10 Turkey Myths, Debunked
Let's talk turkey—specifically, turkey myths.
1. Special amino acids in turkey meat make people sleepy.
The essential amino acid L-tryptophan is present in turkey, yes. The human body uses tryptophan to make the key neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin. These neurotransmitters have a soothing effect. However, to get enough tryptophan in your system to lull you to sleep, you’d have to consume nothing but pure tryptophan on an empty stomach. If you feel a nap coming on, most likely it’s your body reacting to a daylong splurge of eating and drinking.
2. Benjamin Franklin pushed for the turkey to be our national symbol.
Ben’s proposed national seal involved Moses parting the Red Sea. Two years after the approval of the now-familiar seal with the bald eagle, Franklin wrote a letter to his daughter, containing the passage in which he grumbles about the bald eagle being a bird of “bad moral character.” The bulk of the letter had to do with a military fraternity Franklin disapproved of, and in that context, Franklin’s supposed championing of the turkey makes little sense. You can read more here.
3. Always rinse the bird under cold running water before cooking.
Ah, salmonella. This relentless bacteria has ruined the fun of cooking poultry. Rinsing the carcass sends those buggers down the drain, right? Not really. It only spreads them all over the bird (and possibly the sink and countertop, too.) Your best bet is to skip the rinse. Molly Stevens, author of the James Beard Award-winning cookbook All About Roasting, advises salting the skin, then leaving the bird uncovered in the fridge for up to two days, allowing its skin to dry out and become taut; this results in crispier skin after roasting.
4. All turkeys gobble.
Actually, it's only the males who gobble. Turkeys have a whole range of sounds: hens make high-pitched yelps, and strutting toms produce a non-vocal thump, like a bass drum. Males and females alike sound a choppy series of honks as an alarm when they suspect predators. Want to hear for yourself? Check out this turkey soundboard.
5. Native Americans introduced Pilgrims to turkey at the first Thanksgiving dinner.
European colonists were already old hats at turkey farming and cooking. Spanish explorers brought domesticated turkeys back home from the New World, and turkeys started appearing on English menus by 1527. Soon there were so many different European breeds that most of today's dinner table turkeys have ancestors from Holland or Austria.
6. Turkeys have colorful plumage.
Some do, but nearly all of the turkeys raised for consumption today don’t. These birds are Broad Breasted Whites, a breed developed to convert feed to flesh in the most efficient manner possible. Their feathers are mostly white; after dressing, their carcasses are pale, without the tiny spots that turkeys with darker feathers sometimes have.
7. Those plastic pop-up thermometers tell you when your turkey is cooked.
Nope. They let you know when your turkey is overcooked. The USDA recommends cooking turkey to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Single-use thermometers are calibrated to pop at 180 to 185 degrees Fahrenheit, pointlessly ruining your bird. Instead, use a simple instant-read probe thermometer (a decent one costs five to ten bucks) and take multiple readings, sterilizing the probe after each, for greatest accuracy.
8. Turkeys can’t fly.
Sure they can! They’re just not great at it. Turkeys evolved to spend the majority of their lives on their legs, pecking about for food. Wild turkeys can fly up to 100 yards, but they don’t very often. The broad-breasted breeds developed for industrial agriculture can’t fly, because their strength-to-mass ratio is too out of whack.
9. White meat is better for you.
Boneless, skinless white meat does contain fewer calories and fat than boneless, skinless dark meat, but the nutritional differences between the two are small. Dark meat offers a greater density of nutrients like B vitamins and iron, so don’t feel guilty if you’re a fan of drumsticks or thighs.
10. Turkeys are so stupid that they drown in the rain.
While turkeys do in fact sometimes look skyward for no apparent reason (poultry scientist Tom Savage identified this condition as a genetically-caused disorder), cases of them drowning while doing so are rare. As for stupidity, turkeys can be intelligent and personable; factory-farmed turkeys aren’t bred for brains, though, and their ungainly, top-heavy frame doesn’t help their public image much.
All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise stated.