Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Turkey Trifecta

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. Any day that centers around ridiculous amounts of good food is tops in my book! I also love that it's the season of cheap meat. In the next couple of weeks, turkeys will go on sale and stay that way until the new year. Depending on where you shop, you can get a 20 pound turkey for around $5. Last year, Randy and I found fresh, never-frozen turkey for 50 cents per pound. For some reason, we didn't buy twelve of them. We won't make the same mistake this year.

I forgot to take a shot of the turkey, so here's Parker instead
One of the best things about Thanksgiving is the leftovers – it's universally acknowledged. Nothing beats the next day's turkey sandwiches. Also universally acknowledged, though, is how tired most people get of their leftover turkey before it's gone. This keeps most people from cooking more than one or two turkeys a year, which I see as a tragic missed opportunity.

I love turkey and eat it in some form or another year-round. Mostly because it's cheap, but also because it's so versatile. WinCo usually has turkeys for around $1/lb, which is as cheap as you can expect meat to be without a special sale. The problem is, you have to buy at least 12 pounds of it. Without a large family gathering, 12 pounds of any meat is excessive – and most turkeys are closer to 20 pounds.

We've developed a method to get the most out of a turkey without having to eat our way through an entire bird in one fell swoop. The first step is to discard the notion of cooking the entire bird at once. That seems easiest, but it results in way too much turkey, which is why I rarely cook a whole turkey. Well, that and the fact that I have trouble cooking whole birds – it's not nearly as easy as it seems. Something always goes wrong. Always.

In order to manage the bird, we divide it into three basic sections.

Section One: Wings and Drumsticks:
The wings and drumsticks have a good amount of meat, but are a pain to de-bone. I never realized how many tendons are in a drumstick (eleventy billion) until I tried to separate the raw meat from them once. I never tried again – it's that much of a pain. Since they are so annoying to deal with raw, I bake them, then strip the meat off – it's a lot easier to separate the meat from the bones/tendons when it's cooked. This meat gets packaged up and frozen for later use in tacos or turkey sandwiches.
I use the broiler pan so I don't have to fish the meat out of the fat

Section Two: Breasts and Thighs
This really covers anything that's left that is relatively easy to remove; although mostly it's breast and thigh meat, there's meat from the back involved also. We aren't particularly meticulous at this stage; our knives aren't that sharp and Randy's fingers are half-frozen (I'm not allowed to use knives in this situation because I'm too prone to cutting parts of myself off). This is about getting the most useful amounts of meat on, not getting every last bit. The scraps that are left behind have a purpose.

The bread we used in lieu of buns for our turkey burgers!
The meat Randy removes at this stage gets ground. At this point, we can use it for a variety of different purposes: turkey burgers, bratwursts, or breakfast sausage. If we plan to use the ground meat to make brats or sausage, we add the skin to the pile of meat to grind; without the extra fat the skin provides, the sausage comes out a bit too dry. This is the biggest cost-saver, since ground turkey can cost up to $3.99/lb and turkey shaped into burgers or seasoned as sausage is even more expensive.

When making burgers, we tend to go very basic – just ground turkey formed into patties. Every once in a while, we add a binder such as eggs or bread crumbs, but not often. Turkey burgers freeze very well either raw or frozen – just put a piece of parchment paper or wax paper between patties. Foil works also, but tends to get stuck to the patties a bit more readily.

Step Three: Scraps and Bones
Pepper ends, kale stems, and veggie bits
What's left is a mangled, hacked-apart carcass, a neck, and the packet of organs – a pile of extras that is perfect for making stock. I love making stock because it's basically free food. The only ingredients you need are things you would have otherwise thrown out, and the result is a good base for any number of recipes. I keep a big bag of veggie scraps in my freezer to use in stock – things like the ends of onions and carrots, stalks from salad greens, tops of radishes and peppers, and pretty much anything else that gets cut off when I use vegetables. I put all the turkey scraps and bones in the crock pot, add a couple handfuls of veggies, cover it all with water, turn it on low and go to bed.

It looks good even uncooked!
When the stock is done, I separate out the bones and veggies and throw them out. I also strain out the meat scraps. Usually, this is about two pounds of meat. At this point, I can go in a couple different directions with the stock. I can cool it then pour it into quart-sized Ziplocs to freeze - this is the most versatile option, as I can later use the stock in any number of recipes (although I mostly use it for soups and risottos).  If I go this route, I freeze the meat separately to use later in a soup or casserole.  Alternatively - and more efficiently as far as most meals created at one shot - I can add the meat back in and make soup or chili. Either way, I end up bagging and freezing a crock pot full of goodness.

The End Result:
We just broke down a 17-lb turkey and got the following:
21 turkey burgers (6 ½ lbs of meat)
1 lb of cooked turkey from the legs/wings – enough for two taco dinners or one hot turkey sandwich dinner.
1 lb of turkey sausage
3 one-gallon Ziplocs of turkey soup (about half-full each)

Bonus picture of Zoey in a pot
By dividing the meat up this way, we get a variety of meals out of every turkey and never have to worry about getting burned out on turkey. I'm not thinking that I'm eating pound after pound of turkey leftovers – I'm having a burger or chili or biscuits and gravy. An even better benefit is that in the time it takes to make a turkey dinner, you end up with several mostly prepared meals, which is always nice for a low-energy night, and a lot cheaper and healthier than either fast food or a TV dinner. After a couple of turkeys get broken down, there's even a good variety of meals to choose from, so you don't get burned out on any one thing.


  1. You forgot about all the jewelry we make out of the bones.

    1. Don't give away our idea for Christmas presents! ;)

  2. ^^^Hahaha!!
    I LOVE Thanksgiving food, and the sandwiches after YUM! I'm super excited. That being said, wow, that's a lot of work! I have made turkey soup with the carcass, but that's about as far as I go with it. I only really like the breasts though. *super picky*

    1. It seems like a lot of work, but it doesn't take long - most of it is just wait time. The only part that takes any effort is grinding the meat, and I make Randy do that ;)