n the annals of Thanksgiving lore, there's a fact of life that's rarely acknowledged. Some people don't like turkey. And I'm convinced I know why: The turkeys Americans like to showcase at the holiday table are simply too big.
Those huge birds the color of shiny mahogany may look beautiful, smell wonderful and seem like an achievement worthy of a culinary school diploma. But, ranging from 20 to 24 pounds, they're practically impossible to cook. And they often come to the table with dry, leathery breast meat or undercooked legs and thighs.
If you're the cook, and this scenario seems familiar, it's not your fault. All turkeys are a little tricky because the white meat cooks more quickly than the dark meat. Ideally, they should be cooked to two different temperatures (170 degrees for the white meat and 180 degrees for the dark). As birds get bigger, balancing the two types of meat gets more difficult.
But there is a solution: Roast a 12- to 14-pound turkey. Roast two of them. You'll never turn back.
Think about what roasting a huge turkey sets you up for: No matter what recipe is used, to avoid overcooking you have to pay close attention, and big birds need to be tended over a long period of time. That's hard when you're making many more dishes than you would for an ordinary dinner.
That lengthy cooking time makes an evening meal virtually inevitable, too, which is fine if you want to watch football games but challenging for families with young children or for people who like to go to bed before midnight.
What about people who don't cook much but feel the need to produce on the holiday? They may not have the right pots and pans. And not everybody has a refrigerator big enough to store and defrost a turkey or an oven that is high enough and wide enough to ensure a large bird will be properly roasted. If I didn't have an old refrigerator in the basement, I don't know where I'd defrost my turkey. (And remember, recommended defrosting time is calculated at about 24 hours for each five pounds of turkey. So a 20-pound turkey will have to sit in the refrigerator for at least four days.) Then there are the leftovers, which in theory are fine but in reality often sit in the refrigerator losing their pep as family members back away from the thought of another turkey-based meal.
"The leftovers usually go to waste," says Susan Lindeborg, chef at the Majestic Cafe in Alexandria, who generally roasts an 18- to 20-pound turkey at home even if it's just for her and her husband. "We really love to eat the turkey later, but a lot of people don't like to."
How did things come to this? When the pilgrims came, did they have such big birds for dinner? Probably not. Even in the past couple of centuries, big was not necessarily better.
According to Andrew F. Smith, editor of the recently released Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (Oxford University Press), during the late-19th and early-20th centuries, 12- to 15-pound turkeys were favored throughout the United States. And at that time, the main goal of breeders was to produce specific colored feathers in their birds -- varieties of bronze feathers with green, copper and purple sheens.
In the first part of the 20th century, things began to change, Smith says, when breeders in Oregon and other points west began to concentrate on the amount of meat on turkeys, rather than the color of their feathers. Then in the late 1920s, Jesse Throssel, an Englishman who had moved to Canada, imported some turkeys from England, where meatier birds were popular. In 1930, he exhibited them at a livestock show in Portland.
"No one in Oregon had ever seen such turkeys," says Smith. "They created quite a stir."
Throssel had bred bronze turkeys with white-feathered ones. Other breeders bought Tom turkeys from him, mated them with hens that had already been selected for their meat-producing qualities, and there was no looking back. The resulting crossbreeds rapidly replaced the earlier turkeys. And in 1938 the name Broad Breasted Bronze (BBBs, for the color of their feathers as well as their meaty breasts) was adopted for the new birds.
"The main result was the development of the modern turkey industry," says Smith. "In the 1950s, the standard became white feathers, [but] virtually all commercial turkeys today are strains of the BBB."
Over time, a primary reason American turkeys got bigger was the public's desire for leaner meat than beef or pork and the increasingly large turkey byproduct industry -- everything from ground turkey to turkey sausage to turkey pot pie to turkey breasts to roast turkey for deli sandwiches. In 1960, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average annual turkey weight at slaughter was almost 17 pounds, and at holiday time (November and December) slightly more than 19 pounds. By 1990, the average annual weight at slaughter rose to more than 21 pounds, and the USDA tracking for this year to date shows an average slaughter weight of about 28 pounds.
The National Turkey Federation maintains that for home-roasting purposes, the average weight of the turkeys Americans purchase is about 16 pounds. But anybody who's ever looked into supermarket poultry bins at this time of year knows that it's a lot easier to find a 20-pound turkey than a 12-pounder.
Those big birds seem to mesh well with American home cooks' inclinations. "Everything is bigger in America, starting with the Big Gulp at 7-Eleven and going down from there," says Lindeborg. "Maybe it's the way we urban people get the thrill of the hunt."
Besides, when deciding how much turkey to buy, a common estimate used by sources such as the USDA and the National Turkey Federation urges us to purchase turkeys based on calculation of a pound per person.
In my view, that's nuts. The estimate, of course, takes the weight of the bones into consideration and assumes shrinkage during cooking as well as a desire for leftovers. But even given that, it's too much food. Do you really need to serve even half a pound of protein in a dinner that includes -- and I'm estimating modestly here -- mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, a couple of other vegetables, stuffing, gravy, a sweet relish and at least one dessert?
Now consider the advantages of cooking a smaller turkey.
Since a 12-pound turkey will cook more quickly than a 20-pounder, you're much more likely to cook it properly. "A smaller turkey will cook a lot faster because the heat moving from the outside has a shorter distance to go. There's much less muscle and tissue to heat," says Harold McGee, whose revised 20th-anniversary edition of "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen" (Scribner) has just been released.
If the turkey is in the oven for a shorter period of time, the breast meat is less likely to dry out. "The bigger the bird, the longer it takes to cook through, and the longer the outer parts are exposed to drying temperatures," he says. (Even so, McGee cautions that cooks shouldn't really rely on pre-determined cooking schedules.
"There's no substitute for monitoring and checking and not letting the turkey slip past the ideal stage," he says.
Since smaller turkeys are younger than older ones, roasting a smaller one is much more likely to produce a moist, flavorful bird.
"Older turkeys are more gamey and less tender," says Bryan Voltaggio, executive chef at Charlie Palmer Steak in the Penn Quarter. "As the bird gets older, the meat just isn't as pleasurable." For his restaurant this year, Voltaggio commissioned a local farmer to raise and slaughter turkeys to his specifications. "The meat is more moist on a younger bird, and more tender, too. It hasn't been able to develop its muscles as much," he says.
To ensure food safety, a bird must be refrigerated, even when it's defrosting. So a small bird is easier to keep cold. "People bring home huge birds, but where do you put them? Your refrigerator is already full of stuff," says Lindeborg.
If you haven't already bought a small frozen turkey or reserved a fresh one, it may be hard to find one. And you may not be ready for such a change. A big bird seems to be ingrained in the American culinary imagination. "My mother would never cook a turkey under 20 pounds," says Ris Lacoste, executive chef at 1789 in Georgetown. "I've never cooked a small one either. I don't know why. I don't have anything against them."
(She, of course, is a seasoned chef who's presided over countless turkey dinners at the restaurant. She has a staff that tends carefully to the big birds, unlike some of us who might just shove the turkey in the oven, baste it occasionally and hope for the best. )
Besides, it takes a confident cook to serve a holiday meal without the big bird. "It really does have more to do with logistics than the finished product," says McGee. "You can make a good [turkey] out of a little turkey or a big turkey. You're going to a lot of trouble, and you want people to have as much as they want."