrange around the drumsticks. Return the pan to the stove and bring pan juices to a boil. Simmer, stirring and scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan, until sauce is reduced to about one-half, or is thick as gravy. Taste for seasoning, adding additional salt and pepper if desired. Pour sauce over each plate and serve immediately.

This post was originally published in September 2014.