You’ve unwrapped your turkey and are all set to start seasoning it. When you pat the meat dry, though, you notice something disturbing: a series of brown and black spots on the skin. What happened, and is it still safe to cook the turkey?
Brown/Black Spots on Turkey
Although domestically raised turkeys are usually white, some breeds have darker feathers. This pigmentation can leave black or brown spots behind on the skin after the turkey is plucked. Sometimes, traces of the pinfeathers are left behind as well. These are harmless, and you can prepare and eat the turkey as planned.
What Do Those Black and Brown Spots on Turkey Mean?
If there are a series of dark spots on the turkey skin, don’t panic. The spots are most likely the remnants of the turkey’s feathers, left behind after plucking.
Many of the turkeys that are raised domestically have white feathers. Other varieties, which we’ll get into later, have darker feathers. This pigmentation can leave brown or black spots on the skin, even after plucking.
Turkeys with white feathers will often have pinfeathers on the carcass as well. However, due to their lighter color, the spots are less noticeable.
The dark spots are harmless, and the turkey will still be edible even if you leave them alone. However, if you don’t like the look of them, it might be possible to remove them using a pair of tweezers.
Domestic vs. Wild Turkeys
Let’s face it: Most of us aren’t taking to the woods to hunt down wild turkeys for our Thanksgiving dinner. That means we’re stuck with the domestic variety.
Aside from the color, is there any real difference between the turkeys that live in the wild and the ones that are raised for our consumption? The answer comes down to basic instinct.
The turkeys that are bred domestically are used to having humans around. More to the point, they haven’t learned to evade predators, because they’re kept in a sheltered space.
Wild turkeys, on the other hand, can survive in the woods because they’ve developed keen eyesight. They can also reach speeds of up to 55 miles per hour in flight, which might surprise you, as it’s rare to see a turkey in the air.
Other Interesting Facts about Domesticated Turkeys
Domesticated turkeys are a common sight these days. But did you know that studies suggest that the practice has been around for centuries? There are relics from the year 25 AD indicating that Native Americans were raising turkeys for food, even back then.
In the sixteenth century, Spanish explorers discovered wild turkeys in Mexico, where the birds had been domesticated by the Aztecs. The explorers brought some of these specimens back across the Atlantic to Europe, where they rapidly gained popularity.
Not surprisingly, the colonists who would take up residence in North America in the late 1500s and early 1600s brought turkeys with them. The practice of enjoying turkey on festive occasions continues in the US to this day.
Another interesting tidbit: It’s illegal to release a domesticated pen-raised turkey back into the wild.
For one thing, the domestic birds are unlikely to survive for long, as they haven’t developed the skills we mentioned earlier. But if they do breed with wild turkeys, they could contaminate the gene pool by introducing diseases that don’t exist in the bloodstreams of their cousins.
Popular Domestic Turkey Breeds
This heritage breed takes its name from the slate blue-gray color of its plumage. In truth, the feathers can range in color from light gray to solid black. They’re also called “Lavender” turkeys.
It’s easy to spot the magnificent red plumage on these heritage turkeys, which are renowned for their rich-tasting meat. Bourbon Reds have been bred in Kentucky since the 1800s and are named after the county of their origin.
As heritage breeds go, the Standard Bronze is one of the largest and most popular. Initially, these birds were a cross between the turkeys that were brought to America by the colonists and the wild specimens that the settlers encountered when they arrived.
As the name suggests, these turkeys were initially bred in Holland. Early settlers brought the bird to the US. While they have good maternal instincts and decent egg production, White Holland hens tend to break their own eggs as a result of their weight.
If you live in New England, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Narragansett turkeys. Hailing from Rhode Island, these birds are renowned for their early maturation and impressive egg production, as well as the quality of their meat.
It might seem strange to breed turkeys for appearance alone, given their popularity on the dinner table. But the Royal Palm, with its arresting black and white plumage, is raised mainly for exhibition purposes.
These turkeys are smaller than the ones raised for consumption. As a result, they’re better fliers than most of their domesticated cousins.
Broad Breasted White
The Broad Breasted White turkey is one of the easiest breeds to obtain, being available in most developed nations worldwide. Although they’re more vulnerable to illnesses than some breeds and can’t breed without insemination, they’re a profitable choice for farmers.
A cross-breed between Broad Breasted Whites and Royal Palms, these are distinguished by their delectable flavor and diminutive size. During their lifespans, Midget White turkeys are calm in demeanor and particularly skilled at jumping.
When Should You Buy a Fresh Turkey?
A good rule of thumb is to buy fresh meat as soon as possible before you intend to cook it off. This rule is especially pertinent when you apply it to fresh poultry.
You should buy a whole turkey no more than two days before cooking it if you’ve opted for a fresh bird. That doesn’t give you much of a window, which is why many chefs prefer to buy frozen turkeys.
Around the holidays, supermarkets and specialty grocery stores are inundated with shipments of “fresh” turkeys. The problem is, it’s hard for consumers to be sure exactly when the birds were slaughtered.
Fresh turkeys will usually be marked with a “sell by” or “best by” date. These can be useful guidelines, but they might not tell the whole story. It’s better to cook the meat off as soon as possible after you take it home.
One caveat: You can buy yourself more time by procuring the fresh turkey directly from the farm where it was slaughtered. When you buy directly from the source, you’ll have up to 10 days to cook the turkey before it starts to show signs of spoilage.
Do Frozen Turkeys Have Brown or Black Spots?
Sometimes. But this phenomenon is rare with frozen turkeys. As we pointed out, domesticated turkeys are usually white, which gives them a more palatable appearance after plucking.
If you do notice that your turkey has brown or black spots on it after thawing, there’s no need to worry. The pigmentation will be just as harmless if the meat was frozen.
How To Tell if Turkey is Bad
Now that you know that this discoloration is not a sign of spoilage, what are the signs you can watch for to determine whether the turkey has gone bad?
Timing is the most important factor. If the turkey hangs around in the fridge for too long, it’s bound to have outlasted its freshness. Cooking off the turkey within two days will cut down on the risk of spoilage.
Similar rules apply if you’ve thawed a frozen turkey. Once the meat is fully defrosted, you have two days before you should cook or refreeze it. Remember that if you thaw a turkey in cold water or the microwave, you need to cook it immediately.
If you’re wondering whether the turkey you bought is still fresh, smell it first. Most of the time, you’ll be able to tell when poultry has gone bad just by giving it a good sniff. This is true of all meat products, but bad poultry has a particularly foul scent.
Once the meat has passed the smell test, run your finger along the surface of the turkey skin. It should feel slightly moist, but not overly sticky or slimy.
Aside from the dark spots, the turkey skin should be pale peach to pink in color. Any greenish or graying patches indicate that the meat has been hanging around too long. Spots of blue, green, or white are clear signs that mold has begun to grow on the flesh.
If you notice any of these signs, it’s too late to save the turkey. While it’s disappointing to discard a whole bird, the last thing you want is to get sick as a result of consuming spoiled meat.
The Bottom Line
Since we usually don’t see the turkey until it’s been plucked and prepared for our consumption, it’s easy to forget that it was once a living creature with rich plumage. Once you remember that, you can rest assured that the spots on the skin are no big deal.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!