My boning knife cut through the plastic wrapping to reveal the pale skin of the turkey beneath it.
After a quick rinse in the sink, I placed the mammoth bird breast-down on the cutting board and stared at it for a couple minutes, then made my first incision down the backbone. “There’s no turning back now,” I said aloud.
Ahead was a lot of work — roughly 12 hours, my initial estimates suggested. I needed to remove all of the bones from two birds and most of them from a third.
I needed to make three unique stuffings and start three separate stocks with the liberated bones. I needed to stuff, truss, bake, baste and monitor an unwieldy creation that weighed close to 25 pounds uncooked, then figure out some conventional way to serve it afterward.
These are challenges posed when looking at a counter crowded with the ingredients needed for a turducken — a 4-pound duck stuffed in a 7-pound chicken that’s stuffed in a 15-pound turkey. Preparing one is tantamount to taking a gastronomic vision quest: It’s a brutish journey through and lengthy communion with the skills it takes to be a competent cook.
This is the sort of thing you try when simply preparing a four-course holiday meal for a house full of guest gets mundane. Just deboning the poultry is enough to make even the most seasoned chefs froth at the mouth.
But finishing a turducken is a crowning achievement for any cook and a source of awe for their dinner guests. A holiday meal featuring a from-scratch turducken becomes legendary — a moment gleefully recounted long into the future.
I simply wanted to conquer the beast — to take the turducken from raw ingredients to finished product. The dish popularized by National Football League color commentator John Madden seemed an abomination in theory, but it was one that I was eager to try because it offered me the chance to flex my culinary muscles at the Thanksgiving Day table.
Years of dry roasted turkey seemed mundane, and the hackneyed alternative of deep-frying one seemed like a great way to start a neighborhood fire. I had tried other lofty holiday dishes — Mediterranean bouillabaisse with whole Maine lobsters and beef Wellington with homemade duck pâté — but none seemed to have the pizazz presented by the turducken.
The dish is typically considered Cajun fare, but its original creator is subject to dispute. Its origins may even trace back to the old country, considering that a famed French gastronomist included a recipe for the “Rôti Sans Pareil,” or “roast without equal,” in a volume of “L’Almanach des Gourmands” published during the early 19th century, which calls for 17 different birds to be stuffed inside one another and roasted.
No bones about it
Three birds seemed more than enough for me. On this Thanksgiving, I started my journey to turducken shortly after 7 a.m., which, in retrospect, was probably a little late for the 7 p.m. dinner I had planned.
I mistook my culinary hubris for cooking prowess in thinking I’d make short work of the prep, have the birds in the oven by noon and then be standing nonchalantly by the bronzed creation as my guests arrived. But then I made my first cut into the turkey.
As could be expected, these first stages of preparing a turducken are grisly. The process is time-consuming and hopelessly messy and involves near-surgical precision with a very sharp blade. Ripping through this process carelessly is a good way to cut into something that’s not intended to be part of the meal.
Using a boning knife, I entered the birds near each backbone and peeled down the rib cage to free the breast meat. Then it was a matter of tediously cutting through joints and tendons until each bird sort of resembled — as gross as it may sound — a meat and skin suit.
Somewhere in between butchering the birds, I started three separate pots of water to begin simmering down the bones. My thrifty old-world style of cooking made it nearly impossible for me to toss any unneeded bit of the birds without first trying to extract everything I could from them.
With pots of stock simmering, I started dicing vegetables for my three stuffings. And with every onion chopped and every piece of celery diced, I had more scraps to toss into my stocks.
For the first dressing, I chose a simple blend of bell peppers and rock shrimp, held together with toasted panko crust. The second was a more traditional mix of cornbread and spicy andouille sausage, and for the third, I used Granny Smith apples and country sausage with wheat bread.
With the leftovers from the stuffings — a blend of poultry pieces, offal and peppers — I decided to make a side dish of creole jambalaya. The dish was also a way for me to delay tackling the job of assembling the turducken.
Some assembly required
Putting this behemoth together is by far the most difficult and frustrating task. There is no exact science or proportion that will make assembling a turducken easy; it’s a messy, infuriating task that’s bound to make use of your knowledge of expletives.
That’s probably because a turkey was never designed to hold two other birds in its body cavity, much less with three stuffings separating them. My first attempt had the sausage stuffing with the turkey, followed by chicken and then the andouille sausage.
But this left little room for the duck and none for the shrimp stuffing, so I had to disassemble, remove some of each dressing and then put everything back together. When the struggle ended about an hour later, the afternoon sun was beginning to set.
Using five or six strands of butcher’s twine, I lashed the turkey together so that it would hold up in the roasting pan. My research showed some cooks using a large needle to thread the bird closed, but I was at a point of exhaustion that precluded using any of my slim sewing skills.
Once the turkducken was down on the roasting rack, I weaved slices of thick-cut bacon atop. The added infusion of smoke flavor and bacon fat seemed like a fitting exclamation point to the gluttonous dish.
Cooking the turducken is surprisingly simple, likely because the fat content of the creation is off the charts. This is painfully bad for calorie counters but good for any rational holiday diner appreciating succulent roasted poultry.
Slow-roasting the turducken at 250 degrees means the skin of the chicken and duck slowly renders fat into flavor that melds with the individual stuffings. The fat also collects on the roasting pan and is an ideal basting liquid to help brown the turducken in its final moments of cooking.
Removing the bones from the beast also means the cooking time per pound isn’t nearly as long as conventional thinking would suggest. Within five hours of hitting the oven, the turducken was ready.
As a last feat, I used a half-cup of the skimmed fat from the pan and about a cup of flour to make a roux, which I cooked until it turned a rich auburn color. Then, using a mix of my three stocks and the liquid drippings from the roasting pan, I made a brown sauce to accompany the roast.
The resulting meal was well worth the wait. I had spent roughly 14 hours in the kitchen and was exhausted, both physically and mentally. But in the end, everything I did was well worth the unprecedented meal I created. Staring through tired eyes at the striations of foul and stuffing, I couldn’t help but feel a genuine sense of accomplishment — and then savored the taste of victory.