Heritage Turkeys

Published November 1, 2014. From Cook's Illustrated.

Overview:

Eating turkey on Thanksgiving is an American tradition, but today’s supermarket turkeys barely resemble those enjoyed by early settlers. Starting in the 1950s, turkey breeders, catering to consumer preferences for white meat, started breeding turkeys to have big breasts and small legs. These birds could grow to full size on less feed and in half the time as the old-breed turkeys could—making turkey cheaper than ever before. Farmers also started raising the birds indoors and introduced artificial insemination, which made a turkey dinner a year-round option (in nature, turkeys hatch in the spring and reach “eating size” by late fall—not coincidentally, around Thanksgiving).

While supermarket turkey can taste great if it’s carefully cooked, something has been lost. Near extinction not so long ago—and still on the “priority” list of the Livestock Conservancy—old-breed heritage turkeys have had a renaissance in the past decade, with a handful of farmers putting in the extra time, expense, and effort to raise these colorfully plumed… read more

Eating turkey on Thanksgiving is an American tradition, but today’s supermarket turkeys barely resemble those enjoyed by early settlers. Starting in the 1950s, turkey breeders, catering to consumer preferences for white meat, started breeding turkeys to have big breasts and small legs. These birds could grow to full size on less feed and in half the time as the old-breed turkeys could—making turkey cheaper than ever before. Farmers also started raising the birds indoors and introduced artificial insemination, which made a turkey dinner a year-round option (in nature, turkeys hatch in the spring and reach “eating size” by late fall—not coincidentally, around Thanksgiving).

While supermarket turkey can taste great if it’s carefully cooked, something has been lost. Near extinction not so long ago—and still on the “priority” list of the Livestock Conservancy—old-breed heritage turkeys have had a renaissance in the past decade, with a handful of farmers putting in the extra time, expense, and effort to raise these colorfully plumed birds that, unlike modern commercial turkeys, can fly, roam freely, and breed on their own. Could turning back the clock bring back the flavor that’s disappeared from modern turkeys?

To find out, we bought heritage turkeys from seven farms scattered across the United States. Breeds included Standard Bronze, American Bronze, and Bourbon Red, as well as a bird whose label reads “parent stock includes five different heritage breeds” and even an Eastern wild turkey raised in semicaptivity. All were pastured, meaning they were free to range outdoors and forage to supplement their feed.

The turkeys we unpacked were a far cry from the usual round, pale, plump supermarket turkey. All featured startlingly long legs and wings, a more angular breast and high keel bone, almost bluish-purple dark meat (a sign of well-exercised birds), and traces of dark pinfeathers in the skin around the tail. When we cooked one set according to a standard method, we also found their flavor worlds apart from ordinary turkey—far more rich and flavorful. We then roasted all seven types of birds again according to Cook's Illustrated recipe customized to their unusual anatomy, and their flavor was even more extraordinary.

Tasters raved about the “buttery,” “nutty-sweet,” “incredibly satisfying, rich flavor” of the meat. The biggest revelation was the white meat. Tasters found their favorite samples “amazing,” “unctuous and silky,” with “sweet, succulent flavor,” and a texture that was “perfectly tender” and “really moist.” So what was it about these birds that made them, as one taster put it, “the turkey of my dreams”?

Seeing the Light

During carving, we’d noticed a distinct layer of fat under the skin on the breast—more than what we’ve seen on a supermarket turkey. We know that fat not only adds flavor but also helps keep meat of all kinds moist during cooking. But, as Scott Beyer, extension poultry specialist at Kansas State University, explained, the fat under turkey skin is especially important. “If you peel off the skin, you strip most of the fat right off with it,” he explained, noting that turkey meat doesn’t become marbled with fat like beef. Our science editor also pointed out that the moistness and lubrication from fat reduces friction as you bite through the meat, making it more tender.

But how much of a difference was it, really? To find out, we sent samples from each heritage turkey to a lab to analyze the fat in both skin-on dark and skin-on white meat (uncooked). We also sent the lab a Broad Breasted White from Butterball, the largest producer of turkey products in the United States.

The results were convincing. The Butterball turkey had just 1.24 percent fat in its breast meat and skin, while breast-meat fat levels for the heritage birds ranged from a low of 4.56 percent in the wild turkey to a high of 10.63 percent in a Standard Bronze raised in Kansas. (In the dark meat, heritage birds’ legs and thighs were actually slightly leaner than supermarket turkeys’. This was not surprising since they are more physically active, but overall the heritage birds still had far more fat.) No wonder tasters found the heritage turkeys so moist and tender.

So why would heritage turkey contain more fat? “Age,” said turkey breeder Frank Reese Jr. of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Lindsborg, Kansas, who has been raising heritage turkeys since the 1950s and sells breeding stock to other farms. (Reese is widely acknowledged as the “dean” of heritage turkeys.) According to Reese, commercial growers can raise a 20-pound turkey in 12 weeks, whereas “it would take six months with a heritage bird. And if a turkey lives to be six to seven months old, it has lived long enough to start putting on that fat.”

A longer life has some other benefits, too. Beyer notes, “Inside [the fat and meat] is the accumulation over months and months of minor things from the feed and changes to the animal’s biochemistry; proteins and lipids that aren’t there in younger turkey that may be detectable as enhanced flavor.” According to Reese, their foraged food would also contribute flavor.

Older birds also have much thicker skin, which helps shield the meat and trap moisture, “like putting it in a Baggie,” Beyer said. Meanwhile, most young, lean supermarket turkeys contain added flavor- and moisture-enhancing liquid. Our Butterball’s label said it “contains up to 8% of a solution of water, salt, spices, and natural flavor.”

Finally, turkey breed may have played a part in our preferences. In first and third place were Standard Bronze turkeys (both from Frank Reese's breeding stock). The bird with a “mixed” parentage was unremarkable, according to our tasters, and while flavorful, the wild turkey meat was somewhat tough.

Paying for Flavor

There’s no denying that price is a big factor when considering heritage turkeys. Supermarket turkeys averaged $1.72 per pound nationwide last Thanksgiving, and promotional prices often dip well below $1 per pound. Heritage turkeys can cost upwards of $10 per pound; plus, required overnight or two-day shipping can nearly double the price. Also, farms aren’t charging a per-pound price but rather a flat price for a range of weights, such as 6 to 9 pounds, 7 to 14 pounds, and so on (similarly, you may be looking for a particular weight but sometimes smaller or larger birds are the only choices available). While we have a quibble with this pricing structure, farmers aren’t getting rich; their rare, slow-growing, odd-size birds are far more expensive to raise and process.

A heritage bird is a centerpiece for a special occasion, like beef tenderloin or prime rib (which can cost $75 to $100 at the supermarket). Our top pick was from a large family-owned farm in California that also produces our winning brand of chicken. It has everything we’re looking for in turkey, with rich, full flavor and naturally moist meat. We’ll be happy to splurge on this and other recommended heritage birds for the holidays—not just to save them from extinction, but for the great taste they bring to our Thanksgiving table.


Heritage Turkey Defined

In the 1500s, Spanish explorers took some wild North American turkeys back to Europe and domesticated them. Then European colonists brought these breeds—what we know now as heritage—back to North America in the 1600s. Heritage turkey (also called “Standard Bred” turkey) is not just a matter of colorful feathers or romantic breed names like Narragansett or Bourbon Red; the Livestock Conservancy and the American Poultry Association agree that a heritage turkey is defined by these three criteria:

1. Heritage turkeys must have a long productive lifespan—five to seven years for breeding hens, three to five years for breeding toms—and have a genetic ability to withstand the environmental rigors of outdoor production systems.

2. Heritage turkey must have a slow to moderate rate of growth, reaching marketable weight in about 28 weeks, giving the birds time to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs before building muscle mass. Commercial turkeys grow to full size in only 12 to 14 weeks.

3. Unlike commercial turkeys that must be artificially inseminated, heritage birds are the result of naturally mating pairs of both grandparent and parent stock.

Methodology:

We tasted six heritage turkeys, prepared using our recipe for Cook's Illustrated Roast Heritage Turkey. An independent laboratory measured fat and protein in light and dark meat (including skin). Prices are what we paid to mail-order a single turkey (shipping was extra). (Note: To avoid shipping costs for our winning turkey, check out the manufacturer's website for information on stores across the country that carry the fresh birds during the holiday months.)

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