Gobble It Up: Heritage Turkey for Thanksgiving

Long before the Pilgrims landed and had time to prepare a Thanksgiving feast, the turkey was a bird well known and appreciated in the Americas. Native to the continent, it was brought back to Europe by Spanish Conquistadors, became a popular barnyard bird there, then returned to New England with the Pilgrims. Sometime later it was firmly established as the traditional holiday bird for Thanksgiving. Read on for the story of heritage turkey, which went from the bird of yesteryear to the hottest poultry today.

Shop organic turkey, heritage turkey, and wild turkey at dartagnan.com. We advise pre-ordering your holiday bird today and scheduling delivery just before Thanksgiving. Our small farms raise a finite number of birds each season, and we sell out fast this time of year.

The Modern Turkey

The appetite for turkey and the standardization of large-scale farming has resulted in the modern commercial turkey, which has dominated the market for the last 50 years. The most popular breed is the Broad Breasted White, bred to produce a lot of meat quickly. They are larger than heritage breeds, with a higher percentage of both white meat and meat-to-bone.

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White broad-breasted turkeys

This is due to breeding, diet (commonly, the addition of growth-promoting antibiotics), and lack of exercise. These turkeys cannot mate because of the unnaturally large breast, shorter breast bones and legs. They cannot walk normally and have very little muscle as a result. Sadly, these are the turkeys most of us are familiar with, and few have tasted turkey as it should be.

Heritage-Breed Turkeys

With the increasing interest in traditional foods and heirloom breeds, demand for wild and heritage-breed turkeys has risen over the last several years. Supplying this demand has sometimes been challenging, but the number of small farms raising them has increased and it’s now possible to offer home cooks access to these old breed birds for the holidays.

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A Bourbon Red heritage turkey

What Sets Heritage Turkey Apart from the Flock

Heritage breed turkeys must be able to breed naturally, live seven to nine years, and grow slowly (which costs the farmer more in feed). They are old standard breeds, not modern experiments. Today, there are only a few heritage breeds left, including Standard Bronze (actually a cross between the Narragansett and Eastern wild breeds developed by early settlers in Rhode Island in the 1700s), Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, Slate, Black Spanish, Narragansett and White Holland.

D’Artagnan sources from a farm that raises Bourbon Red and Standard Bronze breeds. Our heritage breed turkeys are not hybrids; if you order a heritage bird, you will get one or the other.

Better Tasting Turkey

For those with a taste for authenticity,  a heritage breed or wild turkey might be the best bet for the holiday. Heritage turkeys thrive when raised free range, and fed natural whole-grain diets, without any antibiotics or hormones. The freedom to exercise means they have more muscle than conventional birds. Processing is often by hand instead of machine.

The result is a more intense turkey flavor with less white meat and a leaner texture that requires a tad more care in preserving moistness. ftuhe040-1_va0_heritage-turkeyThese birds also tend to be smaller. In fact, heritage turkeys are generally unavailable in sizes over 20 lbs. When deciding what size to serve, a good rule of thumb is to plan for one pound of turkey per person.

How to Cook Heritage-Breed Turkey

With their richer tasting meat and moister overall texture, it’s easy to assume that preparation techniques for heritage turkey are exactly the same as those used for commercial birds. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that these birds are leaner with a higher percentage of dark meat. This natural balance of dark to white meat actually makes preparation easier. Since white meat always cooks faster than dark, the closer the ratio, the easier it is to roast evenly. Brining, barding and basting are common techniques in preparing a tasty heritage bird.

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Roasted heritage turkey

The breast meat is smaller (after all, it hasn’t been artificially enlarged) and needs protection during cooking. Covering the breast meat with aluminum foil, or cheesecloth soaked in cooking oil or butter while cooking is strongly advised. Remove the covering about 30 minutes before the turkey is done so the breast will brown. Frequent basting is a must unless you rub truffle butter or olive oil under the skin over the breast, which makes the birds self-basting. Because they are leaner and tend to be smaller, cooking at low temperatures for longer time is also suggested.

Our handy turkey roasting guide will help you with cooking the different types and sizes of turkeys we offer at dartagnan.com.

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