Voted Best Overall and Best Value
"Poultry in Motion"
Turduckens -- Cajun Combos --
Fly In by Mail for Our Test;
Where's Bird's Inner Chicken?
By ALEXANDRA WOLFE
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Growing up in Covington, La., Mickey Harris could just head to his local grocery store to pick up a "turducken": a turkey, stuffed with a duck, stuffed with a chicken. But when the 40-year-old real-estate consultant moved to Southern California six years ago, the Cajun specialty dropped off his menu.
Now, Mr. Harris is getting tradition delivered on ice. He's ordering his first turducken online, and plans to serve the poultry trifecta to Thanksgiving guests at his Del Mar home. "It's all about maintaining your roots," he says. "When you grow up in the swamp with mosquitoes, you're going to have a sense of humor, or how else are you going to come up with a turducken?"
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These birds of a feather, cooked together, have migrated from regional oddity to national foodie fad. From the outside, a turducken looks like a turkey, but when you cut through it -- the turkey is partly deboned, and the duck and chicken are boneless -- you get concentric rings of poultry and stuffing. The stuffing is typically cornbread, rice, or andouille-and-crawfish. For poultry-lovers (or the indecisive) it's one-stop shopping.
Three birds in one: Slicing the turducken reveals the nested fowl.
There are now at least a dozen online turducken sellers who ship the dish anywhere in the U.S. Kevin Trahan, owner of Cajun Stuff, a food purveyor based in Houston, says that when he launched his Web site in 1997, he was the only one selling turducken online. His Web turducken sales have increased 20% annually since then, and he expects to ship 2,500 turduckens this holiday season. Hickory Farms, the mail-order giant, says it has recently shipped turduckens to Hawaii and Alaska. The Institute of Culinary Education, a New York cooking school, introduced a turducken-making class to its curriculum last year.
Since most people have neither the time nor the butchering skills to prepare a fresh turducken (roughly a 12-hour project from de-feathering to carving), we decided to wing it by ordering six frozen turduckens from different online stores. The turduckens were delivered packed on ice -- except one, and we're way too chicken to try unrefrigerated poultry.
We assembled a group of tasters and had our turduckens cooked at the Institute of Culinary Education, which gave us the use of five ovens and the help of its staff for our battle of the birds. As we waited roughly five hours for our flock to roast, we wondered: Would turducken-by-mail deliver the medley of flavors prized in the Bayou? Would the skin be crisp and the meat be moist -- or the other way around? Or would the whole thing fall apart like a cheap Russian nesting doll? And with the turduckens costing from $60 to $115, is this triple entente of flavor really worth it?
The first turducken we tasted was from Hickory Farms. Unlike the others, it contained rice stuffing, which was falling out of the turducken before it went in the oven. Things got sloppier from there. Though its skin was crispy and golden brown, rice spewed everywhere the moment we cut into the breast. We also found this turducken to be a little skimpy on its crucial innermost component. One taster poked around his dish, wondering, "Where's the chicken?"
In almost every case, we found the duck portion of our turduckens to be far too tough and gamey to be enjoyed, but the turducken from French Market Foods was an exception: "The duck is actually edible!" one taster exclaimed. The stuffing was thick and rich with a strong taste of pork sausage, but yet again, the chicken was elusive: We didn't see it until we were almost done slicing through the bird.
The turducken from Gourmet Foods arrived with a string that wraps around the bird like a net, and stays on until just before it's carved. Each layer of poultry and stuffing was clearly visible when we sliced into it -- it looked like a geological cross-section. The stuffing was good and spicy, but the duck was one of the driest we tasted. The underlying chicken, however, was surprisingly tender and moist. "How does the chicken stay juicy when you can barely bite into the duck?" one taster asked.
Turduckens date back at least to the mid-1960s, when Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme says he invented them -- but their origin is still debated. In an attempt to make a turkey easier to carve, he says he removed its bones, but the bird didn't hold up. After 10 years of trying, he says, "I started putting more than one thing together -- chicken and the duck to hold the turkey up -- with three different dressings."
French Market Foods
But Brian Buckley, an instructor at the Institute, says the turducken is likely based on the galantine, an 18th-century French combination of a deboned bird stuffed with forcemeat, a smooth mixture of finely ground veal, poultry, fish, vegetables or fruit mixed with bread crumbs and seasonings. Since Cajuns came to Louisiana in the late 18th century from French Canada, it's likely that they brought this recipe with them.
Cajun Stuff's turducken had by far the most advanced packaging. It was the only one to arrive in vacuum-sealed wrapping, which the company says keeps the bird fresh and juicy. When we carved it, the layers were clearly defined. Chef Andrew Gold, an instructor at the Institute, held two fingers together, "I could slice it this thin!" he said. But while pleasing to the eye, this bird was disappointing to the palate. "All the flavors blend together," said one taster. "Everything is too spicy," said another.
Our tasters found the turducken from CajunGrocer.com to be the most moist and tender. "The chicken is succulent," raved one. The cornbread stuffing was heartier and sweeter than the others. "It's like a corn muffin with pork," a taster said of the stuffing. What could be better than that? Of all our birds, this one was Best Overall. It was also one of the least expensive turduckens we ordered, so it's also our Best Value.
In the end, we thought that turducken -- despite being an elaborate feat of poultry engineering -- basically tastes like, well, chicken. And turkey. And duck. Most agreed with one taster, Jacob Snyder, a Los Angeles writer/producer, who said: "I'd much rather have a perfectly cooked turkey or duck or chicken." For others, though, the experience merely whetted their appetite for a greater culinary challenge. That would be fowl de cochon: 30 to 100 pounds of quail stuffed into a chicken, stuffed into a duck, stuffed into a turkey, stuffed into a pig.
Turducken with Cornbread Dressing, $59.95
QUALITY: Best Overall and Best Value. This bird, one of the largest we tested, was consistently tender. We loved the stuffing and Cajun spices.
SHIPPING COST/TIME: $28.13 for two-day shipping; $17 to $20 for Ground shipping. We paid $10 extra to overnight it over a weekend and got it in two.
RETURN POLICY: If the package or bird is defective, they give a full refund.
PHONE/WEB EXPERIENCE: The Turducken was easy to locate from the home page.
COMMENT: The site also offers a "qua-duc-ant" (a quail stuffed into a duck, stuffed into a pheasant).
Gourmet Cajun Turducken, Cornbread Stuffed, $59.99
QUALITY: This was the only one of our birds that came wrapped in string to hold it together, allowing the bird to retain its heat and moisture post-cooking.
SHIPPING COST/TIME: $64.94. Delivered it in three business days -- but to our billing address. They offered a refund.
RETURN POLICY: Refund if damages or shipping problems; they pay shipping fees.
PHONE/WEB EXPERIENCE: This Web site was the easiest to navigate with a Turducken banner right on the home page.
COMMENT: Apologetic about the shipping problem and called us back quickly. When we ordered, our bird cost $69.99.
QUALITY: This one's layers held together the best, but the flavors blended too much and tasted saltier than the others.
SHIPPING COST/TIME: Free shipping for two-day air. Overnight is $20 more. Ours arrived on time.
RETURN POLICY: Can be refunded if damaged, minus shipping fee.
PHONE/WEB EXPERIENCE: The turducken is front-and-center on the Web site with cooking information.
COMMENT: Site was easy to navigate and included customer reviews of available products.
French Market Foods
Turducken, Louisiana stuffing, $59.95
QUALITY: The duck was more moist than the other turduckens, but chicken was hard to find. Cornbread stuffing was a bit heavy with a strong taste of pork.
SHIPPING COST/TIME: $35 for three-day shipping. It arrived on time.
RETURN POLICY: French Market will refund the price of the bird and the shipping if defective.
PHONE/WEB EXPERIENCE: You have to register before checking out, which adds an unnecessary step.
COMMENT: Louisiana-based site asks if you want the bird shipped within or out of state (higher price out of state).
QUALITY: Rice-based stuffing started to fall out immediately after we took it out of the oven. The turkey and duck were dry.
SHIPPING COST/TIME: $33.85. Two-to-three-day shipping arrived early, on next business day.
RETURN POLICY: If defective, will ship another. Will also refund, minus shipping.
PHONE/WEB EXPERIENCE: Turducken was hidden on Web site that promotes mostly gifts and gift baskets.
COMMENT: Site suggests accompaniments, and will include a personalized gift card.