I’ve been a slightly obsessive home cook for quite a while now and a football fan for almost as long as I can remember. So every Thanksgiving, while I was preparing the family feast, I heard the great coach turned commentator, John Madden, wax eloquent about the seductive allure of the Turducken—a chicken inside a duck, inside a turkey. All boneless with three knockout stuffings!
In 2006, I decided to take the plunge. After a few hours research on the web, I settled on chef Paul Prudhomme’s blueprint, but decided to substitute my own favorite stuffings plus brining and a little truffle oil. One year, I even added $40 worth of foie gras (don’t bother). That first year was a lark, but the result was so delicious that I found myself proclaiming, “I guess I’m doomed to do this every year.” It’s a big commitment, but one well worth making.
What follows is my take on this most wonderful of Thanksgiving treats. You’ve got to be organized, work clean, and have a certain understanding of basic cooking techniques, but it’s basically perseverance. If you’re not an experienced a cook, there’s lots of information on the web to fill in the gaps in your technique, but I’ve tried to include everything that’s essential. Trust me, your guests will swoon.
1. Bake the cornbread for stuffing.
2. Brine the turkey overnight.
2a. Brine the chicken for 1 hour.3. De-bone the poultry.
4. Roast the bones and prepare the poultry stock.
5. Prepare the cornbread–sausage stuffing.
6. Prepare the wild rice pilaf stuffing.
7. Prepare the shrimp Creole stuffing.
8. Assemble the Turducken.
9. Roast the Turducken @ 225° to 165°, about eight hours.
10. Rest the Turducken for one hour before carving.
11. Prepare the gravy.
STEP 1: Cornbread
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup buttermilk
2/3 cup milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted (plus extra for greasing baking dish)
1 cup yellow cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon fresh baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Grease an 8-inch square cake pan with butter and preheat the oven to 375°. Combine the wet ingredients in a medium bowl. Whisk the dry ingredients together in a large bowl; add the liquids and stir until just combined. Pour the batter into the greased baking dish. Bake until the top is golden brown and the edges show a faint line of separation away from the sides of the pan, about 30 to 40 minutes. Transfer the baking pan to a wire rack and cool to room temperature. Retained for the stuffing recipe in Step 5.
STEP 2: Brining
Brining is an old technique that has come back in vogue in recent years. Soaking delicate poultry in a kosher saltwater solution before cooking guarantees tender, flavorful meat all the way to the bone. Although some folks brine duck, I find myself agreeing with America’s Test Kitchen that it’s not beneficial in that instance, but it is a huge plus for turkey and chicken. Please don’t skip this step unless you’ve purchased kosher or self-basting birds, as they’ll end up too salty.
Dissolve the kosher salt in cold water as indicated below in a large stockpot or clean bucket and refrigerate for the specified time. When the brining is complete, remove the birds and rinse well under cool water. Then, pat dry inside and out with paper towels and refrigerate.
Turkey: 1½ cups kosher salt + 2 gallons water x 12 hours (in the refrigerator).Duck: Does not benefit from brining. Chicken: 1/2 cup kosher salt + 3/4 cup sugar + 2 quarts water x 1 hour (in the refrigerator).
STEP 3: De-boning the Turkey/Duck/Chicken
1 15-20 lb. turkey
1 5-6 lb. duck
1 3-4 lb. chicken
1. Your goal is to end up with one large piece of essentially boneless turkey meat; the finished product will contain only the tip end of each leg bone and the first two joints of each wing. And you will end up with a completely boneless duck and chicken.
2. Try not to pierce the turkey skin except for your initial cuts. Any slits enlarge during roasting and make the end result drier and less attractive.
3. Allow plenty of time for the de-boning procedure; the meat is not tough and you want to end up with as much of it as possible.
4. Use a sharp boning knife and work mainly with the tip, staying close to the bone at all times. De-bone one side of each bird at a time before moving to the other side.
Put on your apron, roll up your sleeves, and let’s begin.
Place the turkey, breast down, on a flat surface. Make an incision the entire length of the backbone through the skin and meat. Starting from the neck end and using the tip of the knife, follow as closely to the bone as you can, carefully teasing the skin and meat away from the frame. Toward the neck end, cut through the meat to expose the shoulder blade (feel for it first and cut through small amounts of meat at a time if you have trouble locating it); cut the meat away from around the bone and sever the bone at the joint so you can remove the blade.
Disjoint the wing between the second and third joint; free the heavy drumstick of the wing and remove it, being careful to leave the skin intact. Continue teasing the meat away from the backbone, heading toward the thigh and being careful to keep the "oyster" (the pocket of meat on the back) attached to the skin instead of leaving it with the bone.
Cut through the ball-and-socket joint to release the thigh bone from the carcass; you should now be able to open the bird up more in order to see what bones are still left to deal with. Continue teasing the meat away from the carcass until you reach the center front of the breast bone. Then slowly and carefully separate the skin from the bone without piercing the skin that is very thin at this point.
Repeat the same de-boning procedure on the other side of the turkey. When both sides are finished, carefully remove the carcass and save it for the gravy stock (Step 4). Then remove the thighbone and leg bone on each side as follows. Being careful not to break through the skin, use a small hammer and/or clever to break the leg bone completely across, about two inches from the tip end. Then manipulate both ends of the bone with your hands to be sure the break is complete. Leave the tip of the bone in, but remove the leg bone and thighbone as one unit. To do this, cut the meat away from around the thighbone first, using the knife tip; then, holding the thighbone up with one hand, use the other hand to carefully cut the meat away from around the leg-thigh joint; don't bother to cut through this joint. Then use the blade of the knife to scrape the meat away from the leg bone; remove the leg-thigh bone. With your hands or the knife, one by one remove as many pin bones from the leg meat as possible; then, if necessary, pull the tip of the leg bone to turn the meat to the inside (so the skin is on the outside and it looks like a turkey again). Lay the de-boned turkey on a sheet pan and immediately place it in the coldest part of the refrigerator.
To de-bone the duck & chicken: Follow the same procedures you did to de-bone the turkey, except this time you will remove all of the bones. To de-bone each wing, cut off the first two joints of the wing, leaving the wing's drumstick. Cut the meat from around the drumstick and remove this bone. When you reach the thigh, follow the thigh-leg bone with the knife blade to release the bone as one unit; again, be careful not to cut the skin. Trim some of the excess skin and fat from around the neck area. Refrigerate the bird and save the carcass to roast for the gravy stock.
Roast the bones & prepare gravy stockPreheat the oven to 400°. Use a large chef’s knife or a clever to chop the carcasses into pieces of reasonable size. Place them with the bones and neck in a roasting pan.
Add2 medium carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces 2 celery stalks with tender leaves, cut into 1-inch pieces 2 small yellow onions, quartered 6 cloves garlic, unpeeled
Spray the veggies lightly with cooking spray and toss. Roast in the oven, stirring every 10 minutes, until the bones are golden brown, about 40 minutes. Transfer the contents of the roasting pan to a stockpot. Deglaze the pan with 1 cup of water, scraping up the brown bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.
Add1 quart low-sodium chicken broth (I like the Swanson 32-ounce aseptic box) 2 additional cups water 2 cups dry white wine or dry French vermouth 6 sprigs fresh thyme 1 bay leaf
Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, skimming the fat and scum off the surface for 30 minutes. Simmer until the stock has reduced by half and has a rich poultry flavor, about 2-3 hours. Strain the stock, season to taste with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, cool to room temperature, and refrigerate it until the fat congeals.
Even before I made a Turducken, this was my go-to stuffing for Thanksgiving. It’s based on years of experimenting with an old Julia Child recipe. I used to add apples, but I’ve now dropped them for the Turducken; the choice is yours. If you’ve got a food processor, it’s the way to go for chopping veggies or mincing fresh herbs.
With all three stuffings, the goal is to chill them as quickly as possible to avoid bacterial growth. If you are short of cookie sheets, you may transfer the stuffings to other containers after they are cold (about an hour) and keep them refrigerated until you are ready to assemble the Turducken in Step 8.
1 pound of breakfast sausage with sage (I use the Jimmy Dean brand)2 cups chopped onions ½ cup chopped celery stalks 1 recipe yellow cornbread (Step 1) cut into 1/4–3/8” cubes 2 slices dense white sandwich bread, e.g. Pepperidge Farm, cut into 1/4–3/8” cubes 2 large eggs, lightly beaten 1½ cups pecan halves, toasted & coarsely chopped 2 Granny Smith apples, cored and chopped (optional) 1 tablespoon fresh minced sage, or to taste ½ cup minced Italian parsley 2 teaspoons dried thyme Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste 4 ounces (one stick) melted butter
Toast the pecan halves over medium heat in a dry, large frying pan, tossing occasionally for even heating, until lightly browned and aromatic; transfer the nuts to a cookie sheet and coarsely chop when cool enough to handle. Sauté the sausage meat in the frying pan, breaking it into small pieces. When the sausage is no longer red, transfer it with a slotted spoon into a large mixing bowl containing all the bread cubes, leaving the fat in the pan. Add the chopped onions to the sausage fat and sauté until tender and translucent, about 6 minutes. Add the chopped celery and sauté 2 minutes more. Scrape the contents of the frying pan into the mixing bowl with the bread cubes. Add the beaten eggs, pecans, seasonings to taste, and lightly fold in the melted butter. Remove from heat and spread on a cookie sheet as thinly as possible. Refrigerate immediately until the stuffing is cold, about an hour. Transfer to a container and keep refrigerated.
When I decided to tackle the Turducken, I knew that I wanted to use this recipe as the duck stuffing. It’s from the Inn at Little Washington, one of the country’s great restaurants in the Virginia countryside outside of Washington DC. This is one of my favorite sides; I serve it with everything from cedar plank salmon to pork tenderloin. I’ve quadrupled the recipe here so there’s enough to serve on the side or for leftovers.
Wild Rice Pecan Pilaf
3 cups wild rice (NOT a blend)4 medium carrots, peeled and minced 4 stalks celery, minced 2 cups button mushrooms, minced 2 cups pecans, toasted and chopped (as in Step 5) 4 ounces (one stick) butter Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
In a large saucepan, bring 2 quarts of water to a rapid boil and add ½ teaspoon kosher salt and the rice. Boil the rice uncovered, adding more water as necessary to keep the rice submerged, until the grains pop. This will take about 45 minutes, but the rice will still be al dente; drain the rice and set it aside. In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat and sauté the carrots for 2 minutes. Add the celery, mushrooms, and pecans, and continue cooking for 2 minutes more while stirring frequently. Add the wild rice to combine and season with kosher salt and pepper, to taste. Remove the rice from the heat and spread it on a cookie sheet to cool as in Step 5. Keep it refrigerated until you’re ready to assemble in Step 8.
The stuffing for the chicken is a combo of the original Turducken blueprint and my favorite shrimp Creole from New Orleans’ iconic Commander’s Palace. The seafood adds another flavor profile to the mix and you can control the heat to your own taste.
Shrimp Creole Stuffing
4 ounces (one stick) butter4 bay leaves 2 large yellow onions, diced 4 stalks celery, diced 2 green peppers, diced 2 cloves garlic, minced 2 cups grape tomatoes, diced 2 tablespoons paprika 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce 1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce 1½ pounds shrimp, peeled and chopped 6 slices dense white sandwich bread, e.g. Pepperidge Farm, cut into 1/4–3/8” cubes Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper Poultry stock from Step 4, as needed to moisten
Melt 6 tablespoons of the butter with the bay leaves in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the celery, green peppers, garlic, tomatoes, and paprika and continue to sauté for an additional 4 minutes until the celery and bell peppers are faded in color. Add the Worcestershire, Tabasco, shrimp, the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and stir until the butter is melted. Add half of the bread cubes and continue to stir for 2 minutes to moisten. Add the remaining cubes and stir until everything is mixed in, about 2 minutes more. Remove the pan from the heat, extract the bay leaves, and stir in just enough poultry stock to moisten the stuffing and bind it together; it should not be wet. Then, adjust the seasoning with kosher salt and pepper. As in Steps 5 & 6, spread it thinly on a cookie sheet to chill in the refrigerator. Be sure it is completely cool before you stuff the chicken in Step 8.
STEP 8:Assemble the Turducken
Spread out the de-boned turkey, skin side down, and expose as much meat as possible. Season the meat generously with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper, making sure to include the leg, thigh, and wing meat. Stuff the leg and wing cavities loosely with the cornbread sausage stuffing to help them return to their original shape. Fill the center between the breast meat and smooth the stuffing so that it is level with the rest of the meat. Cover the entire turkey with a thin layer of stuffing. Do not put any stuffing over the exposed skin flap at the neck. Return any unused stuffing to the refrigerator.
Place the duck, skin side down, on top of the turkey, arranging it evenly over the stuffing. Season the exposed meat generously with kosher salt and pepper pressing it in with your hands. Then spread the cold wild rice pilaf evenly over the exposed duck meat, using the same technique as before, making a layer slightly less than ½ inch thick.
Repeat with the chicken and shrimp Creole stuffing.
Enlist another person’s help to roll up the chicken with the stuffing inside and secure the seam with wooden skewers. Invert the chicken on top of the duck stuffing, seam side down, and remove the skewers. Roll up the duck around the chicken with the wooden skewers, and again, secure the seam. As before, invert the duck with the chicken inside, on top of the turkey stuffing and remove the skewers.
Roll up the turkey around the duck/chicken in the same manner as before. Fold the sides and neck flap of the turkey together and secure them with skewers. Sew the skin together using a trussing needle and some twine, then place a roasting rack on top of the turkey. Alternatively, invert a 15” x 11” aluminum baking pan on top of the seam and press down so that the pan is firmly wedged on top of the bird.
In either case, carefully turn the Turducken over so that it is sitting breast side up. If you’re so inclined, carefully separate the skin from the breast, and rub the meat with white truffle oil (I like the La Tourangelle brand from California that’s available at Whole Foods or Fresh Market. It’s expensive, but you can also use it with pasta, risotto, pizza, meat and potato dishes.)
If you’re using the aluminum pan, you can rollup two pieces of aluminum foil and place them under the front and back openings of the Turducken to keep the stuffing from falling out of the openings. In either case, cover the wing tips with aluminum foil and place the rack/pan with the Turducken into a large roasting pan. Blot any remaining moisture from the skin and refrigerate the Turducken until ready to bake Thursday morning.
STEP 9: Roast the Turducken
Preheat the oven to 225° and bake for 8 hours, or until the center of the Turducken reads 165° on a meat thermometer. Check the bird after 4 hours and, if necessary, cover it with aluminum foil if it’s browning too quickly.
STEP 10: Rest & Carve the Turducken
Remove the Turducken from the oven and allow it to rest for one hour. If you have extra stuffings, increase the oven temperature to 375° and bake them while the Turducken is resting.
With strong spatulas inserted underneath (because there are no bones to support the bird’s structure) carefully transfer the Turducken to a serving platter and present it to your guests before carving. Place the Turducken on a flat surface and cut the bird in half crosswise so that each slice contains all three stuffings in all three meats. If you’ve got one, an electric knife does very well. I found that it’s best to support the exposed layers with a vertical cookie sheet, then to cut an inch thick slice and use a spatula to help hold it against the sheet bottom and lower the slice until the cookie sheet is horizontal. Then, I cut each slice in half and use the spatula to transfer it intact to a dinner plate.
STEP 11: Turducken Gravy
3 tablespoons clear Turducken roasting fat, skimmed from the pan¼ cup flour 4 cups hot poultry stock (from Step 4) The degreased roasting juices Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper 3 tablespoons cold butter
While the Turducken is resting, skim the congealed fat from the poultry stock in the fridge and bring it to a simmer. Make a brown roux by blending 3 tablespoons of fat from the roasting pan with the flour in a saucepan with a wooden spoon. Stir it slowly over moderate heat for several minutes until the roux is a walnut color. Remove the pan from the heat and stir until the bubbling stops. Vigorously whisk in 3 cups of hot poultry stock and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Spoon off visible fat and deglaze the roasting pan with an additional cup of stock; pour this liquid into the simmering gravy base and simmer for several minutes more to concentrate the flavor. Remove the gravy from the heat, season with salt and pepper and, just before serving, whisk in the cold butter a tablespoon at a time to further emulsify the gravy.