COLLEGE STATION — If the Pilgrims had gone hunting for a turkey as big as a large dog, turkey might not have become the meat of choice for traditional Thanksgiving meals today.
The world’s heaviest turkey on record weighed 86 pounds — about the size of a large German Shepherd — and was grown more than three centuries later in England, according to Dr. Sarah Birkhold, poultry specialist with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service.
The turkey hens consumed now are traditionally raised to 14 to 16 weeks of age and a live weight of 14 to 18 pounds. From that, there would be 9 to 12 pounds of ready-to-cook, or dressed, meat, she said.
The toms (males) are raised to 18 to 22 weeks of age, a live weight of 30 pounds and a dressed weight of 14 pounds and up.
Large turkeys raised for institutional consumption reach 27 to 30 weeks of age and weigh more than 45 pounds alive. These turkeys yield about 30 pounds of ready-to-cook meat.
This year, about 295 million turkeys will be raised in the United States, up 2 percent from the 1994 total of 289 million. That translates into 6.61 billion pounds of live turkey, or 5.2 billion pounds of ready-to-cook turkey, she said.
Americans consume about 15 percent of those birds, or 44 million turkeys, at Thanksgiving, which is celebrated on Nov. 23 this year. About 7.3 percent are consumed at Christmas and 6.3 percent at Easter.
The average American eats about 18.3 pounds of turkey each year. “That seems like a lot until you remember that most of it is consumed as sausage or deli meat,” Birkhold said. The sandwich is America’s favorite way to eat turkey, she added.
Turkey has one-third to one-half fewer calories and fat than other deli meat options and generally costs less. It is low in calories, cholesterol and saturated fats. It is a high source of protein and polyunsaturated fats, which means it’s “nutrient dense,” she said.
“You’re getting more of a good thing for a lower cost in calories,” she added.
Fewer than 10 percent are raised “on the range,” she said. Most are raised in large poultry houses.
Domesticated turkeys don’t fly, but wild turkeys do. That’s primarily because of the larger breast bone and amount of breast meat which defeats their attempts to become airborne. “They just physically can’t get their bulk off of the ground,” Birkhold said.
Most of the turkeys are white broadbreasted turkeys, not the traditional brown or golden birds seen in many holiday decorations, she said.
If the traditional oven-baked method just doesn’t get the taste buds in a frenzy, she suggests that cooks try their hand at smoked turkeys, Cajun-style deep-fried turkey, or grilling tenderloins or the whole bird. Also an option are the boneless turkey rolls found in the freezer section of the supermarket.
Some poultry alternatives to turkey include:
Game hens — Each weighs in at about 1.5 to 2.0 pounds, and one per serving avoids leftovers.
Roasters — These are chickens that weigh in at about 5 to 8 pounds and may be roasted in the oven or smoked on a grill.
Regular chickens — By baking this with chunks of ham and vegetables, the chicken will pick up the smoky flavor of the ham.
Quail — Two or three of these make a serving, and may be stuffed with a jalapeno, wrapped in bacon and cooked on the grill.
Ducks and geese — Ducks are available in the freezer section of the supermarket and geese may be ordered from a butcher shop.