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Take it from a butcher: A turducken isn’t worth the trouble

(Kelsey Dake/For The Washington Post)

As the Great American Turkey Festival draws near, I find myself waking up some nights in a cold sweat, with images in my head of a boneless duck spilling forth from where the gizzard of a bronzed turkey used to be.

That’s because I am a whole-animal butcher, and the strange, stitched-up phenomenon known as turducken has roused holiday cooks’ fascination once again.

Whether it originated in 18th-century Europe or in 20th-century Louisiana, this peculiar tradition seems to have been conceived with questionable culinary practice. I suppose the idea was to combine the three constituent birds — turkey, duck and chicken, with sausage stuffed inside the chicken at the core, as well as sometimes in thin layers between the trio — into one grand demonstration. A triumph over nature.

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Here’s where it begins to go wrong for me. The key to roasting a duck is to provide the prodigious layer of fat on the breast an adequate opportunity to render, ensuring a result that isn’t overly greasy. Turkey is best when cooked to just below 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and allowed to finish reaching that minimum, safe temperature out of the oven to avoid overcooking and drying out. A chicken benefits from quick, high-heat roasting that leaves the skin crispy, fried in its own fat, which, in turn, penetrates the breast and enriches its juiciness.

In turducken mode, the sausage at the very core must reach 165 degrees to kill any contamination from its direct contact with the raw chicken. The turkey on the outside will be overcooked long before a sufficient amount of heat can penetrate to the sausage. There is no path for the duck’s fat to drip away, and the poor chicken gets steamed (read: made bland) by the moisture given off by the other birds. Knowing that a family’s holiday roast is bound to disappoint defeats one of the great joys of my work.

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Holiday time at the butcher shop can be absolute madness: back to back 16-hour days at a breakneck pace. We realize customers are entrusting us with a mighty responsibility. The pressure is all is worth it, though, when I sit down with my loved ones to a beautiful and transcendent meal that pays deep homage to the life of the animal we are consuming; to the hard-working farmers who raised it; to my co-workers; and to every other unacknowledged component necessary to make it happen.

I also think about how many other families are sitting down to enjoy roasts I helped prepare for them, creating memories and engaging in the holiday gratitude our country shares. I think of the people trying a new kind of roast for the first time for whom I scribbled down my best cooking instructions, hoping that what they do turns out well.

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Across the butcher shop counter, customers share their experiences:

“This is the first time I’m hosting my in-laws. It has to be perfect.”

“My son is proposing tonight, and she doesn’t like turkey. Is this rib roast really going to work?”

“We’re empty-nesters now, and I worry this is the last year the kids will all come home. I want it to be special.”

Then I think of the families who insisted on buying a turducken. And my heart sinks.

Typically, the feedback I get ranges from “It was okay, I don’t think we’ll do it again” to “It split open and the duck shot out, so we thought it was done and it was on everyone’s plate before we realized the chicken was still raw!”

Every year, I suspect that small butcher shops across the country weigh their turducken options; some limit how many of the tri-part roasts they will produce, while others decline to engage. For all the angst the failed concept costs us, it pales in comparison with the labor. To create a turducken requires an advanced skill set and thorough understanding of every intricacy of the anatomy of all three birds. Each must be meticulously deboned in one piece with little to no damage to the meat, and absolutely no damage to the skin of the turkey (the thin lace responsible for holding the whole thing together, all 25 pounds or so).

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To make the roast look at all presentable requires another great feat of butcher’s twine-tying to make the poultry blob resemble a structurally intact turkey. I am fairly skilled at this myself, and still my fastest effort clocks in at about 45 minutes. I could send out 20 or more other orders in the same amount of time.

The cost inherent in all this labor is worth noting. The lowest price I found was online at just below $5 per pound, but this comes frozen and in 15-pound roasts. They’ve devised a clever trick of removing all skin and fat from the inner birds to deal with some of the cooking-quality issues, but then recommend heavy additions of butter and other fats. Locally, I was quoted $5.99 to $15.99 per pound for one made with better-sourced animals.

Still want to order a turducken? My fellow butchers and I will prepare it for you the best way we can. But you, and I, have better options.

Herring works at the Organic Butcher Shop of McLean, Va.

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