Cook the Tastiest Bird Ever This Thanksgiving!

Heritage turkeys boast an exceptional taste only hinted at in supermarket birds, and creating demand for them helps keep the historic birds from going extinct.

November 5, 2010

If you've never ordered a heritage-breed turkey for Thanksgiving, you've never truly enjoyed Thanksgiving. "This is what turkey's supposed to taste like," explains food writer Marian Burros, retired from The New York Times. "When you taste it, you think, 'Oh, this is why people like turkey. It's not just something to put gravy on.'"

These heritage breeds aren't just a foodie's novelty. They're rare birds that once dominated small-scale American agriculture but have since been replaced by a few specialized breeds that have been selected by factory farmers for maximum meat output and their ability to survive cramped, dirty, inhumane conditions. But some agricultural researchers and farmers are working to change all that. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is helping to save 12 breeds of turkeys that are nearing extinction in an effort to preserve the genetic diversity that once allowed small American farmers to raise animals unique to their environments and their customers' needs.

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Yes, they are more expensive, ranging from $4 to more than $10 a pound. But if you have the means, investing in a heritage breed turkey this Thanksgiving could save an American farm! (And clearly, you'll also be supporting your taste buds, too!)

Photo credit: Ayrshire Farm

Reason #1: Taste

Heritage breed turkeys are the result of thousands of years of selective, traditional breeding for beauty, docile nature, ability to put on meat, and of course, excellent flavor. Burros and other heritage turkey lovers unanimously agree that the biggest boost in flavor in a heritage turkey versus a store-bought, broad breasted white type can be detected in the dark meat. "There is a huge flavor difference," says Marjorie Bender, research and technical program director for the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, adding that it even smells better while cooking.

In Burros' NYT blind taste test, she found that the dark meat from heritage breeds was several shades darker and juicier than that of supermarket turkeys that come from industrial farming operations. Heritage breed white meat also provides a slightly better flavor than supermarket brands. Bourbon Red, pictured here, is Burros' favorite heritage turkey (though she says they're all good).

Photo: Bourbon Red

Reason #2: It's Humane

Aside from the general cruelty of super-crowded, super-cheap, industrial turkey production, the way scientists have bred these birds is cruel. They can barely walk, and their massive breasts get in the way of naturally mating—your supermarket bird was artificially inseminated. Commercial turkeys you buy at the supermarket are broad-breasted whites, and they have been cross-bred to grow twice as fast and larger than heritage breeds, with much larger breasts. They're grown and slaughtered in 14 weeks.

"Commercial turkeys have joint and cardiovascular problems because their heart and lungs are an appropriate size for a heritage turkey, but not one twice that size," explains Bender. "Because the birds grow so fast, they put on muscle before their bones and ligaments are ready to carry that type of weight." The heritage breed Narragansett, pictured, grows at a steady pace for six to seven months, so the bird retains ability to behave naturally while living outside.

Photo: Narragansett

Reason #3: Food Security

Industry has really put all of its eggs into one basket, so to speak. Industrial producers grow 230 million commercial birds per year—all the fast-growing broad-breasted whites. In contrast, only about 25,000 heritage breed turkeys are raised each year, explains Roger Mastrude, president of the Heritage Turkey Foundation. If the birds in industrial "farms" become susceptible to a certain disease, their immune systems are not as strong as heritage breeds. So theoretically, disease could spread quickly and turkeys would go extinct—if we didn't have heritage breeds.

Good Shepherd Poultry farmer Frank Reese and conservation groups have been crucial in restoring heritage turkey flocks. And to keep building demand, consumers need to be part of the equation. "Even though these birds are rare, in order to save them, we have to eat them," says Bender. "This has been the job of the turkey, if we take that job away from it, it can't survive in a zoo. They can live there, but they don't remain a genetically robust, healthy population. Create demand. Enjoy turkeys."

Photo: Royal Palm, courtesy of Jeannette Beranger/ALBC

Find a Heritage Turkey

While supermarket brands often show off a logo bearing the photo of a heritage breed turkey in front of a small family farm barn, don't be tricked. Here's how to find heritage breed turkeys:

1. Visit Local Harvest to see if any farmers in your area raise heritage breed turkeys.

2. Ayrshire Farm in Virginia is sold out of fresh turkeys this year but has a few frozen heritage turkeys that were once part of the farm's flock of over 3,000 heritage birds. They are certified organic and certified humane.

3. Heritage Foods USA sells farmers' heritage breed turkeys, too.

Photo: Jersey Buff, courtesy of Jeannette Beranger/ALBC

Heritage Turkey Cooking Tips

Cooking a heritage breed turkey is different than cooking a commercial supermarket bird.

Here are some tips from Bender:

• Slow, moist heat is the key.

• Pay attention to your bird in the oven. Heritage breeds require less cooking time than factory birds.

• Cook at a lower temperature, around 325 degrees.

• Break the skin away from the flesh and place a pat of butter there.

• Use a folded cheesecloth dipped in turkey juice to baste.

• If you don't care about cooking the more perfect-looking turkey, cook it flipped over. The juices from the fattier dark meat will moisten the trimmer white meat.

• If you use a stuffing, consider trying something that provides moisture, like onions, carrots, or apples.

• You can cover the legs and sides with foil because they finish baking faster.

Photo: White Holland, courtesy of Jeannette Beranger/ALBC