FEATHERED FEATURE: TURKEY SNOODS
(A Special Early-Bird Thanksgiving Edition of the Infinite Spider Blog)
What is a turkey snood and why do turkeys care?
By Karen McDonald and guest writer Anne Littlewolf
I couldn't resist, how fun is the word snood? It's a great word to throw out at the Thanksgiving dinner table, for parties, or when exchanging biological insults with your friends (yes, there are those of us that do this). Today's post will be in two parts, in the first part we'll examine exactly what a turkey snood is and why female turkeys care, and in the second part we'll provide you with some holiday tips for making sure your Thanksgiving turkey is tender and moist so you don't get snoody insults.
Let's start with a few key terms. A female turkey is a hen, a mature male is a gobbler, and a juvenile male is a jake. Baby turkeys are called poults. You can see the physical differences between jakes and gobblers in the images below.
- Hens are usually brownish with buffy tipped breast feathers, while gobblers usually look almost black in color, and their breast feathers are tipped with black.
- Jakes and Gobblers both have beards or modified feathers that dangle from their chest (they look almost like miniature horse tails). Jake beards are about 2-5" long and gobbler beards are 5-12" long. About 10-20% of females can grow beards too, but it's not common.
- When you look at the fanned tails of a jake v. a gobbler, you'll see that jakes have longer tail feathers in the center, while gobblers have tail feathers of equal length all the way around. Check out the jake in the far right corner of the picture below, see the longer tail feathers in the middle?
I'm not going to go into sordid detail about the anatomy of wild turkeys, there are lots of great websites that have already done that, and I want to get to the snoods. So, if you'd like to know more, check out the National Wild Turkey Federation website.
So, What Is a Snood?
Turkeys heads are not glamorous to humans, but they certainly are for female turkeys. Let's start with the bumps. All turkeys, male and female, have caruncles. These are the fleshy bumps on their necks and heads. The major caruncles are the big ones near the base of the throat, and the minor ones extend up the head with warty beauty. Large brightly colored caruncles are thought to be indicators of sexual fitness for females. And it's only the males that develop blue skin.
Like some lizards, turkeys can have a flap of skin that stretches from their lower beak to their neck, called a dewlap or wattle; but the most striking part of a turkey is often its snood. A snood is a loose bit of skin that dangles from the base of the upper mandible of the beak and hangs downward. During breeding season, when the male is excited, the snood may extend quite a ways past the beak and darken in color as the turkey becomes more excited. It's been shown that the size of the snood relates directly to the health of the male, and female turkeys really do like longer and larger snoods (yes, size matters for turkeys). In a paper by Buchholz, Dukes, Hetz, and Findley they showed that sexual ornamentation in male turkeys (like snoods) is a reliable indicator of parasite burden, and heritable disease resistance. They confirmed that longer snoods indicate that the males have fewer parasites, and are healthier than males with smaller snoods.
For a great video all about "Hot Turkeys," or at least what the female turkey finds "hot," check out this Science Friday video:
Now That You Know What Makes A Female Turkey "Hot" How Do You Cook A Turkey?
Everyone dreads "Turkey Day" to some degree or another, because there's a great deal of expectation. The infamous "dry as dust" turkey served to the family, the endless leftovers and, of course, who gets the wishbone all add up to a lot of questions. Let's take a look at some tips and hints for a delicious turkey and trimmings.
1. Don't cheap out: It's worth it to buy a reputable brand name of turkey. Sure, there are cheaper versions, but as I was taught, you get what you pay for. I prefer spending a little extra to get a good bird.
2. Allow thaw time: If the bird is frozen, allow it to thaw completely. If you thaw it in the refrigerator, then give approximately 1 day for every 5 lbs of turkey. It can take 4-5 days for a 20 lb bird to fully defrost!
3. Rinse thoroughly, inside and out: It sounds horrid, but you have to make sure the bird is completely clean inside before you start stuffing. Take it from someone who has experience with these things, once you rinse the bird you need to feel inside the bird for leftover bits of "innards". It's difficult to clean a bird and often little bits of liver, lungs, even the occasional bit of intestine may be stuck between the ribs or other bones. You want to make very sure those are cleaned out and rinsed thoroughly.
4. Check over the skin of the bird for pin feathers, tiny pieces of quill that might be stuck in the skin and if you find the occasion hair on the carcass simply singe it off with a match---don't try to pull it out, it won't work. Just hold a match to the hair and let it burn off.
5. Be sure the neck cavity is clean and remove any excess fat that may be accumulated there. Check the neck cavity carefully, often they store gizzards and innar bits in there in a paper packet. If you're not cooking it, then take it out. You don't need it and it will only make your bird greasy. Leave the neck flap of skin in place, but you will probably want to remove the tail. Use a sharp butcher knife and cut the tail off between the vertebrae and discard. There's no real value in keeping it.
6. Prepare your stuffing: Whether you use packaged stuffing or an old family recipe, fill the body cavity of the bird only about 3/4 full to allow for expansion. To liven up package stuffing, add in chopped celery, apple pieces, dried cranberries, walnuts, water chestnuts, chopped carrot pieces or even onion pieces any way you like. To make the stuffing extra tasty, instead of adding plain water to the mix, use chicken broth instead. To keep the stuffing in place tuck a piece of foil over the cavity of the bird. (Karen here, I like wild rice stuffing with sage sausage, carrots, apples, and cranberries. For those that are gluten intolerant, try cornbread stuffing).
7. Treat the skin: Take your hand and lift up the skin slightly, so that it separates from the breast. Shove garlic, herbs, pepper and salt under the skin (as far as you can without tearing), and then use toothpicks to hold the skin back down. You can also brine the outside of the turkey with smoked sea-salt (rubbing the salt into the skin) and then letting it sit there. Cover the turkey with aluminum.
8. One of the biggest causes of dry turkey is over-cooking. You absolutely DO NOT need to cook a bird for 10 or twelve hours. That makes dry, horrible meat which is better used for shoe leather than dinner. Start the bird at 400 degrees (covered in aluminum) for about 1/2 and hour to 45 minutes, then drop the temperature back to 350. This locks in the juices. Slow cooking, then makes the meat tender. Don't uncover the bird until the last hour or so of cooking, then you should begin basting it.Letting the bird cook in an open pan causes it to be too dry too. If the pan is a bit small, make a good tent of aluminum foil and be sure the edges are sealed down. That will help hold in steam and creates a better result. For a chart on how many hours you should plan on, check out the Home Cooking chart. Cook time depends on if the bird is stuffed or unstuffed (stuffed takes longer). It's about 20-30 minutes per pound.
9. Buy a $2 meat thermometer: A meat thermometer is critical to making sure the bird is completely done. When you check for the temperature of the meat, remove the pan cover/aluminum and let the bird finish browning in the last hour. After cooking for several hours, insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the breast and take a reading. It should reach at least 180 degrees in the thigh and about 165 in the breast or stuffing. Another good way to check for "done-ness" is to wiggle the leg of the bird. If it moves easily and freely, it's done, if it offers some resistance, it needs to cook a bit more.
The rest of the trimmings are up to you, but a few very basic steps make the difference between an entrée that you're proud to serve or something that will become a nightmare story for future generations.
For those of you that don't cook animals with snoods or feathers, check out this great website on vegetarian alternatives to turkey.