What is Turducken? Let’s talk serious turkey…
Ok – I can’t begin to say this one is quick – because it’s not. Putting together a Turducken is a labor of love – and it takes a little time and attention. But if you want to bring your family on of the premiere American dishes -something that will roll their socks down for both taste and presentation – then read on.
Turducken is a turkey, stuffed with a duck, stuffed with a chicken. In between each layer of poultry deliciousness is a layer of stuffing. The entire thing is roasted off to golden brown perfection over a period of 7-9 hours, and served with the most unbelievable gravy ever concocted by man.
Over the past twenty years I’ve done innumerable Turducken – starting with the hideously expensive mail order variety, then the elements with the butcher doing all the work, until I finally jumped in and assembled the entire thing myself. I have to say when it’s all said and done – I’d rather do it all myself.
Why? Why in the world would I want to spend several extra hours in assembling a dish I could either order online or get a butcher to put together for me? A bunch of reasons. If budget is no problem for you – ignore this. You can pick the best, freshest, organic and butcher-tailored items available. But if you don’t care to spend upwards of $150 to order a Turducken, and then pay to have it shipped – then read on. I’ll show you how to do it on your own. This version goes together for about $40 – depending on how much you pay for the duck, which is certainly the most expensive element for my area. That’s quite a savings – and we still get the ‘Ta-Da!’ factor at the table. Both visually and for the taste buds. Here we go!
How to make Turducken. Grab your birds…
The first thing you’ll need to do is hunt down your birds. Not literally – unless you’re even more dedicated than I am. You’ll need to find turkey, duck and chicken. Whole chickens are available all over the place of course. Turkeys are usually available year round as well – although you may have to place a request with your meat counter. In my neck of the woods the duck is the hardest thing to find – they just aren’t popular here and most stores don’t carry them on a regular basis. When I do find one, it’s going to be frozen, so there is some coordination in making sure the meats are all defrosted at the same time.
Now if you are lucky, and actually have access to a real butcher, then by all means ask if they will debone your birds for you – many will for no additional cost. If you have this service – take advantage of it. I’ve certainly learned to debone my own poultry, but I’m slow, and it’s not my most favorite thing to do. I can, and I will, but if someone will do it for me, hurray! If you do it yourself though, you have access to some of the most luscious stuff on earth – the makings for great stock, duck comfit, chicken schmaltz – so there is reward in your additional labor.
So once you’ve obtained all three birds, make sure that each is either fresh on the same day, or that you obtain or defrost them at the same rate. This means if you have to defrost, as I do, you’ll want to give them one day for each five pounds, and defrost them in the refrigerator. So the turkey goes into the fridge first, then the duck, then the chicken.
Although I’ve made Turducken with turkeys that were almost thirty pounds, it’s really not necessary to go that extreme. They’re very hard to work with when they get that big. I usually shoot for a turkey that’s about 14-15 pounds – that’s plenty big to hold everything else. Look for a duck that runs between 4-5 pounds, and a chicken that is about 3 pounds. Of course there will be some leeway with the weights – which is fine. After all , they’ll be boneless, and therefore squishy to some degree.
Debone all the birds if they aren’t already deboned. Take all the bones from the chicken and duck, and everything except the legs and wings from the turkey. And don’t throw away a scrap of anything! Bones go in the stockpot – the fat and skin are rendered for duck fat, cracklings or schmaltz. And don’t freak out over health concerns – you won’t end up with more than a little bit of any of the ‘good’ stuff – just enough for a once in a while treat.
To brine or not to brine…
I’m a firm believer in brining poultry. It’s nothing more than a soak in a salt water solution, but it really ensures that birds are moist and juicy – it’s like insurance for your turkey, chicken or duck. However – it does make the pan drippings really salty, and in this case, since we use stuffing between the layers of the poultry, it makes the stuffing too salty. So I go middle ground.
Instead of using a full strength brine, and soaking for up to 24 hours, I use half strength for just a few hours. Because this dish roasts for long hours, and even when I do it myself is expensive I want a bit of insurance. So when I mix my standard turkey brine (which works for all three birds in this case), I use half the normal amount of salt. I also only soak the birds for a few hours – even two hours works because the birds are deboned. They are naked and vulnerable without their bones so they absorb the brine more quickly than whole birds.
This method provides many of the benefits of regular brining, but prevents the stuffing between the layers from being too salty. It’s a win-win all around. So go ahead and brine all three birds just – just use half the normal amount of salt. One half cup instead of a full cup. And make sure you only go for a couple of hours. Next!
While your birds are brining, prepare the stuffing you’ll be using. I know of people who make three different stuffings – a different one for each layer, and you can certainly do that if you wish to. I have a certain amount of respect for over-the-top. But I like to use a simple cornbread and sausage dressing that’s been floating around the South for decades. The flavors and textures work really well, and it’s amazing with the juices from the birds.
If you would like, make the stuffing ahead of time – just keep it well chilled until ready to use. If you have a favorite cornbread recipe, feel free to use it.
Start with making a pan of cornbread. You’ll need:
- 1 cup self-rising cornmeal
- 1/2 cup self-rising flour
- 3/4 cups buttermilk
- 2 eggs, lightly
- 2 tablespoons bacon grease or vegetable oil
- Preheat oven to 350F.
- Combine cornmeal, flour, buttermilk and eggs in a mixing bowl. Stir to combine, add bacon grease or vegetable oil, and pour into a buttered casserole dish, or a cast iron skillet. If you have an iron skillet, you’ll a much better crust, which I love in the stuffing.
- Bake for about 20 minutes, and allow to cool.
For the stuffing, you’ll need:
- 8 slices bread, cubed and dried (you can do this in a warm oven)
- The cornbread you just made
- one sleeve saltine crackers
- 1 pound bulk sausage
- 2 cups chopped celery
- 2 cups chopped onion
- 1 stick butter
- 6 cups chicken stock
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dried rubbed sage
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 6 eggs, lightly beaten
- freshly cracked black pepper
- skip the salt, remember you’ll be getting it from the birds
- In a very large bowl, crumble together bread, corn bread and crackers. Mix well and set aside.
- In a large skillet over medium heat, crumble and brown sausage.
- Add butter, onions and celery to sausage, and sauté the vegetables for about 8-10 minutes, or until fragrant, and the onions are becoming translucent.
- Add sausage and vegetables to the bread mixture. Pour stock over bread, an
- Add the eggs, mix well, and it’s ready to use for stuffing the birds.
All right – the birds are brined, the stuffing is ready – it’s time to assemble the roast.
Start with making sure you have a very large, clean workplace. My counters aren’t large enough – so I usually work on the kitchen table. Of course pay attention to cross contamination issues – all implements that come into contact with raw poultry must be scrupulously cleaned.
Preheat your oven to 225F. I often use my gas grill – it’s just as easy to control the heat and doesn’t monopolize the oven quite so much.
Start with laying the turkey out, skin side down. Flatten it out as much as possible, exposing as much of the meat as you can. Sprinkle very lightly with salt and pepper, and then spread a thin layer of the stuffing over the interior. You want it about 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch thick. Leave yourself about an inch or two of border all-round the outside edge – this is where you’ll truss the Turducken back together.
Place the duck, again skin side down on top of the layer of stuffing. Sprinkle again with salt and pepper, and add another layer of stuffing on the meat of the duck. (See Note on Skinning the Interior Birds). Finally – repeat this with the chicken. You’re ready to roll! Literally –
This is where you’ll need another pair of hands, along with some sturdy skewers, or butcher’s twine. You’re going to lift the outside edges of the turkey and enclosed all the birds and stuffing – you’re basically going to sew the turkey back together. I alternate the method I use – sometimes I like skewers, but if the bird is really large, I literally sew the opening closed with a great big upholstery needle and butcher’s twine. Either way you’ll need a second pair of hands to hold the turkey in place while you close the edges – right along where the backbone was removed. You will most likely want to also close the openings at the cavity and neck as well. Keep all that lusciousness inside!
Once he’s all stitched up, carefully turn the Turducken breast side up, and place it on a large roasting rack in a roasting pan, or a baking rack on a baking sheet. Make sure if you use a baking rack that you have a lip at least 1 inch thick all the way around. This roast releases a LOT of pan drippings.
Tuck under or truss the wings, and twist legs back to close to their original position. Truss these as well, and it’s just about ready to go. Tent the entire thing with foil, and place it in the oven.
All right – this is important – so do not skip this. It’s very difficult – if not impossible – to roast a Turducken based on cooking times. You need a thermometer. Period. You need an internal temperature of 165F – and this must come from the stuffing layer inside the chicken. Just let it go – it may take anywhere from 7-9 hours – and this is fine. If you must, you can turn the temperature up to 350F after the first few hours, but I usually just let mine continue to do its thing at the lower temperature.
I do occasionally remove the pan drippings to make sure they either don’t overflow the baking sheet, or to make sure they aren’t high enough to touch the bottom of the roast. This would leave the bottom of the roast soggy and oily – not good. So remove the drippings with a ladle or turkey baster and you’ll be fine. Besides, you can go ahead and skim the grease from the drippings, and start gravy early if you’d like.
Other than waiting for the internal temperature to come up, and removing the drippings, there isn’t much to do now. To get a beautifully browned skin however, once the internal temp has hit 155F, you do want to uncover the roast, remove the foil and baste it. This will help obtain that golden brown exterior that is so beautiful.
The home stretch!
Now – you’ve got a crispy brown exterior, and internal temp of 165F, and the Turducken has the most amazing aroma – it’s ready!
Almost – you must, must, must let the roast rest. You didn’t put all that work into this dish to have it be dry and flavorless. This means that after it comes out of the oven you must let it just sit there for a minimum of half an hour – and an hour is even better. This resting al
Once it’s times to carve though – all you have to do is cut the roast right down the middle. Separate the two halves to display the interior – and then carve slices off one half to include all three birds and the stuffing.
Whew. You did it. And you’re now Bombshell. Put your feet up and grab a cold drink.