Night of the Turducken

A turducken is a hybrid of a turkey, a duck, and a chicken, but you don't have to be a bioengineer or even a student of animal husbandry to make one -- turduckens are more about cramming than they are about science. The idea is to strongarm a duck into a turkey, and a chicken into the duck, then roast the thing and eat it. Even before you taste one, the mysterious nature of the procedure combined with the absurdity of its name give the turducken an unusual appeal. My curiosity mounted until last week, when I prepared a turducken and invited 30 people over for a roaring, if protracted, success of a dinner. I wholly recommend trying it for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or just for fun. The instructions and commentary that follow would be useful to another first-time turducken chef. For those interested in more formal instruction, the Central Market Cooking School will hold a turducken preparation class on November 23rd for $25.

Instructions (and Commentary)

Central Market started selling turduckens last year. I assumed they were the brainchild of a Central Market butcher think tank and that the butchers presented them to the customers stuffed and cooked, if not actually warm. Like everyone else who hears about turduckens, I laughed about all the other kinds of bigger and smaller birds you could wrap around or stuff into the three already involved.

In truth, chef Paul Prudhomme is the champion, if not the inventor, of the beast. The butchers at Central Market merely bone the birds for you (a highly motivated, craft-oriented person could even undertake the deboning effort themselves), and wave you home with a bird in a bird in a bird and some half-assed directions. It is up to the turducken chef to season, stuff, wedge together, sew up, and, using string, primp the limp bundle into some semblance of a turkey.

The road to a completed turducken is long and expensive, though not terribly difficult. To yield a 20lb boneless turducken that will feed between 20 and 30 guests, you must start with a 20-25lb turkey, a four or five pound duckling, and a three pound chicken. At $3.99 per pound, our turducken cost about $81.00.

The only way to adequately cook the inside of such a plump beast without scorching the outside is to do it very slowly, at a steady temperature of 190deg. F. All of the available instructions (some are accessible online) estimate a cooking time of 12-13 hours, but it took us an unpredictable 16 hours of roasting until the center reached the necessary 165deg. F, the temperature at which salmonellas surrender. And we cheated.

photograph by John Anderson

The Crucial Ingredients

  • a large roasting pan, 15"x11", at least 2.5" deep (the disposable kind will do)
  • an even larger roasting pan that the smaller one can fit into with room to spare
  • a 3" carpet needle with curved tip
  • strong thread for sewing (we used very wide cotton thread)
  • strong thread for tying the bird into position (we used
  • wider cotton thread that Central Market supplied)
  • baster
  • at least 14 cups stuffing
  • seasoning for the bird (see ingredients below)
  • butter or oil
  • gravy essentials (chicken stock, wine, flour, pepper, etc.)
  • the birds

Place the turkey "flat," skin-side down, on a work surface. Expose as much meat as possible.

It wasn't until the birds were out of the bag and on the operating table that I understood the anatomical logistics. With the exception of the turkey's wings, all bones had been removed. Because the deboning process requires cutting out the backbone, the entire back of each bird is sliced open from the proverbial head to toe. The bird doesn't lie flat, but it's possible to expose more of the inside of a boneless turkey than you might think. Without framework, the turkey looks like a flappy jacket.

Season the inside of the meat with 3 Tbs of poultry seasoning. Don't neglect the inside of the leg and wing.

Any seasoning will do. This one nicely offset the mild stuffing I chose, and the pepper and salt helped seal the juices into the meats.

  • 2 Tbs onion powder
  • 2 Tbs garlic powder
  • 2 Tbs dried oregano leaves
  • 2 Tbs dried sweet basil
  • 1 Tbs dried thyme leaves
  • 1 Tbs black pepper
  • 1 Tbs white pepper
  • 1 Tbs cayenne pepper
  • 5 Tbs sweet paprika

Spread a 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch layer (about 7 cups) of stuffing into the turkey, including the wing and leg cavities.

Central Market suggests using stuffing available at their Cafe on the Run, while Paul Prudhomme (search "turducken" on the Web for his recipes) advocates preparing an andouille, a cornbread, and an oyster stuffing, a different dressing between each layer of fowl. To put this in perspective, though, he also gives a gravy recipe that includes eggplant, Grand Marnier, and stock you can render from squirrel bones, if you choose to do so. I'm sure it's delicious, but your level of dedication is obviously a personal choice. I made an enormous amount (44 servings) of very simple, very tasty stuffing from dried cubes of bread and added stock, onions, celery, mushrooms, apples, raisins, and white wine. The bulk was served as a side dish.

Don't overstuff. Stuffing will expand as you cook it and the last thing you want is the turducken to detonate in the oven. Be gentle.

Trim the excess skin and fat from the neck of the duck. Reserve the skin for gravy. Arrange the duck, skin-side down, on the layer of dressing in the turkey. The turkey and duck should be oriented the same way. Season with the poultry seasoning (1 or 2 Tbs), including the inside the cavities. Spread about 4 cups of stuffing inside. Repeat with the chicken, seasoning the meat and spreading a small amount -- 2 or 3 cups -- of stuffing. Don't forget the cavities.

There's nothing finer than the crisp, rich brown skin of a roasted animal, and I am sorry for the masses of people that have been guilted out of enjoying it. But I did fret about the flabby skin of the chicken and duck, which wouldn't crisp from the benefit of direct heat. The butchers insisted that the skins were necessary for moistness, and they were right. There was nothing dry about that conglomeration of birds, and the inner skins were virtually unnoticeable in the finished product.

The gravy that you can make from duck skin is unbelievable.

Thread the needle with strong thread. With another person, fold together the sides of the bird, such that the turkey resumes a turkey shape. Sew the bird closed. If you are worried that stuffing will leak out of the turkey seam, place some cheesecloth at the opening as a barrier.

This is really the only challenging part. We had a difficult time finding a cooking needle so far before Thanksgiving, so we resorted to a carpet needle, which worked very well. The greasy nature of the bird made it necessary to grip the needle with a paper towel to guide it in and out of the meat. You'll need one person to squeeze the edges of the turkey together like a suitcase or a backpack, and you might end up taking out a few fistfuls of the stuffing at this point -- you won't miss it. Don't worry about what the other birds are doing as long as they're in there.

When you're done sewing, it looks like a giant well-dressed frog in a smart sweater, or a big, relaxed, compliant baby.

Rub the outside of the turducken with butter or olive oil, then dab with the same seasoning or salt and pepper. Tie the turducken in three places around the girth, tuck in the wings, and up feet into a normal turkey position. Place breast-side up in the 11" X15" ungreased pan. Refrigerate until ready to bake.

The turducken just fits in this size pan, so it helps maintain the turkey shape. For health reasons, it is advisable to begin roasting a bird posthaste after it is stuffed.

Always lift the pan from the bottom.

Preheat the oven to 190deg. F, and place the smaller roasting pan in the larger roasting pan. Basting is not necessary, but every two hours, remove the drippings from the smaller pan so the turducken doesn't deep fry in its own juices. Periodically insert a meat thermometer to check the progress. Tent foil over the bird for the first several hours so it doesn't get dried out or overly browned. Roast until the temperature at the center reads 165deg.F, about 12 or 13 hours.

Ovens are finicky things, so use an oven thermometer to make sure that it's really about 190deg. F.

You'd be hard pressed to get anything to deep-fry at 190deg. F, but check for juices and remove them so the turducken won't be sopping with grease. We couldn't even find any juices until ours had been cooking for about 11 hours, but ours took its time anyway. When you do find juices, keep them for gravy.

The internal temperature of our turducken wouldn't budge from 140deg. F for hours, which is where it still was at 12 hours and at 13 hours, when we turned the oven up to 225deg. F. At 9:30pm, it had been cooking for 151/2 hours, and it seemed that the temperature would never climb above 150deg. F. My boyfriend was threatening to serve undercooked poultry to the increasingly happier, hungrier, less ruly guests (while the turducken cooked, we passed around a Spanish wineskin), so I cranked the oven up to to 325deg. F. That boosted the internal temperature to an edible level.

The margin of error in the cooking time was the only glitch in the whole process, but it would be a shame if it kept someone from trying this. The only thing I can suggest is building extra time into the cooking schedule. Because the turducken is such a massive object cooking at such a low temperature, keeping it in the oven a little longer than necessary wouldn't hurt. Transfer the turducken to a serving platter, and let it cool for one hour before carving.

At 10:10pm, there was no way we were waiting an hour, and we also didn't have a serving platter large enough. We sliced it in half (across the breasts) in the roasting pan and divided it between two serving platters. It sliced through effortlessly, like a giant jelly roll.

Each person got half a cross-section slice with chicken, duck, and turkey. Being trapped in with all the good bird juices made the stuffing decadently rich. All three meats were distinguishable and surprisingly moist. The duck was far and away the party favorite, but the turkey was some of the juiciest I've had.

I had worried a little that it would be rife with stretchy tendons and tiny bones, that it would explode, that it would be too heavy for the pan, that it would bust through its seams like the Incredible Hulk, and that the oven would fill up with grease. Because it was such a novelty, I'd never given too much consideration to the taste. Frankly, I was surprised by how good it was. I can't wait until Christmas when we stuff a sparrow into a quail into a pigeon into a....

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