We have been led to expect our food look perfect. As far as turkey is concerned, the quest for a perfect looking white turkey breast has resulted in breeding bizarre, ungainly beasts that can no longer run, fly or even reproduce without artificial insemination. And all in the name of progress: what it can do is supply huge quantities of white breast meat at the expense of the dark meat from the leg and thigh. After years of selective breeding, only one breed of turkey, the aptly named Broadbreasted White, remains in large-scale production in the United States. A stocky specimen with short stubby legs, its disproportionate supply of white meat has come at the expense of taste and texture.
For many cooks, that has meant years of taking extreme measures to add flavor and moisture to the turkey via techniques such as brining, deep frying, or more simply dousing each serving in pan gravy.
Before supermarkets and distributors made the Broad Breasted White turkey the dominant bird on the market and the turkey most Americans are familiar with, diverse breeds such as the Narragansetts and Jersey Buffs offered consumers a turkey with greater flavor and texture. Now such turkeys, known as Heritage Breeds or “standard” turkeys, are making a small but noticeable comeback.The difference in taste is not just because of genetics but also because of their varied diet and their ability to graze, hunting and pecking for the grubs and bugs and grasses that make them taste good. Their firmness is due to their exercise. They also appear to have a nutritional advantage over industrial birds: because they eat more grass they have higher levels of the good omega-3 fatty acids, which may protect the heart and bring down levels of unhealthful triglycerides.
The common ancestor for all heritage breeds is the wild turkey, native to this continent. Wild turkeys went from Central America to Europe with the first explorers. Then they were imported to North America by English settlers as the black Spanish turkey, which was bred with the wild North American turkey. The Standard Bronze was the result and the other breeds followed: the Narragansett from Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island; the Bourbon from Bourbon County, Ky., and the Jersey Buff from New Jersey.
Another big difference between heritage vs industrial turkeys is how dry the industrial turkeys often are. They are bred to be ready for slaughter when they are three to three and a half months old, which explains why they are so dry and often injected with liquid. When you shorten the life of the bird, it never matures and never puts on the layer of fat. Heritage turkey farmers sell their birds when they are five or six months old and have acquired some fat.
This Thanksgiving, I bought one of those turkeys from a farm in Western Maryland. I roasted it very simply with butter, salt and pepper, the way I’d roast a chicken (recipe below). It came out of the oven looking like something out of a Norman Rockwell illustration – with long legs and a taut golden brown breast. It cooked quickly and was moist, juicy and suffused with flavor. The heritage bird also had texture, not as in tough but as in firm. The meat did not fall apart in my mouth, a characteristic of industrial birds. That night, I made a simple stock out of the carcass and used it for bean soup. The stock (just made by simmering the carcass in water with a halved onion and a halved head of garlic) was so rich and flavorful I didn’t need to use a ham hock to impart any more flavor or richness. So okay, at $6.20/pound, my 12 pound turkey cost nearly $75. But it fed 8 people with ample leftovers, then made over 4 quarts of rich delicious broth. Not a bad return on investment.
Local Harvest, is a green business which allows small and larger farmers to list their products. This is the best way to find a heritage turkey in your area, especially if you would like one raised on a small family farm. If you are in the DC area, email me for more information about my sources.
Simple Roast Heritage Turkey
Stay away from brining these birds as well which is a good technique for a bird that’s not on pasture. But these heritage breeds have distinct flavors reflecting the diversity of their diets. You’ll lose that if you brine them. Remember especially to take your bird out of the refrigerator a full hour before you roast it. The cooking time will vary dramatically.
1 Heritage Turkey
salt and pepper
Pre heat oven to 475
Let turkey come to room temp
Carefully separate skin from the breast meat and rub softened butter on breast
Season liberally with salt and pepper
Set the turkey, breast side up, on a rack of a large roasting pan. Tie the legs together with kitchen string.
Roast for 20 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees and cover turkey loosely with tin foil. Roast for about 12 minutes per pound, or until the thermometer inserted into the thigh joint registers 160 – 170 degrees.
Transfer turkey to cutting board. Let stand for at least 45 minutes to cool down