Turducken, Or, Why People Care About Cajun Nested Birds

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Hebert's Specialty Meats
2101 E. 71st St. S., Tulsa, OK 74136
Web: Hebert's Specialty Meats
Phone: 918.298.8400
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"Only "pleased?" Is that the best we could say about a frankenbird that sells for roughly 10 times the price of a standard 16-pound turkey? Yes."

Outside of Louisiana, the famous Cajun feast of birds called Turducken is available at two price levels: "expensive," and "really expensive." Due to the challenge of assembling all the ingredients - namely stuffing a turkey with a duck and a chicken, separating each layer with sausage and/or cornbread - there's genuine value in paying someone experienced to do most of the work, which is what we decided to do for our Christmas meal this year. More specifically, we wanted to definitively put a long-standing question - "what's the big deal about turducken?" - to rest, and hopefully help readers to understand what to expect from the preparation and quality of this elusive, pricey delicacy. Read on for all the details.

Where We Shopped. Unfortunately, supermarkets in Buffalo don't sell turduckens, which left web sites as our next best option. We did quite a bit of research before placing our order, consulting with friends and family who reported a variety of mediocre to bad past experiences in ordering less expensive turduckens, which led us to consider quality more important than bottom-line pricing. Cajun Grocer famously offers a 15-pound version for $85 shipped, the lowest price we found, but we knew two people who had disappointing experiences with the place.

That's why we went with Hebert's Meats (pronounced A-Bears), the place credited with inventing turduckens back in the 1980's. Though there's a dispute over the origins of turducken, with some claiming that Cajun Chef Paul Prudhomme was responsible, and others pointing to Hebert's, there's no doubt that the concept of serving nested birds at feasts dates back hundreds of years to Europe, rather than Louisiana. It's the use of these particular birds and the Cajunization of the concept, complete with spices on the outside and sausage stuffing on the inside, that makes this version different from its predecessors.

Meet The Birds. Shown in our photos is Hebert's 15-person, 9-pound turducken, which came to a whopping final total of $137 shipped for a portion only a little more than half the size of Cajun Grocer's. Most of the cost was attributed to FedEx shipping charges, which seemed very high, but then, turducken is almost always expensive. Restaurants sometimes sell thin individual slices made solely from breast meat for $12-$15 each - we'd sampled it this way in the past - and we knew from experience that thin slices and cheap meats weren't the way to go. The only ways to save a lot of money are to do all the work yourself or find a local vendor so that shipping costs aren't a factor.

The Process Begins. Using one- or two-day FedEx for air delivery, Hebert's ships you a cardboard box with a frozen, vacuum-sealed turducken inside. Thankfully, there were still ice crystals on its plastic wrap after the less expensive two-day air shipment, and all that needed to be done was to give it adequate time to thaw, then cook, then sit before slicing and serving.

We used a large roasting pan with a rack inside, itself not a cheap piece of cooking hardware to have around, and laid the turducken as instructed with its twine stitching upwards. This enabled the birds to stay together during the cooking process rather than falling out through the seam as they softened.

Hebert's instructions call for the fully thawed turducken to cook in an oven at 375 degrees for an hour uncovered or three covered - we picked the latter to give it the greatest shot at coming out moist - with special attention to the internal temperature of the birds. Our turducken reached 165 degrees inside slightly after the three-hour mark, at which point it came out of the oven for the next step.

Prep For Serving. Once it's done cooking, the turducken can either sit for 30 minutes before slicing, or stay in the refrigerator until it's ready to be sliced, reheated and served; surprisingly, the latter technique was the one favored by Hebert's. So we followed those instructions, finishing the oven steps the day before Christmas, and starting the slicing and reheating stages two hours before our meal. Removing the twine stitching from the turkey was a little tricky, as it wasn't obvious through the skin, but we spotted the thin rope once the bird was sliced directly down the center as instructed. A few yanks in the right places and the twine was out, at least mostly. Two stray pieces showed up elsewhere and needed to be pulled right before serving.

We'd also used the drippings, as instructed by Hebert's, to create a fresh gravy for the turducken: heating the drippings, whisking them into a paste, and adding chicken stock brought out a brief but extraordinary scent that simultaneously evoked the duck, chicken, and turkey in the gravy. It was the most genuinely exciting moment of the whole process, next to serving the meal; we put the gravy in the fridge for use the next day.

Two hours before our meal, we sliced the turducken into 3/4" slices - far larger than the ones we've seen served at restaurants - and noted how the multiple birds were more obvious in the center than at the far edges. This would enable us to serve more turkey-like portions to guests who weren't as interested in the duck and chicken, while saving the more deluxe pieces for those who wanted them. The sliced but reassembled turducken and gravy were placed in the roasting pan, and the pan covered for a 1.5-hour, 250-degree trip back into the oven. An extra half-hour was needed to bring the meat up to the right serving temperature - the only place where Hebert's instructions fell a little short.

Served To Smiles. At the end of that process, the turducken emerged looking pretty beautiful, like a paprika-dusted turkey with only the slightest hints of greater complexity inside, revealing the sectioned meats only when we pulled out the slices for serving. They held together perfectly, getting splashes of the rich brown gravy, and everyone at the table was pleased by the pieces - surprised, even, by their size and interesting appearance. The 9-pound portion was more than enough for our small group of six people, with plenty left over at the end.

But wait: only "pleased?" Is that the best we could say about a frankenbird that sells for roughly 10 times the price of a standard 16-pound turkey? Yes. Those of us who had experienced turducken in its less expensive Cajun Grocer and restaurant forms agreed that the Hebert's version was better - considerably better, really; as between the meat and the preparation, what arrived on our table for Christmas was entirely moist, thick, and full of duck flavor, a major departure from the dried, predominantly turkey flavors of versions we'd tried before. Even so, the experience of eating these birds stuck together with the sausage stuffing wasn't entirely satisfying; predictably, the flavors ran together, and a couple members of our group opined that it was only different, not better, than eating turkey. They weren't the table's biggest fans of duck, but even the duck fans felt the same way. Once again, the Cajun touches - the spices, the stuffing - were a lot milder than we'd expected, and the stuffing wasn't as plentiful as we'd hoped it would be.

So to wrap up the question posed above - "what's the big deal about turducken?" - the answer is this: it's more complex, unique, and expensive than a standard turkey, but even if you splurge on the best shippable version out there, be prepared to be less than completely blown away by the experience. Having tried it before, we've always found turducken to be more appealing on paper than in execution, and though the birds delivered by Hebert's Meats turned out better than their predecessors, we wouldn't recommend them to everyone. Consider a turducken if you have extra cash burning a hole in your pocket and a group that you want to impress with largess; you may be able to have a more satisfying experience if you're willing to put in the time to make it yourself and customize the proportions of spices, stuffing, and poultry to your tastes. Otherwise, a plain old turkey with some traditional stuffing, properly cooked, has an equally high chance of thrilling everyone's taste buds. Seriously.

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Comments (3)

meegan Stamm :

Very interesting. I love to cook and try new foods! Not sure if I'll ever order one given the price but you never know!

Elaine :

After eating Turducken, I wondered what the big deal was. It was much like the ButterBall turkey breasts I make at home. Can't imagine anyone bothering with the preparation you describe more than once in a lifetime, or even ordering it out in a restaurant. Side dishes are vastly more interesting and delicious than the foul wrapped in foul wrapped in foul.

L.S. :

I've tried it twice, and it is a feast for the eyes, the nose, and most certainly the tongue and taste buds. It is seldom offered in restaurants, and never offered in WNY to my knowledge. It therefore qualifies as a truly unique treat and a very special and memorable meal even if it doesn't provide the ultimate gourmet sensation. The bottom line: A beautiful feast for a holiday meal!

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