A Breed Apart: Heritage Turkeys

This holiday season, consider breaking with your supermarket-turkey ritual. Opt instead for an older tradition – a heritage bird.

The traditional Thanksgiving dinner centers on a giant, steaming stuffed turkey. No need to mess with that. But have you ever thought about what kind of bird you’re actually serving? Ever wondered where it came from, or how it was raised?

Over the last few years my family has fallen in love with heritage turkeys. A heritage turkey is a special kind of bird – one more akin to those our great-grandparents enjoyed. It bears relatively little resemblance to the commodity turkeys found on most conventional-supermarket shelves.

Heritage turkeys are generally raised by specialty farmers who offer them decent living conditions and a more natural environment, one free of antibiotics, feed additives and chemicals. This is a stark contrast to the majority of poultry raised today, much of which comes from factory farms that use water-holding chemicals and antibiotics to raise “superbirds” in a short amount of time. Commodity birds are bred for their broad breasts and abundance of white meat, but they often need additional moisture added to their meat because their lack of mobility creates poor muscle development. Also, most factory-farm turkeys are sold frozen, and freezing any meat with high moisture expands and breaks the protein strands, which can make the texture feel and taste rubbery.

Heritage birds are longer and leaner than conventional turkeys, with meatier legs and narrower breast muscles. Most heritage turkeys are processed at 24 to 26 weeks old (most supermarket turkeys are harvested between 12 and 16 weeks) and weigh between 10 and 15 pounds. This extra time really makes a difference. At 5 months old, turkeys add a distinctive layer of fat necessary for prime flavor and tender eating. This fat layer is also loaded with more healthy omega-3 acids than commodity birds harvested much earlier.

Heritage turkeys are far from “new,” and farmers like Joanne Griffin of Hawk’s Valley Farm in Spring Grove, Minn., and a growing number of others across the country, are helping to make heritage birds much more accessible. After learning about heritage birds from an old newspaper article, Griffin was inspired to do some online research and find out all she could about them. She contacted the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, ordered a slew of different chicks from several species and now breeds her own each year. Griffin raises them the old-fashioned way – plenty of sunshine, wild feed and room to roam.

The most common heritage turkeys are the same ones sold 60 years ago: Narragansett, Bourbon Red, Royal Palm, Blue Slate and Black Spanish. They typically are more expensive than supermarket birds – about $2 per pound more – but prices continue to fall each year as consumer demand increases. And you get quite a lot for your money. Not only is the flavor superb, but a 10- to 12-pound heritage bird can feed four to six people with plenty of leftovers for sandwiches and soups.

So why not buck tradition this year by starting a new tradition of your own? Make a heritage turkey the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving meal. You’ll be thankful you did.

Turkey Tips

Heritage turkeys require some extra care when cooking, but they are well worth the effort.

  • Wash your turkey in cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. Then brine it overnight in an herb-sugar-salt solution to season from the inside out (see recipe, opposite page). Let sit on a roasting rack to drip dry in the fridge, uncovered, for approximately 12 hours before cooking. This promotes a crisp skin and allows the muscles to relax after brining.
  • Rub the entire turkey with a smidge of butter to encourage even browning.
  • If you are preparing a large heritage turkey (more than 14 pounds), poach the backbone (dark meat side) of the bird in a shallow pan filled with 1 inch of boiling stock for 10 minutes before stuffing and roasting. This gives the dark meat, which takes the longest to cook, a head start.
  • Stuff your heritage turkey however you desire and cook at 325 degrees until the internal temperature of the thigh meat is 160 degrees. This guarantees that the connective tissues unique to poultry’s dark meat have broken down and are tender. Because heritage turkeys are smaller than supermarket birds, roast them breast down to keep the breast meat moist.
  • No basting! This dries out the turkey by putting oven-temperature melted fats (200 degrees hotter than your average turkey’s internal temperature during cooking) on the parts you are trying not to overcook.

Andrew Zimmern is a celebrated chef, expert culinary instructor and Experience Life's regular Edibles columnist. You can find more of Chef Andrew's recipes and cooking suggestions in the Edibles section. Contact Chef Andrew at chefaz@visi.com.

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