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Heritage Turkeys

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I am planning on buying a heritage turkey for the first time for thanksgiving this year. Does anyone have recommendations for cooking it? Should I brine it? Do people feel that these turkeys have been worth the additional cost? Any tips would be great!

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  1. IMHO a heritage bird is well worth the extra cost. Definitely brine it, then roast it as usual (notice how gracefully the high-temp/low-temp debate has been sidestepped), but be careful not to overcook the meat. If you leave a heritage turkey in the oven until the breast meat hits a pop-up-thermometer 185F, it'll be shoe leather. You're looking for 160F to 165F as a final temperature, so pull it out of the oven between 145F and 150F and let the bird's thermal mass take it the rest of the way.

    1. A couple of years ago, I spent almost $100 on a heritage turkey for Thanksgiving. Perhaps we didn't appreciate what we were getting, but it tasted gamey & stringy. Wasn't my cooking, trust me I have hosted at least 25 Thanksgiving dinners.

      Last year we had a kosher turkey, which everyone agreed was the best ever. It came out ranked first in a national taste test on one of the morning news shows by coincidence, after we had already purchased it. It wasn't cheap, about $2.50/lb, but it was fresh. The packer was Roubashkin(?), a division of AgriProcessors and they have had a lot of negative press lately for their ill treatment of illegal immigrant workforce. Anyway, a kosher turkey is soaked in salted water (brining!) as part of the process, so you don't have to do it. We are planning to do this again this year.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Diane in Bexley

        I had a similar experience last thanksgiving. We paid a huge amount for a Heritage turkey.... and the meat was quite dry and not really very tasty.
        Perhaps we overcooked it? I usually take a bird to about 165, and then pull it out and rest. I wasn't aware that these need to be taken out at 145 degrees as mentioned above.

        The following weekend we got a regular grocery half turkey breast and turkey leg and put it to roast in the kamado grill. DELICIOUS! That is where we are cooking the turkey this year!

        Also, several weeks ago, I brined a regular grocery store bird in Alton browns brine for honey smoked turkey for over 24 hrs, then I made a compound sage garlic butter and rubbed the butter under the turkey skin, and then roasted the bird in the regular oven. This was the most flavorful bird I've cooked in the oven! I highly recommend the Alton Brown brine.

        I have been much more pleased with the results of non-gourmet birds so far.

        1. re: Mellicita

          We have used the alton brown brine for three years now, and love the results. We then smoke the turkey on the charcoal BBQ with cherry wood. The bird turns a lovely reddish color and the taste is astonishing. Plus, it gives me back my oven for other goodies.

          p.s. When I see the wild turkeys here in Mass, they don't look that tasty to me. Though they are fun to watch with their heads bobbling all over the place.

      2. I had the opposite trouble with a Heritage. I was so concerned about overcooking, that I undercooked the turkey and had to put it back in. It was tasty, though, once done. I would consider buying one again, but I'd like some better advice on how to estimate how long it will take.

        1. I do wish we could stop using the phrase "heritage turkey", "heritage tomato". They are not helpful. In our heritage there are many breeds of turkeys, many varieties of tomatoes. They do not all cook the same, do not all taste the same. Some turkies are lean and stringy, some can be nice. One needs to compare the breed of the turkey with another turkey the same breed to know if the advice is applicable. Unfortunately that information is not always given to the consumer so good judgement can be made.

          7 Replies
          1. re: The Old Gal

            Interesting point.... Do you have any recommendations for what breed of turkey would make a more moist flavorful bird?

            1. re: Mellicita

              Perhaps because I have been corrupted over the years or perhaps because I live where a young kid took his 4-H project to the point where his turkey is now the one that is in your supermarket and feeds the world... for whatever reason... I have to say no. When I want a turkey I want one that is moist, amply built and looks like the Rockwell picture.
              I do, however, buy my turkeys directly from local farmers rather than a supermarket. But then I am luckier than most to be able to do that.
              When I had a newsletter..years ago, I tried to get my readers to experiment with the older breeds. I didn't have much luck, on the other hand when I tried some of these products, turkeys being one, I didn't really see how the breed that had to be "moist cooked" would really replace the ones we had been having on our thanksgiving table.
              Try different turkeys that are available to you. And learn to cook each the way the grower suggests. Think of it as new food, not something to replace what you have always known and you will probably like it.

              1. re: The Old Gal

                Not to get too picky, but wasn't the turkey in the Rockwell painting a "heritage" breed--specifically, a Standard Bronze? And who ever suggested that any young turkey needs to be cooked with wet heat?

                To Mellicita--I've only had standard bronze (dry-roasted in a 350F oven), and it was very good. I've also heard good things about Jersey Buffs and Naragansetts.

                One thing to keep in mind is that the cost of a bird that has not been industrially bred and raised reflects a significantly greater cost of production. Not only to industrially-produced turkeys from the supermarket take up significantly less space, they're harvested at 4-5 months; the farmer from whom I bought my turkeys slaughtered them at 18 months.

                On the other hand, raising birds that can reproduce without artificial insemination might be considered a measure of economy...

                1. re: alanbarnes

                  Maybe it is an interpretation, but when I am told to cook the bird in a covered roaster I consider that a wet heat method. It works well for pheasants, but...
                  As I said there are a lot of different breeds out there and you have try and find one that works for you.

                  1. re: The Old Gal

                    Who told you to cook it in a covered roaster? It might be useful for an older (or wild) bird, but my turkeys have turned out just fine cooked in an open roasting pan.

                    1. re: alanbarnes

                      Again, all "heritage" birds are not the same and the different birds have different requirements. I was writing an article when I did the research and I interviewed the growers, the men who raised the birds and their wives who did most of the cooking. Both growers were trying to revive old breeds. These were small growers whose stuff had not yet reached any market and though the each championed different breeds they said the same thing, that this was the way to cook them.
                      When I was doing this Slow Food was not yet heard of, "Heritage" tomatoes were not on the market yet....Seed Savers had just brought over the seeds of the first of the Russian varieties.
                      I am sure you have had success with yours. I was just pointing out that all breeds are not the same and that one needs to know something about what they are buying and not just assume they can be cooked the way we have been cooking our birds in the last 25 years.

                      1. re: The Old Gal

                        Agree absolutely that most turkeys should be cooked differently than the broad-breasted whites that dominate the market. But it's my understanding that most of the birds that are marketed as "heritage" breeds are more similar than different.

                        Perhaps more significant than breed is age. An very young bird is going to have less well-developed muscles, and will therefore be more tender, but less flavorful. An old bird, on the other hand, is probably only suited to wet-heat cooking. As noted above, "heritage" turkeys tend to be harvested at a much later age than commodity birds, but my experience has been that they roast up just fine.

                        But you're absolutely right--anybody who's going to cook one of these birds needs to get as much information as possible about what it is and how to cook it. Otherwise there's the potential for spending a whole lot of money for a lump of stringy dry meat.

          2. Hi Cassoulady,

            I'm not sure where you live, but IMHO, it's worth sourcing a local farm that sells a "heritage" variety turkey. Last Thanksgiving, I found a farm nearby selling Standard Bronze birds for only $1.90/lb, and they were by far the best turkeys anyone at my Thanksgiving dinner had ever tasted, with rave reviews even from the cynics who were convinced the all the meat would be dark and gamey.

            FYI, we brined the birds overnight, and cooked them using Alton Brown's method.

            2 Replies
            1. re: bflocat

              hi Bflocat,
              I am in Boston. We have several farms in the area as well at butchers that are offering different varieties of turkey. I will do a bit more research then order one. I would like to do a "test-run" of one if possible before the big day, assuming I can gather enough people willing to eat my practice turkey. thanks for the tip.

              1. re: cassoulady

                Sounds like a great plan, cassoulady. We actually enjoyed the Thanksgiving turkey so much that we got another in January, just for the heck of it. It's just me and my hubby, so we ate turkey sandwiches and cassroles for a week, but the turkey was actually THAT good.

                Good luck!!