Taste Test

Executive chef Bryan Voltaggio oversees second helpings during our turkey taste test at Charlie Palmer Steak. Voltaggio roasted the birds to perfection.
Executive chef Bryan Voltaggio oversees second helpings during our turkey taste test at Charlie Palmer Steak. Voltaggio roasted the birds to perfection. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 15, 2006

In a suspenseful, tryptophan-heavy blind taste test that pitted four turkeys against one another, the perceived underdog held its own. Neither the Food section staff nor our guest judge, chef Todd Gray, had imagined that the previously frozen, mass-produced, inexpensive bird would wallop a highfalutin gobbler that once called Upperville home.

The good old Butterball finished in a respectable second place. But it was a fresh, free-range, Broad-Breasted White turkey from Fulton that won out for appearance, flavor and texture.

Earlier that morning the four turkeys, three fresh and one thawed, ranging in weight from 14 to 18 pounds, were treated identically: left unstuffed, slathered with butter under the skin and seasoned only with salt and pepper. Chef Bryan Voltaggio of Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill agreed to cook them for us to an internal temperature of 165 degrees for the breast meat. No stranger to the nuances of turkey, Voltaggio had shot, plucked, cleaned and cooked a wild turkey for his family just the previous week in Clear Spring, Md.

Voltaggio and crew presented slices of white and dark meat from each turkey on numbered plates. Six judges chewed and concentrated, hoping to draw that sometimes fine line between moist and dry, and otherwise evaluating taste, texture and appearance. After they finished analyzing and scribbling, Voltaggio wheeled the big birds in on a cart and unmasked them.

The clear favorite turned out to be from Maple Lawn Farms, which produced 20,000 free-range turkeys this season. Judges liked the white meat, which they called "rosy and glistening" in appearance, and the dark meat, described as "moist" and "full bodied" in flavor and "rich," "silky" and "fine-grained" in texture. Gray, co-owner of Equinox restaurant downtown and executive chef of Salamander Hospitality in Middleburg, put it succinctly: "That's good turkey."

There were dumbfounded cries when Voltaggio announced that the turkey that had collectively placed second was America's favorite: the humble Butterball. Most in the group liked the "mild, familiar" flavor and "visibly moist meat," but they didn't care so much for the "dry," "grainy" texture.

And talk about a mouthful: Coming in at No. 3 was the fresh, free-range, organic, certified humanely raised and handled American Bronze turkey from Ayrshire Farm in Upperville. This was one handsome bird, straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, with a high, peaked rib cage and glorious, glistening flesh. Judges remarked on the "distinct muscles and marbled flesh" and the "beautiful dark meat" but found the flavor "flat."

No one seemed to care for the readily available, fresh, natural Shady Brook Farms turkey, which was deemed "unappetizing," "bland" and "salty."

And what about the cook? He didn't take part in the formal tasting because he knew which turkeys were which. But Voltaggio said he would prefer the Ayrshire or Maple Lawn birds, "knowing the other two were mass-produced." He compared the Butterball to "easily carved deli meat."

But then again, this is a guy who plucks his own.

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