Turducken is Cajun birdzilla, a novelty item, a real pain to cook properly, and when you’re done, it is really nothing special. My advice? Don’t bother. I’ve cooked two and eaten it in restaurants a few times, and there’s a reason why there’s no photo of a turducken on this page. The exterior looks like a beautiful browned turkey. But things get ugly when you start carving it.
What the heck is a turducken? It’s a turkey with a duck crammed into it, with a chicken crammed into it, with a stuffing, usually cornbread and andouille sausage, crammed into it. Except for the turkey’s wings and legs, it is boneless, and after it is cooked, it is sliced like a giant meatloaf. Tur(key)-duck-(chic)ken. Get it?
The concept of a bird inside a bird as been around at least since the Roman Empire, but the turducken is an American original probably created in Louisiana in the 1980s and popularized by football analyst John Madden who awarded one to the winning team on his Thanksgiving broadcast.
The invention of the the monstrosity is credited to either Chef Paul Prudhomme of New Orleans, or Hebert’s Specialty Meats in Maurice, LA. Back in 2002 the New York Times explored the subject. Culinary Historian John T. Edge has said “It strikes me as a dish invented by men in a hunt camp, men who have a snootful.”
You can make your own, but it is a real pain in the gizzard. First you have to remove all the bones of the turkey except the legs and wings, then you have to completely bone out the chicken and duck. Then you have to make the stuffing and then you have to cram the birds inside each other and fill the remaining cavity with the dressing and sew the whole thing up. This is some pretty serious surgery.
The saddest part of this concoction is the duck. Duck breasts are red meat and should only be served rare to medium rare like steak. Good duck breasts are expensive and worth every penny. When I cook duck breasts I like to score the skin and sear the skin side over high heat to render off some of the thick layer of fat beneath the skin and get the skin crispy. But these breasts are cooked until they turn gray and lose all of their charm, and the skin is greasy and rubbery. Your guests will be pulling it out as if it was rubber bands. If I haven’t skeered you off by now, here’s how to cook a turducken.
1) Instead of making your turkey terrine from scratch, you can buy one from a specialty grocer on the internet from Hebert’s. They average about 15 pounds and can feed about 25 people after shrinkage and waste. I ordered two from my butcher once, and they were ready for pickup in a week at about $75 each. If you buy online, shipping with dry ice in a styrofoam box can double the price.
2) Then the problems began. Because turduckens are such a solid mass, they take at least a week to defrost in the fridge. Do not set it on the counter to defrost or you will surely turn it into a salmonella incubator.
3) Once it is defrosted, loosen the top layer of skin by sticking your hand between the skin and breast meat being careful not to rip the skin. Insert strips of bacon under the skin to add moisture to the white meat, and since when did a little bacon make things worse?
4) Preheat your smoker or grill to 225 to 250°F. Low and slow at 225 to 250°F is the best way to keep the turkey portion from drying out, but you must take it up to at least 170°F internal temp for safety. A little smoke is nice too.
5) Put it on a rack over a pan of water. That will add moisture to the atmosphere and help keep it from drying out. The pan will also catch drippings for gravy. Check the pan during the cook to make sure there is always at least 1/4″ water in there. Even so, it is easy to dry out the outer layer, but it can be moistened with gravy from the very tasty pan drippings, but the fact is that no amount of gravy will tenderize it if you overcook it or cook it too fast.
6) When your big old dodo bird is finished, use turkey lifters or well insulated gloves to gently lift it onto a cutting board. Cover it loosely with foil to keep it warm.
7) Pour the drippings into a tall narrow container like a pitcher. Leave it untouched for about 5 minutes to let the fat float to the surface and then skim most of it off. Now reheat the remaining liquid. Taste it and if you wish, cook it down to make it richer, but it should not need salt. I do not recommend adding flour to make a thick gravy. In fact, because so much cornbread has probably gotten into the drippings, you may want to run it through a fine mesh strainer to clarify it a bit. Keep the gravy thin so when you pour it over the meat it will penetrate.
8) Carving is also a pain. Begin by removing the turkey thigh and drumsticks and wings. They thighs are easy to remove, but wings are hard to remove without pulling apart the loaf, so make sure your knife is sharp and take your time. It helps to have an electric knife, but a sharp long chef’s knife will do. Slicing the big boneless loaf one expects to get a nice layered look, but the ends are not layered, so they will be disappointing. Start by cutting across the midsection and then cut slices in both directions. That’s how to get the layered look. Expect the stuffing to crumble.
9) Pour the gravy over the top, especially on the turkey breasts.