Roasted turkey is the traditional centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal, but can be tricky to conquer. Credit: slgckgc/Wikimedia Commons

CITYWIDE — Cooking a turkey is a challenge even for professional chefs. And most home cooks only do it once a year, on Thanksgiving, when it’s expected to be the centerpiece of the family and friends dinner table. It’s a nerve-wracking proposition for most.

But local butchers, chefs and turkey farmers have suggestions to ease the pain and ensure Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t end with a desperate call to the local pizza joint.

Getting A Bird

“Fresh is better than a frozen turkey,” said Rogelio Alday, owner of Windy City Poultry in Brighton Park, 4601 S. Kedzie Ave. “You don’t know how long [supermarkets] keep a turkey in the freezer.”

At Windy City Poultry, customers can pick out a live bird, and Alday and his staff will slaughter and dress it for them. For the freshest turkey, Alday said it’s best to order the Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday of Thanksgiving week.

If you’re really concerned about the quality of your turkey, consider ordering from a local farm, said Alex Finn, a farmer at Finn’s Ranch in Buchanan, Michigan. Finn defined “local” as within 200 miles of where you live. Buchanan is about 90 miles from Downtown, so it qualifies, and it will deliver frozen turkeys to 14 locations around the city in the coming week.

Quality is more than just geography, though. Small farmers are less likely to use antibiotics and hormones on their animals, and the turkeys are allowed to roam free and eat grass and bugs, Finn said. This has an effect on the flavor of the meat.

“It’s hard to describe how turkey should taste,” Finn said. “Turkey meat is not very flavorful. It’s more subtle. Store-bought turkeys are chewier and more rubbery. When you have a local farm turkey, it doesn’t have those characteristics.”

Some local farms, such as Mint Creek Farm, in Stelle, Illinois, offer customers a choice of three breeds of heritage turkey with varying amounts of light and dark meat. They’re available for pickup at several points around the city this week for frozen and next for fresh.

Cooking Your Turkey

Once you have the turkey, it’s time to cook it. Finn suggested following the USDA guidelines for defrosting a turkey, though she said it is possible to roast it from frozen — just expect it to take longer.

Andy Glykofridis, manager of Peoria Packing in the West Loop at 1300 W. Lake St., is a self-described Greek chef. He said that the moister a cook can keep a turkey while it’s roasting, either by regular basting or injecting the bird with butter, the better it will taste.

Glykofridis advised caution for people considering cooking turkey in a deep fryer.

“If you’re going to cook it in the deep fryer like a lot of people do, you have to defrost it very well,” he said. “When it’s frozen, the frost will come out as water, and you’re going to have a big explosion and you’re going to mess up the turkey.”

If you find yourself in a tight spot or need reassurance, chef Steven Chiappetti of the Albert in Streeterville, 228 E. Ontario St., will take calls at 1-833-THX-CHEF 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Nov. 22.

On Thanksgiving, the Butterball Turkey Helpline will be back in action at 1-800-BUTTERBALL, dispensing advice in English and in Spanish by both phone and text. 

… Or Have Someone Else Cook It

If you’re really nervous about your turkey, there’s no shame in sending it elsewhere to be cooked. Sun Wah BBQ in Uptown, 5039 N. Broadway, has cooked turkeys for customers for 30 years, said general manager Kelly Cheng.

It started when Vietnamese immigrants who lived in the neighborhood and worked in factories would receive holiday turkeys from their employers. They didn’t know what to do with them, so they went to Sun Wah’s chef — and Kelly’s father — Eric Cheng, for help. 

Eventually, the service became a tradition. When Sun Wah began advertising the turkey cooking service 20 years ago, other neighbors began coming by, as well.

Even so, it took Eric Cheng and his staff some time to figure out how to roast turkey properly, Kelly Cheng said.

“Turkeys have a disproportionate body,” she said. “It’s not like a chicken or a duck where the thickness of the meat is the same. It has extremely thick breasts and comparatively thin legs. When you cook the legs perfectly, the breast is undercooked. If the breast is perfectly cooked, you have charcoal for legs.”

Eric Cheng initially suggested cooking the legs and breasts separately, but his daughter explained to him that Thanksgiving turkeys had to look beautiful — for Instagram.

“It became a challenge to learn how to cook the bird properly without making it ugly,” Kelly Cheng said. “We learned a few things.”

Sun Wah’s cooks roast turkey the way they roast duck, in the Hong Kong style with five spice powder, salt, sugar, garlic, ginger, cilantro and MSG. Customers must bring their turkeys in by 5 p.m. Sunday and sign up for a pickup slot on Thanksgiving. The service costs $5.50 per pound, and Kelly Cheng said the kitchen only has the capacity for 100 turkeys.

For a slightly different flavor, try getting your turkey smoked at Hagen’s Fish Market in Portage Park, 5635 W. Montrose Ave. The service is available year-round, said staffer Nayid Cortes, but it’s especially popular on Thanksgiving. Cortes advised customers to bring in their turkeys the weekend before the holiday to make sure they’re ready by Thursday. The cost is $2.60 a pound.

If after all this, you still can’t abide turkey, there’s no shame in eating something else on Thanksgiving. Glykofridis laughed when asked how he prepared his own turkey.

“In Greece, we don’t have turkeys,” he said. “I’m cooking a lamb.”

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