From the archives. I did this 3 years ago, and will likely never do it again. This is offered as a cautionary tale should you be contemplating creating a Turducken for your Thanksgiving or other holiday feast. Originally published on December 28, 2005.
I am not sure what came over us. We were planning a quiet, simple Christmas dinner - maybe roast a goose, or a nice chicken or two, or something. But then someone blurted out the infamous words.
"Hey, why don't we try a Turducken?"
In case you are not familiar with turducken (likely if you are not American), it is basically a Tur(key) stuffed with a duck(en) stuffed with a (chick)en. It supposedly originated in Louisiana, and has been popularized by famed New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme.
Turducken has intrigued me for some time because of the sheer American-ness of the thing. America is many things, but one of the images it has around the world is that it is a land of abundance and excess. Recently retired ABC news presenter Ted Koppel once told the story of when his family immigrated to the U.S. from post-war England. On the radio, he heard the commercial for an antacid remedy, where the jingle went "Eat too much, Drink too much, take Brioschi, take Brioschi". The young Ted burst into tears, horrified that people could actually eat so much that they had to take medicine to cure it.
I had a somewhat similar experience when my family moved from England (where we'd spent 5 years), to White Plains, a suburb of New York. At the time England was not nearly as Americanized as it is now. We were absolutely stunned by the abundance, and color, and noise, of this new country we found ourselves in. Millions of TV channels! The huge portions at the diner where our mother took us for lunch! The chef's salad bowl for one at Swenson's that was the size of a bathtub. The too-big-even-with-two-hands sandwiches where the fillings were three times thicker than the bread slices! At my first school picnic, I remember staring at the huge tubs of ice filled with what seemed like unlimited cans of soda. Back in England, soda was a rare treat, but here the kids were downing it like it was tap water. It was just too much.
Anyway, when I first saw Chef Prudhomme presenting a Turducken on CNN some years ago, I was struck by the outrageous abundance of it. Three whole birds! Three kinds of stuffing! But I never really had the urge, let alone the chance, to actually attempt to make it. The recipe on Chef Paul's site suggests that one Turducken serves 24 to 30 people. I don't know about you, but I've never made food for a party that big, excepting nibble/cocktail things where you basically put out lots of hand-to-mouth-able food. A Turducken is clearly meant for a sit-down dinner, as the centerpiece of a table that is about to collapse from the weight of the food placed upon it. In other words, a quintessential American Thanksgiving.
Here in Switzerland the American holiday of Thanksgiving is unknown, but at Christmas there was the opportunity to make a Turducken once and for all. Since I am the Resident American in these parts, it was up to me to orchestrate the making of our Swiss Turducken.
I more or less followed Chef Paul's recipe, with adjustments. The gory tale (warning: some gruesome photos) follows.
Phase One: The Planning
Frankly, I didn't plan well enough. For anyone who thinks of attempting a Turducken, here is the first word of warning:
It's going to take at least 14 hours.
The Turducken takes about 8 hours to cook, plus it needs to rest for an hour, as per Chef Paul's instructions. And the preparation takes a long, long time.
You can't do it without an assistant.
Normally I tend to discourage help in the kitchen - it hampers my movements - unless the helpers are doing menial tasks such as washing vegetables, or washing the pots and bowls that get tossed in the sink vicinity. But Turducken cannot be conquered by a single warrior.
You need a food processor, and sharp boning knives, one per worker.
Phase Two: The Purchasing and the adjustments
Turkey is not a traditional holiday food here in Switzerland. For Christmas, normally a roast goose or something is prepared. However, due perhaps to the fact that Zürich is actually quite a cosmopolitan city, it was quite easy to procure a fresh, unfrozen, and disconcertingly large turkey. LIkewise, a tiny little chicken weighing in at around 800g was available (an Aargauer Güggeli, for those in Switzerland). The duck turned out to be a bit of a problem, in that none was available in any form. (Due to the amazing pre-planning capabilities of the parties involved, the shopping was done on the afternoon of the 24th.) A frozen goose was hastily purchased, but we told him sternly that he was a duck and to shut up. The frozen part turned out to be good after all, since we dumped the three birds into a cooler overnight. The goose duckie kept its big and little brothers cool and safe whilst it defrosted.
The recipe I followed more or less called for Cornbread Stuffing, Andouille Sausage Stuffing, and Shrimp Stuffing. I couldn't even contemplate adding even more meat to this whole mess, and shrimp is expensive here in this landlocked country, so we went for a cornbread stuffing, a generic sage-and-onion stuffing using breadcrumbs and a 2 cut-up bratwurst for flavor, and a mashed squash - chestnut - sweet potato stuffing.
Here's the rough shopping list for the adjusted Turducken:
- 1 8 kg fresh turkey
- 1 3 kg frozen goose duck
- 1 800g fresh Aargauer Güggeli aka a small chicken
- 1 bag of fine-ground Polenta Mehl, aka yellow cornmeal
- 1 huge bag of onions, about 12 medium total
- 1 big bunch of celery
- 1 head of garlic
- 1 large loaf of generic country-type white bread (or homestyle loaf or Toastbrot or pain de mie, if you're in Europe)
- 2 large sweet potatoes
- 1 pack of frozen chestnuts
- 1 wedge of winter squash
- 3 bell peppers
- More butter than you ever imagined possible (have at least a kilo or 4 lbs of it ready)
- 6 large eggs
- 200g or about half a pound of coarsely ground sausage (I used a bratwurst; use sweet Italian sausage or similar)
In addition, the following items we already had were used:
- Paul Prudhomme's Magic Seasoning - Meat. I had purchased a bunch of these convenient mixed seasoning powders in the U.S.(they don't really exist here) - besides a couple of Magic Seasonings, I also got some Old Bay, Emeril's, and generic Poultry Seasoning and a new one for me, Montreal Steak Seasoning. I hadn't planned on making Turducken back then, but it was very convenent to have the actual mix called for. (If I didn't have it though, I would have mixed paprika, pepper, salt, thyme, sage, and whatever other dried herbs and spices that struck my fancy to come up with something similar.)
- Fresh sage, still growing bravely in the frosty snow-covered garden
- Salt, pepper, sugar
- White flour, baking powder, baking soda
Phase Two: Stuffing
Note: if you ever attempt Turducken, Make the stuffing the previous day.
We made things in the following order:
- Cornbread for the cornbread stuffing. The recipe on the Chef Paul site for Cornbread is odd - 7 tsp of baking powder? That would surely taste chemical and awful. I scrounged the web for a suitable bland cornbread recipe and used this one from About.com.
- A huge mound of basic Louisiana holy trinity - that is, chopped onion, celery, and bell peppers, plus some garlic (my addition), to flavor the stuffings. Actually I did the onion/garlic/celery and the bell pepper separately, since I only wanted to put the bell peppers in the cornbread stuffing. I used a whole bunch of celery, 10 onions, and about 6 cloves of garlic, plus 3 bell peppers. All were chopped in the food processor, then sauteed in butter until transparent. We ended up with about 4 cups of the onion/celery mix, plus a small mound of the bell pepper.
- The sweet-potato-squash-chestnut stuffing. This was something I just came up with, to replace the shrimp stuffing in the original. I peeled and cut up the wedge of squash and the 2 sweet potatoes, and threw them into a pot of stock-cube stock with the frozen chestnuts and simmered all until tender. The stock was drained, and the whole was mashed roughly, leaving some chunks for texture. A small amount of the "holy trinity" minus the bell pepper was added, plus a lump of butter, and the whole seasoned. It's a bit sweet but very yummy even on its own.
- The sage-onion-bit-of-sausage stuffing. This was basic bread-crumb stuffing. About 8 slices of bread where whirred into rough breadcrumbs in the food processor, to make about 8 cups of the stuff. A cup or so of the "holy trinity" was added, plus about 6 chopped up fresh sage leaves (about 1 tsp of dried sage). The whole was then moistened with stock-cube stock until moist but not runny. Chunked up and sauteed bratwurst was added, and the whole seasoned.
- Once the cornbread was baked, we made the cornbread stuffing. It's basically the same as the sage-onion-breadcrumb stuffing except that crumbled cornbread was used of course, and the bell pepper was added along with the rest of the "holy trinity". The seasoning was salt, pepper and the Magic Seasonings. Sage was not added.
Phase Three: Poultry Surgery: The De-boning
The time had come, to confront the birds. They all had to be almost completely deboned. I have cut up my share of chickens many times before, but had never deboned a whole bird. It's a messy, slippery, exhausting business.
The instructions on Chef Paul's site are very thorough. The only thing I didn't do was use a hammer to break bones and joints - I'm morbidly afraid of bird-bone splinters getting stuck in my throat (or worse, someone else's throat due to my cooking). All the deboning was done by patient, tedious cutting away of flesh and sinew from bone. When joints were encountered, they were just slowly cut through. No violence was used. (Well, apart from the slashing.)
This made the whole deboning process extremely long - more than 3 hours. At one point I got leg cramps because I was standing in one position for too long. I also nicked my fingers with the boning knife 5 times. (My assistant, more careful, only nicked his fingers twice.)
The most difficult bird was the turkey, simply because of its size. If I were to do this again I'd start with the chicken and work myself up to the monster. As it was, we started with the monster. For the turkey, a strong-armed assistant is essential to hoist it and turn it.
Here are some pictures of the turkey, in the process of being flayed. The whole bird was completely deboned, including the legs and the upper wings. We cut the lower wings off.
Phase Four: Time to sew up the patient
At this point I was almost ready to call it quits. I was covered in Bird Fat, my legs kept cramping up (yes I need to get into better shape), my assistant was showing signs of wanting to make a getaway. But the mound of bird had cost a total of about 120 CHF (US $100 or so). Besides, there were people to feed. We soldiered on.
The instructions called for putting each flayed bird on a sheet and spreading with stuffing. We did this, only to realize that the birds weren't also seasoned. We scraped off the stuffing, seasoned, and re-grouped.
The chicken was small enough to gather up in one hand and place in the duck. The duck could be handled with two hands, to place in the turkey. But then, we had to close up the turkey. We tried toothpicks (ha!) and skewers (we didnt have enough), but it was inevitable - the bird had to be sewn up.
This was accomplished with some kitchen twine, which we miraculously had (the last time I used it was for delicately bundling together a bouquet garni), and a tapestry needle. My assistant held the skin of the patient turkey while I laboriously pushed the needle through. At the end, he ended up looking like this.
Phase Five: Finally, into the oven
The assembled Turducken was very, very heavy, and it took the two of us to turn the thing over onto its back, so that it didn't look so much like a Frankenbird. It barely fit on the largest baking pan we had, with the legs tucked in.
Another problem was discovered once its breast side was facing us - the skin had split quite a bit, and had to be sewn together. This ended up making him look a bit like he had on a corset, but I was fairly sure the string would sort of 'burn off' and not look so gruesome once it was all cooked. (I was right.)
Well seasoned all over, the Turducken finally went into the oven, at about 105° C (the recipe calls for 225° F) The timer was set for 4 hours.
I went to wash up and take a nap. (The assistant had enough energy left over to dump the bones into two large pots with onion, celery, bay leaves and water to make stock.)
Four hours in, an aluminum foil tent was placed on him, and 3 hours more cooking ensued (the probe thermometer stated it was at temperature, 75° C, at that time. I think it cooked faster than in the Chef Paul recipe because we used a convection oven.). Then a 1 hours worth of resting time.
We watched movies, 3 in total, while we waited.
Like a pretty girl with no bone structure, the Turducken is rather pretty in person but is not very photogenic. It sort of looks like a short overweight man lying on the beach at Ibiza.
We made some gravy from the drippings and the bone-stock. As for side dishes - we were planning some, but the sheer size of the Turducken was so overwhelming that we just made a green salad.
(Another bit of great planning: we didn't have any dishes big enough to hold the Turducken, so it was just carved and served from the baking plate.)
As for the tasting: well, it was a bit disappointing, though no one complained (and an amazing amount of the big bird did disappear). I was hoping that the slow cooking would somehow make the turkey come out moister, but the breast meat was still rather dry. In addition, the Turducken has one big fundamental flaw - the skin of the duck is enclosed, so the fatty skin comes out flabby and inedible. If you have ever roasted a duck or goose you know that the crispy skin is the major attraction. Duck and goose are not cheap to buy, so I don't know if I would want to waste one in this way and not be able to enjoy the skin at all. The turkey skin comes out very crisp, but is too tough and leathery to me, though some others did enjoy it.
The stuffings were very good, and the turkey legs, stuffed full, were quite good. The inside part other than the turkey were all delicioius, as a matter of fact. This makes me think that perhaps a Ducken (duck stuffed with chicken) or Goosen might be more successful - and easier to consume - than a Turducken. I think I will try this some time.
But not for a long, long while. At the moment, the mere thought of deboning another bird make me want to turn into a strict vegan. Next year, we are having a nice big bowl of pasta.
Postscript: the leftover turkey tasted a lot better than it did on the actual day.
Postscript 2: For Christmas 2006, we did a simple roast goose.