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Let’s talk turkey

By Staff | Dec 2, 2016

When is a fresh turkey also a frozen turkey?

That was the question to be answered this Thanksgiving, as the birds that were advertised — and that I pre-ordered — as fresh, appeared to me the day before the holiday with ice crystals in their cavities. And those were the most pliable of the bunch. I had already rejected several turkeys at the meat counter, some of which were frozen as solid as a bowling ball.

How could they be fresh?

It seems that our federal food regulators, in their wisdom, allow anything chilled down to 26 degrees to be considered fresh. In large-scale industrial processing, birds to be sold as fresh are seriously quick-chilled and kept very cold from the minute their last feather is plucked. Since freezing occurs at 32 degrees, “fresh” turkeys technically can be kept colder than the freezing point. Many turkeys that are sold as fresh are, in fact, birds that were previously frozen, then thawed.

That was all arcane knowledge to me before I went to pick up two birds from the market, from which I had ordered two fresh turkeys several days before. In the past, I took the extra step of ordering my fresh turkeys directly from a local farmer, then going to pick up the processed birds before Thanksgiving day. I believe the quality to be superior, and the farmer deserves the patronage.

But in a week of preparations that usually finds me making at least five major grocery runs, in addition to restocking the liquor cabinet, making up guest rooms and cleaning the house from top to bottom — all before cooking for sometimes as many as two dozen guests — I thought I’d try streamlining the turkey purchase by using the supermarket. My local store advertised fresh birds available by pre-order.

Little did I know that fresh also means frozen. Live and learn.

To be considered technically frozen, the birds have to be flash-chilled to zero degrees immediately after processing. That’s the story behind the rock-solid Butterball you get at the typical supermarket.

When I went to get the turkeys, it was with full wonder that I discovered them not to be fresh-killed, but rather only technically fresh. It is necessary that my birds be not at all frozen, because we deep-fry one and smoke the other. And although the smoker can handle a partially frozen bird, it takes much, much longer to fully cook. But the fryer will produce a dangerous oversplash of boiling oil if a frozen bird is dropped in.

Fortunately, the ice crystals inside the birds melted overnight, and the cooking pot contained its measure of boiling fryer oil. We had a delicious, succulent fried bird as well as the smoked turkey, which was done in the correct amount of cooking time. All went well.

And I learned something.