America’s relentless drive to innovate has led to the Constitution and the iPhone. But has it produced a better Thanksgiving turkey?
Even in colonial times, cooks debated how many inches the bird should be kept from the open flame. In 1824, decades before President Abraham Lincoln decreed that Thanksgiving would be observed on the last Thursday in November, Mary Randall offered a hot tip in “The Virginia House-wife”: Slather the bird in cold lard for crisper skin.
By the time the covered roasting pan and the electric stove reached American kitchens, the template was set. Every Thanksgiving delivered a new technique or gimmick that guaranteed the perfect turkey. Dry brining one year, wet brining the next. Self-basting birds followed by heritage birds, followed by buttermilk birds. (We in the Food section plead guilty, having just proposed a trifecta of tweaks for a single turkey: dry-brining, spatchcocking and a good coating of mayonnaise.)
The Sisyphean struggle makes sense. Once a year, cooks of all skill levels try to make a bird five times the size of a chicken taste delicious — and do it under tremendous pressure from family tradition.
“Basically, everybody wants Aunt Susie’s famous chestnut dressing, which has been on the table for generations, so people are looking for something new to do with the turkey itself,” said Ruth Reichl, the former executive editor of Gourmet.
In an age of personal branding and global awareness, how you prepare your Thanksgiving turkey has became an expression of culture, status and identity.
“It’s sort of like how you dress or what music you listen to, right?” said Christopher Kimball, who as the founder of both America’s Test Kitchen and Milk Street Kitchen has studied countless ways to cook a turkey. “People define themselves by whether they’re braisers, roasters, fryers, barbecuers. Everyone is identifying with their turkey tribe.”
Maybe you’ll recognize your tribe in this tour of turkey hacks that have come and gone over the years.
The Roasting Bag
Cooking in paper bags became a thing, briefly, in the early 20th century. “We bought recipe books and no end of bags,” a Wisconsin newspaper reported in 1917. “We liked the fad for a while and then we forgot.” But it came roaring back in the 1970s, when cookbook authors like Norma Jean and Carole Darden, who wrote “Spoonbread & Strawberry Wine,” directed readers to place a stuffed turkey in a brown paper bag, grease it with vegetable oil and roast the package in a pan at 350 degrees. This, predictably, led to oven fires and was quickly overtaken in popularity by the plastic baking bag, which despite its own incendiary issues, remains the mess-less choice of many cooks.
The Pop-Up Timer
The first plastic gizmo stuck into the breast of many a supermarket turkey was designed by members of the California Turkey Producers Advisory Board who were seeking a way to make turkey easier to cook and thus more popular. The device, which was granted a patent in 1966, relies on a plastic tube packed with a compound that melts when it hits a certain temperature, releasing a tiny, spring-loaded cylinder. It was intended to ensure that all the meat had reached at least 165 degrees, a governmental standard for killing bacteria. One drawback: The timers are terribly unreliable, said Laura Shapiro, a culinary historian and author.
“It’s a solution that doesn’t solve a problem,” she said, adding that the timer — like other strategies promoted by the food industry — manufactured a sense of crisis around the preparation of Thanksgiving dinner.
The Turkey T-Shirt
One of the most enduring methods of modern turkey cookery was popularized by Martha Stewart, who in the mid-1990s asserted that the only way to make a proper turkey was to soak cheesecloth in butter and wine or stock, and drape it over the turkey. She wasn’t the first with the idea: Some 19th-century cooks recommended wrapping strips of cloth dipped in lard around poultry legs to keep them from over-browning and drying out. In a twist that lent new meaning to the term “turkey dressing,” Ms. Stewart in 2021 directed cooks without cheesecloth to use a clean white T-shirt instead.
The Hot-Stove Hotline
The Butterball company achieved poultry-enhancement fame in 1967 with the deep basting turkey, injected with brine to keep it moist. But its most enduring achievement — and ingenious marketing gimmick — is the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line. Butterball hired the firm run by Chicago ad man Daniel J. Edelman to help it sell turkeys, and in 1981 he put six home economists in a room with telephones to dispense Thanksgiving cooking advice. They fielded 10,000 calls; this year Butterball anticipates that more than 100,000 people will reach out via phone, text, chat, email or Amazon Alexa. The No. 1 question every year: How to thaw a turkey. (Answer: In the refrigerator, one day for every four to five pounds of weight. In a cold-water bath, 30 minutes per pound — but you have to change the water every half-hour.)
The hotline may well have deepened the insecurities of home cooks, cementing the notion that roasting a turkey was such a challenge that it required emergency intervention. Yet it’s serious about helping cooks. Butterball advisers study all the new techniques, which this year include using an air fryer. Also new this year is a free “comfort calendar” that provides 24 days’ worth of expert advice and emotional support.
The New-Wave Turkey
Nobody really wants to cook a turkey in a microwave oven, but the idea deserves a mention because in 2018 it became arguably the best Thanksgiving social media prank on record: the #25lbTurkeyChallenge. Millennials hosting their first Thanksgiving texted their parents, asking how long it would take to microwave a frozen 25-pound turkey, then posted the responses online. (“R u drunk???” one parent replied.)
The job can be done if the bird is 12 pounds or under, said Nicole Johnson, who has worked the Butterball Talk-Line for more than 20 years and fielded some of those prank calls. “It’s very tedious. It takes a lot of time and tending to it,” she said. “But if your oven is out, it can be done in a pinch.”
The Cajun Connection
The great state of Louisiana is responsible for two of America’s most distinctive turkey innovations. Dale Curry, a longtime food editor of The New Orleans Times-Picayune, published a deep-fried turkey recipe in 1984 that orginated in Cajun country. It required injecting a turkey with crab boil, then dropping it into hot oil bubbling in a propane-fueled pot normally used to boil seafood. A few years later, the Association of Food Journalists held its annual convention in Louisiana and watched the process. Members carried the recipe back to readers, with copious warnings that frozen turkeys might explode and nearby structures might catch fire.
Less dangerous but more challenging is the turducken, a boneless chicken stuffed into a boneless duck stuffed into a boneless turkey, with stuffing layered in between. There are competing origin stories, one of which involves the New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme, but the former N.F.L. commentator John Madden made it a star. An enterprising butcher managed to get one to him while Mr. Madden was in New Orleans for a Saints game in 1996. He praised it on the air, and began serving turducken for a big football buffet on Thanksgiving Day. Gourmet Butcher Block, the shop in Gretna, La., that sent Mr. Madden his first turducken, will ship about 4,000 of the 17-pound wonders this year, at $199 apiece.
The Saline Solutions
For almost 20 years, chefs and food writers (including me) instructed Americans to fill their beer coolers with salty water and herbs, add the turkey, then figure out a way to keep the whole thing cold for two days. Wet brining made the bird juicier, but too much of it could also foster a spongy deli-meat effect. And it was a pain. It soon became clear that it was a lot easier to simply rub the turkey with salt (the dry-brine method codified by the Bay Area chef Judy Rodgers), or buy an already salted kosher bird, or fall back to a self-basting bird.
Putting a pre-brined turkey from the grocery store in a 325-degree oven is “actually a pretty good way of cooking a turkey, as long as you don’t overcook it,” said Mr. Kimball, once a proponent of the wet brine. “If you had to pick one system — you know, turkey for idiots — that would be it.”
The Magazine Machine
The sky-high expectations for the Thanksgiving meal were set in 1943 by a magazine: the Saturday Evening Post cover bearing the Norman Rockwell painting “Freedom From Want,” in which a happy family beholds the arrival of a giant golden turkey on a platter.
Magazines have continued to raise the stakes — most notably in the 1990s and early 2000s, when publications like Saveur, Food & Wine, Cooking Light and Bon Appétit turned cooks into Cirque du Soleil acrobats with a dizzying array of new procedures: the brining, the buttering, the herbing, the roulading, the smoking. “We had 10 cooks downstairs who were constantly dreaming up new ideas,” said Ms. Reichl, who presided over Gourmet from 1999 until it folded in 2009. “They would compete among themselves to come up with the most fabulous Thanksgiving you possibly could make.”
Food websites ran the covers side by side and rated them. “It was awful because you knew your turkey cover is going to be in the lineup,” recalls Dana Cowin, who spent 20 years as editor in chief of Food & Wine “Did you have a four-star turkey? Was it too bronzed or not bronzed enough?”
The intensity of cover scrutiny became clear in 2002, when Gourmet ran a tight cover shot of a trussed plum-glazed turkey. Like believers who saw the face of Jesus in a tortilla, some readers saw Satan’s visage in the dark turkey skin. Complaints poured in. The Norman Rockwell turkey had come full circle.
This may be the year to try simplicity. The world is complex and competitive enough. Maybe the turkey will be a little dry. Maybe it won’t resemble a Rockwell painting. To quote John Willoughby, a food editor who has co-written eight cookbooks and is a fan of dry turkey: That’s why God invented gravy.