Tutorial Tuesday #10–Buying and Preparing a Heritage Breed Turkey

burbon redThis is a bit of a repost from last year’s turkey experience, with some additional consumer information thrown in. We have our heritage turkey on order for this year and plan a repeat of last Thanksgiving!

Turkeys, man. There is a lot of pressure on the turkey at Thanksgiving. Even if you make a million roasted chickens (which does help), you can’t help but be a bit on edge when you are responsible for everyone’s Thanksgiving turkey. Now, I have an awesome family, and they are always great about whatever turkeys I’ve cooked, even when they haven’t been all that tender. But still, I like to make something that is worth the 5 hour drive to my house. So this year made me especially nervous. I was cooking a new (old) kind of bird.

This year, we ordered a Bourbon Red heritage breed turkey from Homestead Harvest Farm in Wake Forest. Jan raises a limited number of birds with lots of sunshine, grass and love. I’ve heard a lot about heritage breed turkeys and how different they are from the standard grocery store variety, but I’ve never had one, so when I had the opportunity to place an order this summer (yes, this summer!) at the Downtown Raleigh Farmer’s Market, I jumped at the chance.

What is a heritage breed turkey?

Heritage breed turkeys can trace their lineage back at least one hundred years.

According the the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, heritage breed turkeys must meet all three of the following conditions. First, they must mate naturally and must be the product of at least two generations of turkeys that have mated naturally. Second, they must have a long, productive lifespan (5-7 years for hens and 3-5 years for toms) and they must be able to live outside. Third, they must have a slow to moderate rate of growth (about 28 weeks).

This doesn’t seem like a big deal, except that grocery store turkeys don’t meet any of these. Nope, they can hardly walk and can’t even mate by themselves. Do I want to know? No, I do not.

Most current turkeys on the market are a mashup of different varieties designed to maximize the amount of white meat and reduce the amount of dark meat. As a result, these birds are frequently given growth hormones and filler food to make the breast portion of the bird as large as possible. Heritage breed turkeys have a ratio of white to dark meat that is about 50/50, making them more flavorful and juicy. Because they are not given growth hormones and are typically raised to be…well…turkeys, they are more expensive and harder to find.

Our bird, Mr. Gibbles as he was named by Ellie, was “processed” Monday, picked up Tuesday and served on Thursday. I’ve never in my life had a turkey so fresh. At 17 pounds, he was quite a good sized bird! Our first observation was that he looked pretty different from the grocery variety. He seemed longer than a grocery turkey and he was not in that strangely uniform, compact shape. Ellie remarked that he really looked like a “real” bird. We got him all ready for his last journey in the oven and served him up to a delighted family. So how was it? Pretty darn fabulous. Very juicy, lots of rich, turkey flavor (almost like a wild turkey) and great texture to the meat. I don’t think we’ll ever go back again.

Cooking Mr. Gibbles was very different from cooking a frozen bird. First, it does not take nearly as long to cook a fresh, heritage breed turkey. Our 17 pound turkey took 2 hours and15 minutes. For reals. And I used a thermometer backup to make sure. Second, heritage breed turkeys have a wonderful layer of thick fat under the skin, so basting is completely unnecessary. He basted himself, which was terrific, although when serving, the fat freaked my dad out a bit.

We used the recipe below, which was suggested by Homestead Harvest Farm and it worked beautifully. Being a skeptic, I allowed more time than I really needed, which made for some quick hurrying around when the turkey was done so soon, but it all worked out in the end.

Check your farmer’s markets for fresh and/or heritage breed turkeys. Not only will you know a lot about your turkey, you won’t have a frozen block o’ turkey in your refrigerator stressing you out about when it will be thawed! And, most importantly, you will be getting a turkey that does not have added sodium, artificial coloring or artificial flavoring added!

Here is some shopping information to keep in mind as you shop for your turkey:

Fresh Turkey: “Fresh” is really a misnomer here. Turkeys can be labeled as fresh if they have never been chilled below 26 degrees F. It does not mean that they were never frozen, because if you remember from science class, “freezing” is 32 degrees. These turkeys may have been stored at farms or markets for months before being sold, so always ask when your bird was actually processed.

Frozen Turkey: Frozen turkeys have been stored at temperatures below zero degrees. They can be frozen for many months before being shipped to grocery stores. Frozen turkeys are the most commonly purchased turkey in the U.S. and are the most economical.

Not Previously Frozen Turkey: This means that the turkey was chilled below 26 degrees F, so it can’t be called “fresh”, but above 0 degrees F, so it does not need to be labeled “frozen”. Otherwise, it means nothing in terms of the quality of the turkey.

Natural Turkey: The term “natural” only means that there is no seasoning or coloring added to the turkey. It does not reflect on how the turkey was raised or processed.

Kosher Turkey: Kosher turkeys are raised on grain, and are not given chemical stimulants. Allowed to graze freely, these turkeys are raised, killed and prepared according to kosher regulations, which includes a salt brine soak, which many of us do at home anyway. Keep in mind though, that the brine included in the turkey package adds to the weight of the turkey and increases your price.

Free Range Turkey: Like many labels, “free range” could mean something or it could mean very little. To be labelled “free range,” a turkey only has to have access to outside air for a few minutes a day. Again, ask questions. Grocers can charge a premium for “free range” turkeys–it’s up to you to find out what the label means in your circumstance.

Certified Organic Turkeys: These birds are raised with specifically designated feed, hormones and without any added chemicals.

Here is the recipe we used for our heritage breed turkey. Whatever turkey you choose, we hope you enjoy it with friends and loved ones!

Roasted Heritage Breed Turkey

  • 1 fresh heritage breed turkey at room temperature
  • Kosher salt and ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • Fresh sage and rosemary, chopped
  • 4 cups chicken broth or white wine
  1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
  2. Mix the butter and chopped herbs until well combined.
  3. Rub the butter mixture over the turkey skin and under the skin if you can.
  4. Sprinkle the bird with salt and pepper
  5. Put the turkey in a large roasting pan. Add broth or wine to the bottom of the pan.
  6. Butter a piece of parchment to fit over the turkey. Use the parchment to make a tent over the turkey.
  7. Insert a meat thermometer into the breast.
  8. Put the bird in the oven and roast until the breast meat is 145 degrees. Do NOT open the oven door during this time.
  9. Remove the parchment tent over the turkey and continue cooking until the internal temperature is 155-160.
  10. Remove turkey from the oven (the meat temperature will continue to rise after removing it from the oven).
  11. Let the turkey rest for about 20 minutes before carving.
  12. Carve and serve the turkey with trimmings.Voila!

5 responses

  1. We are lucky enough to have won the turkey lottery this year . .. a friend who raises free-range tuirkeys added us to her list! I’ll pick it up Tuesday and serve it Thursday, and I can’t wait! I do plan to stuff the bird, so I guess mine will take a bit longer per pound than yours. I think this might warrant the purchase of a digital thermometer with the readout outside the oven! Thanks for the great advice!

  2. Pingback: Over 280 million turkeys are slaughtered annually for human consumption in the United States | spiritandanimal.wordpress.com

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