The Pursuit of Poultry Perfection

Cooked turkey

Next Thursday, November 25th, many of us (here in the United States, at least) will celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. We’ll gather with family and friends and gorge ourselves on food and drink and probably watch a football game or two. There will be loosened belts and much napping and someone will probably drink a little too much Beaujolais Nouveau. I’ll be celebrating in Arizona with my husband, dad, stepmom, grandmother, brother and future sister-in-law. I’m looking forward to the trip, for many reasons. In fact, in planning that trip and dealing with a busy schedule at work, I kind of forgot all about writing a blog post for today. Whoops. Bad blogger! Bad! So, since I’ve got Thanksgiving on the brain, I figured I’d write about the perfect way to cook a turkey.

Ahem. There is no perfect way to cook a turkey.

Bold statement, but I stand by it. There are only many perfectly delicious and different ways to cook a turkey. There are also an embarrassing multitude of ways NOT to cook a turkey, but that’s a “Thanksgiving Disasters” post for another time. I don’t care what anyone tells you, the “perfect” turkey recipe is about as real as unicorn tears, unless it’s your mom’s/grandmother’s/Aunt Bettina’s way, in which case it’s not only perfect, it’s a sacrosanct family heirloom and never to be deviated from, even if it’s drier than the Sahara. Seriously though, turkey recipes around this time of year are like rhinoviruses, plentiful and just waiting to infect you. If you’re like me, you could easily succumb to a new one every year, just in the dogged pursuit of that absolutely perfect one that makes the heavens open and the angels reach down and fight over the drumsticks.

Now, I’ve danced with a few turkey recipes over the years, and I guess I do have my favorite go-to option. It’s pretty basic: you slather the bird inside and out with butter, stuff the cavity with onions, garlic, oranges and lemons, and cover generously with Penzey’s Bicentennial Rub, cooking to golden brown. It makes a very nice bird, for sure, but there haven’t been any celestial smackdowns for the breast meat. That I’ve seen, anyways.

Probably the most avant-garde recipe I advocated for and participated in the creation of was on another Thanksgiving trip to Arizona a few years back. I’d seen this recipe in Esquire magazine for a roast turkey with coffee rub, and it sounded awesome, just because it was so different. I have to give my dad and stepmom mad props for being willing to try it — we experimented on some chicken breasts the night before Thanksgiving just to make sure we weren’t heading into culinary disaster territory. And we weren’t, it was quite delicious. But was it, as the magazine contested, the “Greatest Turkey in the History of Thanksgiving?” Um…I dunno. Maybe? Until the next time I had turkey, it certainly was right up there.

The closest thing I had to a perfect turkey might’ve been when my husband (then boyfriend) and I hosted Thanksgiving at our house two years ago, but it had much less to do with the method of preparation than with the bird itself. Oh yeah, you guessed it. We got a heritage bird. A 12 lb. American Bronze turkey from JenEhr Family Farm in nearby Sun Prairie, WI. At approximately $6.50/lb, we thought we might have to take out a short-term loan to pay for it, but holy giblets, it was amazing. No, wait, I need to emphasize that more: A-MAZ-ING. Did you know turkey is supposed to taste like turkey? This leggy, lean bird made store bought turkey taste kind of like cardboard. If you’re not currently trying to save up for any child’s college fund, I entirely recommend finding a heritage breeder in your area and giving it a try.

This year, I’m going to let my stepmom lead the way with regards to preparing the bird, but the next time I’m in the hot seat on the journey to poultry perfection, I’m thinking I might give this “Black Turkey” recipe (circa 1963) a try. I get exhausted just reading the recipe, but the mid-preparation cocktail accompaniments sound like they give you the fortitude to continue. Might have to compromise on getting a heritage bird for that one, though, considering it calls for a 16-30 lb. bird. We do have a mortgage to pay.

How about you? What’s your favorite perfect way to cook a turkey? I’d love to hear it, unless it’s a family secret, in which case you can email me privately at…just kidding. However you feast, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving, full of blessings, laughter, food and football. And tell those angels to keep their cotton-pickin’ celestial hands off your drumsticks.

* * * * * * * *

(As a side note, I’m feeling a little guilty I wasn’t able to come up with a compelling science angle for this blog post, so in the interest of making myself feel better, I thought I’d mention that, contrary to popular belief, the tryptophan in turkey doesn’t really make you sleepy. Yes, it’s an amino acid that our bodies cannot produce and so have to get from food sources. And yes, it does lead to the production of the B-vitamin niacin, which then generates the neurotransmitter serotonin. And yes, serotonin is awesome stuff that does tell our brain to chill out and makes us calm and often sleepy. BUT, there’s not really that much tryptophan in turkey, and it works best on an empty stomach. So, the amount that’s there is competing with all the other amino acids our bodies are trying to use. We most likely get sleepy because we consume too many carbohydrates. It’s a food coma, pure and simple.)

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Caroline Sober

Caroline is a senior software developer at Promega. She’s not a scientist, so if you hear her talking about DNA purification or pipetting or current issues in bioprivacy, she’s totally faking it and you should tell her to hush. She is, however, passionate about building useful software, the interactions between people and technology in general, and how social media is changing the conversation between companies and customers. She lives in Madison with her husband, daughter, and 110-pound dog.


  1. You’ve managed to make me drool over turkey, almost a week early!
    I enjoyed fresh, farm-raised, never frozen turkey during a trip to Delaware for Thanksgiving with my sisters family, years ago. That is, almost enjoyed the turkey.
    An unfortunate incident with some food court pizza while sight-seeing in Philadelphia the day before left me with the worst case of food-poisoning ever. Wanted NOTHING to do with food for several days after…my Thanksgiving that wasn’t.
    But driving out to the farm to get that bird is a really special T-day memory.

  2. Hi Caroline,

    My husband’s family tells a tale about the time my sister-in-law started a fire in the oven while making her first and only attempt at cooking the Thanksgiving turkey. I’m thinking that might be in your “embarrassing multitude of ways not to cook a turkey” category.

    Thanks for a great blog. Happy turkey day.


  3. I once attended a Thanksgiving dinner where the hostess’ sister-in-law accidentally turned off the oven. It was several hours before it dawned on us that we should be *smelling* the turkey. We did manage to finish dinner before midnight, but not by much!

  4. Thanks, Kari, Michele and Kelly for the comments. It sounds like there’s plenty of grist for a “Thanksgiving Disasters” post! Maybe someone could take that up next week, just to really scare all those first-time Thanksgiving cooks out there?

  5. Three things I always do with my Turkey Day bird:

    1. Brine it (makes a *huge* difference in tenderness and flavor)
    2. Grill it (indirect heat on a Weber kettle– takes about the same time as an oven or less and tastes *amazing*… Smokey gravy… Om nom nom)
    3. Pack something under the skin of the breasts… Herb butter in the past, but this year, I’m going to use stuffing (!!). This sounds weird, but really helps season the otherwise boring white meat while helping to protect it from drying out… Good stuff… : )

  6. Brining is a nice way to go, discovered that one a few years ago and really do recommend that. Lots of brines you can try, and google is your friend…

    Lest we forget, recall the former police chief of Madison who apparently kept his service weapon in the oven when at home. And in heating up the oven the family forgot it was there and eventually a round cooked off, so the chief embarassingly had to call his boss (the Mayor) to report the incident. Thankfully no casualties except for his pride (and presumably the oven interior?). Happy Thanksgiving!

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