A Gobbler That’s in Your Heritage

By Melissa Conroy

Every Thanksgiving, approximately 46 million turkeys appear on dinner tables around the US; almost that many are served at the Christmas feast. Almost all of these turkeys are one specific variety: broad-breasted white. This breed has long been favored by turkey growers for its rapid growth, generous breast meat and size — a broad-breasted white can grow to 50 pounds.

Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be America’s national bird, but the turkeys of his time were much different from the domesticated broad-breasted white. Turkeys in the wild are agile, intelligent and adventurous. The broad-breasteds are so large that they can’t reproduce on their own and may have trouble walking. There’s an old rumor that turkeys caught in a rainfall will look up and drown. It’s not true, but domesticated turkeys are not very smart. Small wonder that in the popular vernacular, calling someone a turkey is a mild slight to the person’s intelligence.

Broad-breasted whites are plagued with a number of health problems, such as heart disease and respiratory issues. Some of this is due to breeders trying to grow the biggest, meatiest turkeys in the quickest amount of time. Other health problems are caused by their environment: these commercially raised turkeys live their lives indoors, up to 10,000 in a single space. Their immune systems are fragile, and they require antibiotics and careful handling to keep from getting sick.

Many of the turkeys available at your local food store look impressive roasted and served on a platter as the broad breasted is grown for size and breast meat – this however, may come at the expense of a rich, fully flavored taste. Commercially raised turkeys are often injected with vegetable oil and saline to improve their flavor.

The taste of any animal is affected by four qualities:

  • diet, since a varied, free-range diet will produce a deeper, more distinctive flavor;
  • environment, since animals need exercise to build up better-tasting flesh;
  • age, because as they mature, they develop fat which intensifies flavor;
  • heritage because the breed and genetic makeup of an animal affects its overall taste. 

Broad-breasted turkeys are fed a commercially prepared diet, they are cooped up inside their entire lives, slaughtered young (around three to four months) and all come from the same genetic stock. These factors can result in a dry, disappointing holiday meal. Brining, frying, marinating and other cooking tricks can help improve the flavor, but if you want an exceptional feast to remember, it starts with picking a high-quality bird.

One option for your Thanksgiving or Christmas meal this year is selecting a heritage turkey. Heritage turkeys are birds that come from native breeds (turkeys indigenous to North and South America) and share three specific qualities:

~ability to breed naturally without assistance;

~long life spans of 3-5 years for toms and 5-7 years for hens;

~slow growth rate.

Heritage turkey varieties include the standard bronze, bourbon red, Narragansett, Jersey buff, slate, black Spanish, white Holland, royal palm, white midget and Beltsville small white.

These turkeys are typically smaller, from the 20-pound Midget White to the 30-pound Standard Bronze. One unfortunate drawback is that they are also expensive; you may spend $8 a pound for a heritage turkey. Raising turkeys naturally is not a cheap process, and heritage turkey growers incur a lot of cost getting heritage birds to maturity.

However, a heritage turkey tastes nothing like your standard, commercially raised product found at your local food store. Heritage turkey fans rave about its earthy, hearty flavor. If you are a dark meat fan, you will love heritage turkeys’ moist dark meat. They boast an even amount of dark and white meat while the broad-breasted have 65 percent white meat and the rest dark. Some heritage turkey breeds have a strong, gamy flavor that may be startling to people who have only eaten broad-breasted before. However, slow food enthusiasts and foodies alike promote heritage turkey breeds as a novel taste experience that you simply cannot replicate with a frozen 30-pound bird from your local store.

Check your local area to see if there are any heritage turkey farmers with birds for sale. Your local health store may carry heritage turkeys, but be aware of the labeling and don’t get fooled into purchasing a “heritage turkey” that is not from the approved list of heritage varieties. For example, a few sold in some health stores are crossbreed turkeys of heritage and nonheritage lines, thus not true heritage turkeys. If you can’t find a heritage turkey breeder near you, you can buy them at www.heritagefoodsusa.com They will ship you individual turkeys with both cooking instructions and information about your turkey’s specific heritage variety.

Speaking of cooking, preparing your bird for the table requires a little extra care. A heritage turkey typically roasts more quickly with less moisture loss. White meat cooks more quickly than dark meat, but since a heritage turkey usually has an equal quantity of white and dark meat, it will cook more evenly. Before you slide your heritage turkey in the oven, spend some time browsing the Internet to pick up some cooking tips. Some chefs advise brining while others do not; others recommend roasting at high temperatures. You can put away the flavor injectors and rubs: a heritage turkey has plenty of its own flavor to bring to the table.

During this holiday season when some grocery stores all but give away turkeys, plunking down $100 or more on a heritage turkey may seem extravagant. However, they are delicious and distinctive. They are raised humanely and allowed to develop normally, free to eat a natural diet instead of commercially prepared feed. For a holiday meal to remember, why not try a heritage turkey and discover what turkey is supposed to taste like?




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