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Heritage Turkey Report

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I was tempted by, but didn't purchase, a heritage turkey this year.
Did anyone try one?
Is the flavor, texture, cooking technique different?
I know it's going to be more than a frozen Butterball or other supermarket turkey, but how does the cost compare with other fresh, free-range turkeys? Was it worth the difference?

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  1. FWIW, the turkey tasting they did on America's Test Kitchen ranked the heritage breed turkey at the bottom - I don't remember what the brand was. The print arm of this enterprise is Cooks Illustrated. In past issues they've discussed heritage turkeys and not found them worth the expense. In their Nov/Dec 2000 supermarket frozen and fresh turkey tasting, Marval frozen basted came out on top, frozen and fresh Butterballs in the middle, and Bell&Evans fresh, free-range, at the bottom.

    I have my doubts about turkey ratings, regardless of who's doing them. It seems that there's less consistency from individual bird to bird than there is with chicken. This year my turkey was a pre-brined Trader Joe's natural. It had unusually large wings for its size, but a somewhat thin breast. One year I had a 16-lb frozen (maybe Marval) that I named Dolly Parturkey - kept slicing at the breast, amazed at how much meat it had. You don't see these differences until you are cooking/carving. Your successful turkey might be the result of dumb luck rather than superior method, and might not be duplicated next time. Can you tell that my turkey this year wasn't the crowning glory of my kitchen career?

    5 Replies
    1. re: greygarious

      I saw a Kosher bird for about $85 ($3.69 lb) and I bought and brined my own fresh turkey at .99 lb (cost me about $21); it was very good and with the difference that I didn't spend on the Kosher bird, I bought a 6 lb Tenderloin Roast from BJ's (for about $47) which was excellent and still had money left over!

      1. re: bakerboyz

        We made two 25 lb turkeys over the weekend. One is Drexel (free range) turkey which is around 2.59/lb and the other "back-up" is a regular supermarket brand. we made the first one on Thursday and the other for "left-overs" on Friday. Both of them are brined but i find that the free range turkey to be more "turkeyish/gamey" than the store brand. both of them are moist and still very good. There is a big price difference but since this is the holidays, i'd go with the more expensive turkey. Simply because (at least i'd like to think) that the free range organic local turkey is better for my family and its surrounding environment.

        i wonder if free range will help the bird develop more lean muscle fibers, resulting in more flavor but tougher? My sister keeps a few chickens in her yard for eggs and occasionally we were able to have one of the chickens. the chicken is very flavorful but super stringy and very lean. Does that mean it is too old or is this the way chickens are supposed to taste? it makes me wonder how they manage to get free-range turkeys so tender and juicy... thoughts?

      2. re: greygarious

        I often disagree with ATK, and this is one example why: they tend to have very conventional "whitebread" tastes and not to like versions that are more strongly flavored.

        This is the second year we've done heritage turkey (my BIL gets them through work at a discount, I think) and it was the best ever. As HaagenDazs said, the breast meat is chewier -- or you could say "more toothsome" -- it holds the moisture better and doesn't get that cottony texture of factory-raised turkey. I would disagree, though, that it needs a "drastically different" cooking method. We cooked it just the way we always cook our T-Day turkey: stuffed but not brined, on a covered grill kept around 350 -- 17 pounds in, IIRC 3.5 hours (the grill tends to cook more quickly than a conventional oven, more like a convection oven). It came out perfect: crisp, evenly dark-brown skin outside, moist on the inside.

        1. re: Ruth Lafler

          To each their own, (for the cooking method) but why spend 3.5 hours doing something you can do in 1.5 hours?

          ...But you're right, I should have said MY technique was drastically different, I didn't mean to convince anyone that it was needed or required.

          1. re: HaagenDazs

            I tend toward using the high temp cooking methods as well, but its notable that the sellers of the heritage birds recommend low, rather than high temps.

      3. I think this is the 4th year we've used a heritage turkey. Given the economy I'm not sure I can justify the price next year. That said...

        The reason we tried a heritage the first year was because my Chinese relatives dislike how dry and bland they consider turkey to be. The heritage turkey was a big hit that first year and ever since. There's not much of a breast--it's certainly more like a wild bird--but even what there is of the breast is "darker" than your usual white meat. As a result, the heritage bird just tastes more moist and flavorful. The brining only enhances it even more.

        1. I paid for a heritage Narragansett turkey from a local farm this year so it was not shipped (increased cost) and was priced nicely. I got a 13 pound bird for just over $60; $4.75 per pound. If you order online through Heritage Foods for instance, your bird would easily be twice that price, so cost is relative. In fact, a Heritage Foods bird of my size would have cost me $159.00, nearly $100 more than my local farmer. More and more farmers are raising these birds so availability is on the rise. Keep an eye out EARLY, EARLY, EARLY this year if you want one. I put a deposit on my turkey back in March and they were sold out by May 1st with a waiting list.

          As for the flavor, it was richer and more turkey-like, if you consider the supermarket bird to be on the bland side. The white meat wasn't dark in my opinion but certainly was much more moist. There is a layer of fat under the skin especially towards the neck of the bird and that bastes the meat as it cooks. Even after cooking, the fat layer was very evident. The dark meat was much fuller in flavor but wasn't gamey in my opinion or the others at my table. My Mom was there and she hates game meats with a passion, but she liked this just fine.

          The texture of the meat is more firm but isn't tough. Tough to me is chewy and sinewy like a bad steak. This bird had some well developed leg tendons (most turkeys do anyway), but other than that the meat just had more resistance to the bite... more of a chew to it, but without being tough.

          The cooking technique is DRASTICALLY different. I suggest a high heat roast. I did mine at 425-450 (oven temps fluctuate a bit) and it took less than 1.5 hours in total. In fact it was more like 1.25 hours.

          I'll buy one again, no question.

          1. I am a total convert after this year. I bought a very expensive (my own fault for waiting until the last minute and buying at the wrong place) small Narragansett breed, pasture-raised turkey.

            I pre-salted (or "dry-brined") the bird for 2 days. Prior to cooking everyone commented that the turkey looked skinny, over-exercised and likely to be tough and dry. After eating, we all agreed that could not have been further from the truth. I even overcooked it a bit and we were very impressed by how moist and tender it was. After a side-by-side blind leftover tasting with a friend's Kosher bird, we were struck by several results that seemed to buck conventional wisdom:

            -The Narragansett was MUCH less gamey tasting than the Kosher bird. The 'Gansett bird's flavor was milder, sweeter and cleaner. HUGE surprise.
            -The 'Gansett was significantly more tender than the Kosher. It had a "tighter" flesh, less prone to crumbling, but also less chewy.
            -The 'Gansett had a comparable amount of breast meat--I know from experience this is not always true of heritage birds.

            In conclusion, two points. One, conventional wisdom about heritage/organic/freerange birds seems to be off the mark, at least in some cases. Two, I would remind all potential buyers that your experience will vary widely specifically because you are probably buying from a small farmer. This is a GOOD thing, just be aware that you really ought to talk to people in your area to get impressions of your local farms. I know that as much as I paid for my bird, it was so good I'd consider paying it again.

            5 Replies
            1. re: celeriac

              I would caution the use of the word skinny. It's like calling a broad breasted white turkey (supermarket bird) normal size, when in fact they are far larger than they should be - to the point where some can't even walk. There really isn't much of an opinion here, it's a fact. I just want people to know that a heritage bird is not skinny, it is normal.

              And if you're buying from a local farm, I suggest you make your own opinion of the farm and it's product by visiting it and talking with the farmers. If the farmer doesn't allow that, be suspicious. By relying on other people's information and opinions, you can sometimes be given incorrect information.

              As for brining these heritage birds, it's not really necessary. The fat on these birds is more than enough to keep it moist. Up by the neck and wings there was easily an inch of fat under the skin on my bird. You're not hurting anything by brining, but I think you're wasting a bit more time than you really need to. I took my bird out of the fridge Thanksgiving morning to come to room temp, sprinkled with salt, pepper, and threw half a lemon in the cavity and the bird was done 1.5 hours later. Adding to that time frame by brining or slower roasting is up to you, but given the option, why not just save yourself some headache? After all, aren't there better things to be doing in the days leading up to Thanksgiving? ;-)

              You have to remember why all these tricks have been developed for turkey roasting: because the broad breasted white birds are inherently lean and dry after cooking due to the size of the bird and the way it has been bred. Heritage birds are almost an entirely different animal.

              1. re: HaagenDazs

                HaagenDasz, do you score the skin, as with roast duck, to allow the fat to render out so the skin crisps? Or if not, with your high heat method, does the fat layer melt away or is the skin/fat layer too thick to crisp?

                1. re: greygarious

                  I did not score it and I would NOT recommend doing so... unless you do it in ONE spot. Notice I said this larger fat layer was up by the neck and wings. On a live bird this would translate to the "shoulders" of the bird on the front/breast side. Here, you could potentially make a small incision to allow some fat to drain out, but it is highly unnecessary. Assuming I get another heritage bird next year, I will not score it.

                  These birds are not ducks, so I caution people to make any comparison of the sort. On the other side of the breast nearest the cavity opening, there is very little fat in comparison. You can still almost see through the translucent skin on raw bird just like on any other turkey or chicken.

                  As for crisp skin, there's no need to worry about that! When I pulled the bird out of the oven, the skin was nearly "creme brulee" hard all around. There is still some un-rendered fat on the bird under the crisp skin near the neck, but I wouldn't try to change that. It's what helps keep the meat moist.

                2. re: HaagenDazs

                  Haagen -- I absolutely agree re: the skinny comment. it wasn't my word, it was one of the comments from the peanut gallery in our kitchen.

                  I would also point out that pre-salting (or "dry-brining"-- a moronic term) is very different from brining and resulted in an evenly seasoned bird, which we all appreciated. In fact, it's hardly more work than your routine (I just sprinkled liberally with salt 2-3 days prior) and less work on the day itself--I simply threw it on the rack, put some herbs in the cavity and roasted it.

                  Finally an alternate take re: your suggestion that people visit the farms. In my experience some (not all) farmers prefer not to have visitors on their farms for reasons of privacy. Their farms are often their homes, and you don't have to welcome every person you do business with in your home. I bought mine from a local, reputable shop and I trusted their assessment.

                  1. re: celeriac

                    You're right on the dry "brining" (salted) bird. I just know that others have tried brining heritage birds so I wanted to mention it.

                    I think that as a whole, the people that raise these kinds of birds are believers, supporters, and activists in the "know where your food comes from and how it was raised" crowd. They are far more labor intensive and take quite a while to raise from chicks (hence the price). This usually, and should, entail true free range, organic, pastured, anti-hormonal, etc. animal raising practices.

                    There may be some hermits out there, but to make sure that people understand the reasoning and dedication to farm processes like this, I think the farmers should allow others to see how they run the farm and treat the animals. I'm not asking to rummage through their underwear drawers in their private bedroom, I'm just interested in seeing how things work. If the farmer doesn't allow that, the product may be just fine and dandy, but be sure to ask questions.

                    This is where I bought mine from: http://www.naturesharmonyfarm.com/