Jeff’s Test Kitchen: Thanksgiving Turkey Taste Test

Mandatory Health Dislaimer: I will not burden this post with repeated references to the USDA’s guidelines for safely handling turkey. Ya’ll know the drill, and if you don’t…go to the USDA’s turkey safe handling web page.

The Set-up

As small business owners, Janet and I support local small businesses any chance we get, especially farmers. But…there is a limit to how much more I’m willing to pay to buy local. After noticing how much more the turkeys I’ve been getting from a local hobby farmer cost as compared with what I can get at Wegmans, I decided it was time for a taste test. While the taste of the hobby farm turkey I cooked up for Thanksgiving was still fresh in my mind, I picked up a fresh, never frozen turkey at Wegmans a couple of days after Thanksgiving and set to work.

The Birds…Let’s Talk Turkey

Except for a modest difference in weight, and the source, the two birds were identical, and I prepared and cooked them the same. The turkey I picked up from the hobby farmer weighed in at 16.5 pounds and cost me $75 ($4.55 per pound). The turkey I picked up from Wegmans was a generic, store brand bird that weighed in at 19 pounds and cost me $13 ($0.69 per pound).

Both turkeys were the same breed…broad breasted white, the most commonly sold breed of turkey in this country by a huge margin. Both were fresh, never frozen, and both were hormone and antibiotic free. Neither were sold as self-basting, neither had injected moisturizers, fat, butter, MSG, or any other flavoring agents. They were both 100% turkey. There was one difference…the Wegmans turkey came with a pop-up timer, the hobby farmed turkey did not. I don’t use the pop-up timer to determine when my turkeys are done, so that was inconsequential to the taste test.

To Brine or Not to Brine…That is THE Question

I brined both turkeys. I’ve tried turkey both ways and have found that brined turkeys come out more tasty and moist. Brining uses osmotic principles to bring moisture and flavor from your brining solution into the insides of every cell in the bird. I used Bells Turkey Brine for both birds in this taste test, and I brined them both for about 12 hours.

I don’t stuff my turkeys but I do put aromatics into the body cavity to enhance the flavors a bit. For both birds in this taste test I used a couple of sprigs each of rosemary, sage, and thyme, and added a sliced apple, orange and onion along with two cinnamon sticks. The steam generated as the turkey cooks will pull out the aromatic flavors from the herbs and infuse the turkey meat with flavor from the inside out. At least that’s the theory. If I’m being honest, it only contributes to the flavor of the bird a little…most of the flavor a turkey gets comes from the brine. The reason I bother to dress my turkeys is that it makes my kitchen smell like Thanksgiving, and that makes me happy.

I didn’t mess with fancy trussing for my turkeys…I tucked the wings under the body of both birds to keep them out of the way. The local hobby farm turkey’s legs were loose so I used butcher’s twine to tied them together…the Wegmans bird had a plastic retainer holding the legs together which I left in place. I coated the skin of both birds with duck fat then sprinkled rubbed sage, and a proprietary blend of poultry spices I got from a special source. Mostly it is dried sage, thyme and rosemary with some paprika and powdered garlic.

Feel the Heat

I set the oven at 450 degrees for both birds for the first 30 minutes to start the skin crisping. After 30 minutes I reduced the heat to 325 degrees and left it there until the birds were done. My hobby farm turkey at 16.5 pounds was ready to come out of the oven after 2 hours 30 minutes of cooking, the 19 pound Wegmans bird took 3 hours 25 minutes to cook. I used an oven safe constant read temperature probe that I stuck into the deepest part of the turkey’s thigh with the alarm set to 160 degrees. When the alarm went off I used an instant read thermometer to spot check in the breast and thighs and when I got temps at or above 160 degrees all around, the turkeys came out of the oven. The turkeys’ temp continued to rise as they rested, and I gave both birds a 30 minute rest period. By they time they were ready to carve the lowest temperature was 165 degrees and some spots read as high as 185 degrees, which is a good range for ensuring safety while maximizing moistness.

And the Winner Is…

The hobby farm turkey was good…nice and moist and the meat tasted like turkey with rubbed sage and thyme and maybe a hint of citrus. The rosemary didn’t come through specifically, but I’m sure it was there in the overall flavor profile. The Wegmans generic store brand turkey was a bit better. It was more moist and had a slightly stronger flavor in a pleasant way. As with the first bird, the sage and thyme flavors came through, the apple, onion, orange and rosemary not so much. I really noticed the difference between the two birds when it came to next day leftovers…the Wegmans bird retained more moisture than the hobby farm bird, but that could be because I got it into the fridge sooner.

On balance, as good as the hobby farm turkey tasted, it was no better than the Wegmans generic store brand bird. And at 5 times the price on sale, definitely not worth the extra cost. Even had I paid full price for the Wegmans turkey, which I would probably have to do to get it before the holiday, I would still have paid about a third less than I did for the hobby farm turkey, and the Wegmans bird came out a touch more moist and tasty. Considering the price differential, the Wegmans generic store brand turkey was the clear winner of this turkey taste test.

Footnote

After tasting the difference between the Wegmans turkey and my local hobby farmed bird, I did a little homework on where Wegmans sources their turkeys. I didn’t trust that any generic store brand turkey would beat out the local hobby farm bird in a head to head taste test like this one. Wegmans sources their turkeys from a local farm just outside Allentown, PA…the same farm that the White House chefs use to source the turkeys they cook up for the President’s official Thanksgiving dinner. Yeah…the whole pardon the turkey thing is nothing more than typical political smoke and mirrors. While over aged too tough to eat turkeys get “pardoned” and sent off to live on a petting zoo, the young gobblers from Allentown with extra moist and tender meat end up on plates embossed with the Presidential seal. Anyway, the turkeys come from a small family owned and operated farm that has been raising and selling turkeys for several generations. They are fanatics about caring for the turkeys they raise, at least as much as you can be in that business and still make a profit. They’ve even grow the grain they use for their turkey feed. It makes a difference, one that I definitely tasted and I’m getting next Thanksgiving’s turkey from Wegmans.

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1 Response to Jeff’s Test Kitchen: Thanksgiving Turkey Taste Test

  1. Martha J Sherlock says:

    This is awesome, Jeff, thanks for posting ALL of the details and their results as it makes a difference on where I’ll get my bird next year. Martha

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