turkey on farm at sunset

Pretty Turkey

Pretty Turkey: How to Make a Beautiful Turkey

There are tradeoffs between a pretty turkey and a delicious turkey. The best way to cook a turkey might not leave it looking as "traditional" as we might like. So if we want a perfectly cooked turkey, we may not get a turkey quite so beautiful, or even intact.

Gourmet magazine received letters (in 2006) noting that the turkey on their magazine cover looked “burned.” In response the magazine explained that is actually how a cooked turkey looks. They were aware of what food stylists do, and Gourmet Magazine carefully arranged, lit, and photographed their turkey. But, then they followed their published recipe and showed the actual result. It was a beautiful turkey with some skin a little darker, and some skin a little lighter, which is what happens when a turkey is roasted.


pretty turkey

Food stylists use lots of tricks to make a turkey beautiful, but unfortunately some of these tricks make the turkey inedible.  A holiday magazine cover turkey might not have dry or wrinkled skin; it might be beautifully browned with no dark spots. It might show just a speckle of herbs across the breast. The flesh might not be receding from the knuckle of the leg bone; the wing tips might be supple and fleshy.

So how do they accomplish this? The turkey may be raw or (more likely) partly cooked to make the pinfeather bumps level out. While “heating,” the legs and wingtips are covered with foil. The neck skin is pulled back tightly and fastened out of site. Filler might be added to pull the skin taught and level out hollow areas. The turkey is then colored with motor oil (nice color and shine) or a combination of food colorings and dishwashing liquid. They often start with many turkeys and use the one that looks best.

Are there any lessons for us here? Sure. If you want to present your turkey as a centerpiece, it is art. And food tastes better when it looks good. So, there are things that you can do to make your turkey look even more appetizing, but without ruining the flavor and turning it into a non food product.

If you are after "pretty" turkey here are some things you can do:

  • Cook it correctly – do not overcook the turkey – use a thermometer!

  • Turn the turkey from front to back and side to side to obtain more even browning.

  • Cover the leg knuckle bones and wing tips with aluminum foil before cooking (remove them near the end of the cooking time to be sure those areas have some color).

  • Keep an eye on your turkey and shield it with aluminum foil if it begins to brown too much.

  • If you want to go to extremes and if you have an artistic bent, you can add color to your turkey with a brush and safe food colors. The area where the leg meets the body is sometimes pale compared to the breast and the tops of the legs. This and the rest of the skin can be colored with a palate composed of such things as Gravy Master, Angastora Bitters, beet juice, molasses, or if this is a barbecued turkey, with barbeque sauce.

  • Some people like a combination of decorative herbs arranged under the breast skin of the turkey to make a pattern.

  • Patterns can be made by covering parts of the roasting turkey during part of the cooking process to create dark and light areas on the skin.

  • For a special "finished" presentation, cover the leg knuckles with "manchettes"- paper frills that cover the end of bones or joints. This hides the area where the bone is exposed and the thin leg meat has receded. You can buy turkey frills or you can make them yourself.

  • Create a nice presentation, before and after carving, by arranging the turkey on a platter surrounded by other colorful foods or food safe objects to complement the colors of the roasted turkey.

We seldom go to extremes to improve the looks of the finished bird, and we never try for a pretty turkey at the expense of a delicious one. The caveat against coloring the turkey with bitters, molasses etc., is that the flavors added just for the sake of appearance might affect he taste.  But, if you discover a combination that improves both the appearance and the flavor please share it with us.

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Copyright © 2009 - 2019 The Perfect Turkey
Copyright © 2009 - 2019 The Perfect Turkey
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