Upbringing Makes Diestel a Winning Bird

SF-chronicle

by Robin Davis, Chronicle staff writer
November 17, 1999

Now that you know the best way to cook a turkey (see related story, this page), which brand of turkey should you start out with to get the best results? or does the brand make no difference at all?

Some people swear by fresh turkeys; others insist that frozen turkeys preserve the bird’s flavor at its peak. Then there’s the question of free-range.

Today’s panel tasted nine brands of turkey including frozen, fresh and free-range, ranging in price from 79 cents per pound to $2.79 per pound.

All weighed between 11 and 15 pounds. They were cooked simultaneously at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco according to the Best Way instructions (see page 4).

When the turkeys came out of the oven, they all looked the same. Each sported crispy looking, nicely browned skin. But flavor was another story.

The turkeys were allowed to rest for 15 to 20 minutes before being carved. Then each panelist was given dark meat and center cuts of breast meat – the breast was removed from the bone after roasting and cut crosswise into slices so that each panelist received meat close to the skin as well as close to the bone.

Overall, the fresh turkeys fared much better than the frozen birds. Only one of the frozen turkeys scored above 50 points. Those who believe that more exercise for turkeys means more flavor may be right; three of the top four spots went to free-range turkeys.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture allow turkeys to be labeled and marketed as free-range if they are allowed to roam outside (still within a confined area). That doesn’t mean that the birds actually do walk around, but they must be given the opportunity.

Free-range facts
On the other hand, it may be something other than just the free-range label that makes a great turkey. What the free-range distinction does not define is how much space the birds have in which to roam, what they eat, whether they have been given antibiotics or how they have been slaughtered and processed.

Joan Diestel of Diestel Turkey Ranch in Sonora, CA, says two other components make a big difference in the flavor of the turkeys: the feed and how old turkeys are when they are slaughtered. “We give the turkeys time to grow up naturally,” she says. They refer to it as “real flavor from real time.”

Diestel turkeys are raised on vegetarian feed, made up primarily of corn, and soybeans, with no added fat. The birds are 20 to 24 weeks when they are slaughtered, as opposed to most commercially raised turkeys which are 10 to 12 weeks.

The winner is…
According to the panel, what Diestel is doing makes a big difference. Diestel Turkey Ranch ($1.59-$2.79 per pound at many supermarkets) outscored its closest competitors by 15 points. (See chart below.) In fact, it scored so high it tied for the highest ranked product of the year.

All of the panelists commented on Diestel’s exceptional moistness – two pointed out that it was even juicy when cold. Two panelists also commented that the flavor was exceptional. Another described it as “everything a turkey should be.” All would buy it.

Tasters/Brand Diestel Willie Bird Foster Farms Norbest Zacky Farms Butterball
Carrol 18 12 16 15 9 11
Katzl 15 9 8 12 6 16
Passot 17 16 16 15 12 13
Severson 20 20 19 6 8 4
Webber 20 18 12 6 16 2
TOTALS 90 75 71 54 41 46

Panelists were John P. Carroll, cookbook author; Donna Katzl, chef-owner, Cafe For All Seasons, San Francisco; Roland Passot, chef-owner, La Folie, San Francisco, and Left Bank in Larkspur and Menlo Park; Kim Severson, S. F. Chronicle staff writer; and Kirk Webber, chef-owner, Cafe Kati, San Francisco. A perfect score for any product is 100. All products were tasted blind.