Challenge: Supermarket turkey vs. Organic Bird

A turkey may seem like a humble, if popular, bird but it’s yielding increasing discussion in the food world. One study found that generic turkeys contained high levels of bacteria; researchers pointed to the use of mass antibiotics as the culprit. Turkeys raised on smaller farms tend to get more humane treatment than those cranked out by the millions at factory farms

A movement began more than a decade ago to save old-time breeds through a “heritage turkey” movementEpicurious did a taste test of six supermarket brand turkeys and found a wide variation on flavors. Inspired by this, for the Firehouse Challenge, I purchased two turkey breasts and cooked them exactly the same. My goal:  to see if there would be a difference in flavor, texture, cooking time and to evaluate the relative cost.

Both carcasses met up in the end in a big pot of stock. You can learn more about this classic holiday bird in my Turkey FAQ

Supermarket Turkey

At $1.69 a pound, my 9.28 pound fresh supermarket breast costs just under $16. The flesh and skin were noticeably pale, almost ghost-like. Also, a lot of liquid gushed forth when I opened the package over my sink. This was probably the “flavor enhancing” liquid noted on the label. The supermarket turkey cooked more quickly; it hit 165 degrees in about 2 hours 48 minutes. 

Process: With both turkeys, I massaged softened butter infused with chopped fresh thyme and sage under the skin and then roasted it on a rack of vegetables at 365 F degrees. I turned the breast over about 45 minutes of the cooking time, and basted each four times over the morning. The supermarket turkey cooked more quickly; it hit 165 degrees in about 2 hours 48 minutes. 
Active time:  32 minutes
Total time:  2 hours 48 minutes
Cost per serving: 89 cents 
Ingredients: TURKEY, UP TO 7% SOLUTION OF TURKEY BROTH, SALT, SODIUM PHOSPHATE, FLAVORINGS (EXTRACT OF CELERY AND PEPPER)

Organic Vegetarian-Fed Turkey

For a posher bird, I went to The Fresh Market. At $3.39 per pound, my 9.48 pound fresh breast cost about $32, twice as much. When pulled from its package, it had a drier feel. The flesh had more color and the skin had a yellowish hue. The package boasted the turkey had been treated “humanely in a stress-free environment,” experienced minimal processing and had never been administered antibiotics. 

Process: Same as above
Active time:  32 minutes
Total time:  3 hours 11 minutes
Cost per serving: $1.61 
Ingredients: TURKEY, LESS THAN 6% RETAINED LIQUID 

The Result

Supermarket turkey: 2
Fancy turkey: 5 

Although I cooked them exactly the same and basted equally until they reached a specific internal temperature, the firefighters unanimously thought the supermarket turkey was much drier than the other. However, two of the men said they liked drier meat on turkey, so they preferred the less expensive one. 

  • “This one (the organic bird) just melts in your mouth.” 
  • “This is drier, but I prefer a drier bird, so this is the one I’d go with.”
  • “They’re both good, but one tastes more turkey-ish, if you can say that.”
  • “The color is actually different, this one (the organic) has a darker color. The other meat is so pale.”
  • This one (the supermarket one) is a lot harder to cut. The texture is kind of stringy.

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About katflinn

Kathleen Flinn is the author of "The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry" and "The Kitchen Counter Cooking School." Her third book, "Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good" will be published in April 2014. All are published by Viking/Penguin.

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