Why is Heritage Turkey Considered the Best? (Plus recipe and menu ideas)
The Heritage Difference
What exactly is a heritage turkey? It's a naturally mating bird with a slow growth rate (taking 26-30 weeks to mature) that spends most of its long life outdoors. By contrast, industrial turkeys live in cages, are bred to grow quickly(14 to 18 weeks to mature) , and can reproduce only through artificial insemination. In addition to growing slower, a heritage turkey is also more active, which results in less fat. In terms of flavor, a heritage bird is worlds away from the dry, tasteless turkeys most of us have grown up eating on Thanksgiving. In the picture below, the bulbous beast in front is a traditional broad breasted turkey and the handsome bird is a heritage. Heritage birds are gamier-tasting and have darker meat. They’re closer to wild birds than the mushier, whiter turkeys bred for obesity and early maturity. And heritage birds are more expensive to raise, and more expensive per pound to buy.
Commercially, heritage breeds compose a small percentage, around 25,000 produced annually compared to 200,000,000 industrial (broad-breasted) birds. This has increased from the end of the 20th century when the broad-breasted white had become so popular that heritage breeds were almost extinct. In 1997, The Livestock Conservancy considered heritage turkeys the most critically endangered of all domestic animals, finding fewer than 1,500 total breeding birds in the United States. Along with Slow Food USA, the Heritage Turkey Foundation, and small-scale farmers, The Livestock Conservancy hit the media with advocacy. By 2003 the numbers had grown 200% and by 2006 the Conservancy reported that more than 8,800 breeding birds existed in the United States. The best ways to help the heritage populations are to join in the advocacy, to raise heritage turkeys if you have the farming space, and to purchase heritage turkeys for your meals if you cannot raise them.
Characteristics of Industrial Broad Breasted Turkeys
Industrially raised turkeys with the distorted features preventing them from mating, flying and even moving about comfortably also affect their healthiness, flavor, and texture. Because they are prone to get more sick, it is very difficult for producers to grow them without some form of antibiotic or additive use. When you choose your turkey, keep in mind that industrial growers add labels such as “raised without added hormones” because you are more likely to choose that bird over others without the label. With a little education, you will realize that labels such as “heritage” or “raised without antibiotics” mean much more than one based on a widely accepted lie (because the use of hormones in poultry is outlawed).
Salt water is a big part of what is purchased if the turkey has been 'enhanced' by the manufacturer. For frozen turkeys, 8% to 20% of the bird’s weight could be a sodium-water solution. This means you’re paying for saltwater; a 20 lb “moisture enhanced” turkey equals only 16 lbs of meat (4 lbs is nothing but water). It also means that a 4-oz serving from that same turkey could add as much as 540mg or 23% of the daily recommended amount of sodium to your diet (2300 mg).
Blind Taste Tests Prove the Superiority of Heritage
On November 11, 2011, Elizabeth Gunnison published the results of a blind taste test in Bon Apetit of identically-prepared Heritage and Traditional Broad Breasted Turkeys. The Heritage turkey won, 4 out of 5 tasters preferring the Heritage. "The eating experience is far from the only factor at play here," says Gunnison. "Thanksgiving is a symbolic holiday, a time when it makes more sense than ever to be mindful of the environmental and moral issues that come along with eating. Heritage turkeys provide an opportunity to support endangered breeds and to eat a bird that lived the lifestyle of its turkey dreams."
Unlike other turkeys, Heritage birds live long enough to develop a layer of fat beneath the skin, which imparts a rich flavor to the meat. They also have larger thighs and legs because they still run and fly which produces especially dark, juicy meat.
Note: the bird in the top of the photo is a Heritage turkey
Heritage Turkey Cooking Tips & Recipe
- Always bring the bird to room temperature before cooking.
- Roast heritage turkeys in a hot oven preheated to 425F- 450F (allowing for a blast of higher temp to brown) and cook at 350 degrees until an internal thigh temperature of 140F-150F is reached. Don't let the tip of the thermometer touch the bone.
- When you put the turkey in the oven, put the feet facing the back wall and the breast facing the door, so you expose the dark meat to the most heat and protect the light meat
- Please note: The USDA recommends turkeys be cooked to 160F-180F, but this temperature will dry out a heritage turkey. Heritage birds are much more free of disease and bacteria, unlike commercially raised birds, and do not need extreme temperatures to make them safe for consumption.
- Cook any stuffing first and put inside the heritage turkey before roasting. Due to the reduced cooking time, stuffing won't become fully cooked. Alternatively, try adding a quartered orange, apple and/or pear inside the cavity instead of stuffing.
- Let the roasted bird rest 10-15 minutes before carving.
Easy Heritage Turkey Recipe *
1 12-to 18-pound heritage turkey thawed, with giblets and neck removed
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1 ½ tablespoons black pepper
4 tablespoons butter, cut into four pieces
1 medium onion, quartered
2 stalks celery, cut in two or three pieces each
1 medium apple, halved
8 sprigs fresh thyme
2 cups turkey broth, water or a mixture of half water and half apple juice
At least four hours before roasting, rub turkey inside and out with salt and pepper; refrigerate. Remove from refrigerator 45 minutes before roasting. Heat oven to 425 degrees.
Set turkey in roasting pan fitted with a V-shaped rack. Slip your fingers under skin to loosen it. Rub butter over breasts. Stuff vegetables, apple and thyme into the cavity. Tuck wing tips under the bird.
Pour broth or water into pan, around bird. Put turkey in oven and roast, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 325, baste turkey with pan juices, cover with a foil tent and return to oven. Cook for another 30 minutes. Remove foil, baste again and place foil back on turkey. Cook for 30 more minutes. Remove foil.
When turkey has roasted for a total of two hours, insert a meat thermometer straight down into fleshiest part of thigh, where it meets drumstick. Check a second spot, then remove thermometer. (Do not let thermometer touch bone.) Thigh meat should reach no more than 165 degrees. Juices should run clear. (If bird is larger than 14 pounds, keep foil on longer and begin checking meat temperature at two and half hours.) To assure perfectly cooked white and dark meat, you may remove bird when meat thermometer shows thigh temperature at 155, then remove legs and roast them separately for another 15 to 30 minutes, depending on size of bird.
When bird has reached desired temperature, remove from oven and let rest for at least 30 minutes, covered in foil and with a damp towel on top of foil, to retain heat and allow juices to return to meat. Remove foil and towel and serve.
Recipe: Roast Heritage Turkey and Gravy*
- 1 16- to 20-pound heritage turkey
- 1-quart apple cider
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 2 lemons, quartered
- 5 bay leaves
- 1 medium apple, quartered but not peeled
- 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and quartered
- 6 garlic cloves
- 1 bunch thyme
- 8 tablespoons/1 stick unsalted butter, softened
- 6 sprigs rosemary
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon pepper
- 1 cup red wine
- 3 cups turkey or chicken stock, plus more if needed
- 4 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 hard-boiled egg, chopped (optional)
- A day ahead of roasting, remove neck and giblets from turkey. Mix cider, salt, lemons, bay leaves and 3 quarts water together in a large bowl or stockpot; stir to dissolve salt. Submerge turkey in the bowl or pot, cover and refrigerate overnight or up to 24 hours. Alternatively, put turkey and brine in two clean, unscented plastic garbage bags (one bag inside the other), tie well and place in a cooler with ice or ice packs.
- When you are ready to roast, Pre heat oven to 425 degrees. Rinse turkey and pat dry. Stuff apple, onion, garlic and most of the thyme into turkey. Lift skin at neck and gently use your hand to separate skin from breast meat. Rub half the butter under skin and slip in remaining thyme and two rosemary sprigs. Use remaining butter to rub outside of bird, then sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper.
- Set a rack into a roasting pan and place four rosemary sprigs on top of the rack. Place bird on top of rosemary. Add turkey neck and giblets to bottom of pan. Take two pieces of heavy foil cut to the length of the pan. Fold the two together to create a single sheet to tent the bird.
- Transfer to oven, lower heat to 350 degrees, and roast. Roasting time will be 3 to 3 1/2 hours for an 18-pound bird. Add 10 minutes per pound for larger birds. Subtract 10 minutes per pound for smaller birds. Midway through cooking time, remove giblets and neck and add wine and 1 cup water. Twenty minutes before roasting time is complete, begin to test for doneness with a digital probe thermometer inserted at the deepest part of the thigh. It is done when thigh registers 160 degrees. Remove bird from oven and transfer to a serving platter.
- Place roasting pan over low heat on the stovetop and add 2 1/2 cups stock. Scrape all the browned turkey bits from bottom of pan. Skim 2/3 of the fat from top of drippings and discard. Bring drippings to a boil; reduce to a simmer. You may wish to strain at this point to remove stray bits, but they add character to the finished gravy.
- Finely chop giblets and neck meat. Dissolve cornstarch in 1/2 cup stock. Add slurry to drippings, stirring constantly, until thickened. If gravy seems too thick, whisk in a bit more stock. Add chopped egg and giblets and neck meat. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
*Recipe from Kim Severson in The New York Times
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