Tip Top Turkey: Finding the Perfect Bird

Just start with a local, fresh turkey, don’t overcook it, and you’ll have a main course that will remind you why we serve turkey on Thanksgiving in the first place.

The ideal Thanksgiving turkey has moist breast meat, fall-off-the-bone dark meat and crisp browned skin. The smell fills the house for hours before your hungry guests gather to admire your masterpiece.

Except it usually isn’t like that. I’ve eaten—and made—way too many bone-dry turkeys. But I propose it isn’t the cook’s fault.

The problem really starts at the grocery store. You can find hundreds of frozen turkeys that have been in storage for months, and each rock-hard bird is pretty much like the next. You can roast it, grill it, smoke it or fry it, but it’ll still taste like, well, not much.

Want to break free of the frozen turkey rut? Choose a turkey worthy of being the centerpiece of your meal. No need to brine, twine or flip. Just start with a local, fresh turkey, don’t overcook it, and you’ll have a main course that will remind you why we serve turkey on Thanksgiving in the first place.

Find Your Heritage

Sarah Stegner, chef and co-owner of Prairie Grass Café in Northbrook, favors a heritage turkey. These birds aren’t the modern broad-breasted white variety but one of eight old-fashioned breeds such as a Bourbon Red or Narragansett. She says these birds have a better flavor because of the breed and because the birds are raised mostly outdoors, so their diet is more varied.

“If you choose a heritage turkey, you’re going to want to cook it with a slower, gentle heat,” she advises. “Smoking one of these birds would be phenomenal.”

Keep it Kosher

Another chef favorite is the kosher turkey, which is slaughtered under rabbinical supervision. Salt is used to draw out any traces of blood, fulfilling a religious duty, but this also leaves the turkey seasoned and ready to cook.

“My dad cooks our turkey every year,” says Michael Gottlieb, chef at Bank Lane Bistro in Lake Forest.

“By far, my favorite is a kosher turkey. It’s already brined, so all the work is done and the meat stays moist throughout.”

Go Local

Local has become trendy as cooks try to find tasty, sustainably raised food close to home. Robert Kauffman, one of the last independent turkey farmers left in America, has been raising and dressing Ho-Ka turkeys in northern Illinois for the last 70 years. And trendy has nothing to do with it.

There are millions of ways to mess up a turkey, says Kauffman, “but only one way to get it right.”

From raising their own corn feed to walking the birds to the on-site dressing plant, the Kauffmans control every aspect of handling to ensure the best tasting product. It’s just one example of the carefully nurtured local birds that are available on the North Shore.

Where To Get Your Perfect Local Turkey

Arnold Farm, Elizabeth

Caveny Farm, Monticello

Harrison’s Poultry Farm, Glenview

HoKa Turkeys, Waterman

Wine Pairings

Grenache has a bright red fruit finish that can stand up to the myriad flavors that Thanksgiving dinner presents. Joe Alter at The Bottle Shop in Wilmette suggests Quivira’s 2007 Grenache made in Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma. It costs about $30.

Another suggestion is Gruet’s non-vintage Brut, a sparkling dry wine made in New Mexico. It’s fabulous with appetizers, but dry enough to serve throughout dinner. About $17.