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Organic vs. heritage vs. free range turkeys - worth the extra cost?

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I've searched the boards and have yet to find a consensus on whether organic, free range, or heritage birds are worth the extra cost over a 99 cent/lb. frozen Butterball, assuming all other things are equal in terms of preparation and cooking. My local Costco (in Austin, TX) sells fresh Foster Farms organic turkey under the Coastal Range brand for $2.29 lb. -- heritage birds from a local farm typically sell for around $6/lb. I'd like to get some opinions from people who have tried various kinds of turkey as to whether it's worth paying two or three times the price for your holiday bird.

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  1. i would not consider buying a fresh, special bird by mail. a local costco might be different. two years ago we ordered an organic, free range bird from the usually reliable lobel's in nyc. the bird arrived putrid--though shipped on ice it had a packaging flaw. no turkey that year.

    looking back, i feel a little silly for having tried to go deluxe. sure we serve turkey at thanksgiving but it really isn't the center of the meal--there's all this other stuff. perhaps if we were more turkocentric i'd try again. as it is, may i please have another helping of dressing and some more gravy, please.

    1 Reply
    1. re: silverhawk

      turkocentric, heh. I'm going to start using that word silverhawk. :) Sucks about the putrid bird. Hope you got a refund.

    2. I think it depends on what "better" means to you. Here's a link to the ingredients in a Butterball that have no business in a turkey, IMO: http://www.butterball.com/product/fro...

      Then there's the matter of taste/texture preferences; free range is much better texture, IMO, preferably pasture, not feedlot raised. Tastes better to me, but that's a very subjective criterion.

      Organic isn't as important to me for an occasional turkey and doesn't change the taste, but free range, pasturing and keeping bogus ingredients out does.

      And for some folks, the conditions the animals are raised in make a difference to us; I don't buy animals raises in typical big agribusiness conditions for a whole host of reasons. So it matters what your priorities are.

      1 Reply
      1. re: mcf

        Well put, mcf. One's answer to the OP does depend on one's priorities and what "better" means. We're opting to buy a free range pastured turkey this year, as we did last year, that was raised within 300 miles of us. Why? I feel strongly about how the turkey is raised and what is (not) added to the turkey by the processors, namely fillers, flavors, and other junk.

        We do pay a bit more for this, but it is 1x per year and I'm glad to support a (relatively) nearby farmer. How to justify the extra cost in this economy? We eat very little meat, thus when we do buy meat we have a bit extra to spend on meat raised, slaughtered, and sold in a way that we prefer.

        One thing about the Heritage birds: while I have no direct experience with this, my understanding is that they must be cooked differently than your average Butterball-esque bird. Apparently most purveyors of heritage birds provide strict instructions about how to properly cook them (so they don't get overcooked/dried out).

      2. I buy a local, free-range, organic, heritage breed turkey from a farm that I've visited many times. Depends on the breed, but the heritage birds that I've tasted have all had a much more complex flavor profile than the Butterballs. You don't get as much white meat, though, if that matters to you.

        1. Buy local, and take care of the bird yourself. Any shipping and freezing damages a bird. If you can't go local and fresh, Butterball can be made edible if you cook it correctly.

          1. If you can tell the difference in taste, and it matters...of course its worth it. People should remember that a "fresh" turkey has been hanging around a warehouse, and then in the market for some time. Frozen turkeys are frozen when eviscerated and remain that way until sold. I'm not sure, but "fresh" turkeys may be stored for weeks/months at 25 degreees like chickens. Not really "fresh". I think prep is as important as freshness. A properly thawed, brined, and prepared turkey tastes mighty good.

            1. Weve gone a lot of directions on this, from the cheapo fresh bird (free with enuf groceries at the supermarket), to the mailorder heritage bird to other locally purchased options, organic and not. I will be buying an Eberly/Dartagnan fresh organic for the third year running - it has worked out really well at a midrange (less than steak) price. I would prefer the heritage (we are dark meat people) and the flavors is noticeably more interesting, but I bite at the cost of the shipping from Heritage Foods and their local outlet (Fairway) caused my only thanksgiving failure in memory by not having the bird I had ordered specially - the sub bird I bought from them was stringly and tough. The fact is that with modern brining techniques almost any commercial turkey can be made edible and tasty, but I would rather start with a better product. I do hope that the outlets for the true heritage birds continue to expand and the prices come down.

              1. I find it hard to leave the ethical issue out of this as I would not normally buy "standard" poultry at any time of year, let alone for a festive feast. But, even leaving this aside, I'd say it's absolutely worthwhile in taste terms - but then I say that about the free range or organic poultry I buy through the year. Sometimes we've bought frozen free-range from the supermarket and sometimes ordered fresh from them - I can't really detect any difference between them once they're on the plate.

                1. I found the following to be an interesting read on the subject of turkey selection:

                  http://food.theatlantic.com/on-the-fa...

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: MGZ

                    her recommendation under turkey selection to eat less meat was laughable.
                    not a very useful article all in all tho her personal journey is interesting.

                    1. re: jen kalb

                      Dunno. "Think before you consume" seems like a healthy mantra. I think the fact that Americans overeat meat is pretty well documented.

                      e.g: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/27/wee...

                      http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutrition...

                      1. re: MGZ

                        but what in the world does it have to do with how to select a turkey.
                        Is the advice to forego it?

                        or to buy a smaller (more expensive) heritage bird?

                        no I think she was just recycling healthy eating platitudes rather than aiming to be helpful on a specific decision. As one of the commenters noted there are only a small number of heritage birds produced each year so her only suggestion was not really a suggestion at all. for most folks.

                        1. re: jen kalb

                          OK - that's fair. The piece is not aimed at true food geeks. (We need somebody to do a comparative piece on heritage breeds before next November - I'd be more than happy to help taste!) Nevertheless, for someone wrestling with the "Butterball or better" question, it does point out the fact that there are issues to consider. (Personally, I'm in it for the tastier dark meat.)

                  2. In our house we celbrate Thanksgiving the weekend before the actual holiday so I can weigh in on this matter since i cooked my turkey yesterday.
                    I've cooked 10 turkeys over the years and have always gone with the standard Grocery store variety turkey, this year I wanted to go Organic free range and preferably local. Unfortunately i missed the window for getting a local one but did pick up a free range organic turkey from the local Central Market in ( Austin, TX) I used the method show here ( http://www.howtocookathanksgivingturk... ) and i will say that it was the most moist delish turkey i have ever cooked. It was though almost Four times the cost of a regular turkey. I will say that if the taste is your only preference in the organic free range debate then go with the grocery store variety. Taste versus price isn't that big of a deference to justifie the extra costs. If you have strong desire to go Organic free range then the taste texture issue is just an added bonus

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Javeing

                      I bought my first heritage bird for this year! Since you've cooked several in the past, would you mind sharing how you prepared. Did you brine or not? Thanks!

                    2. A few years ago, I bought a heritage breed turkey from a local farm, and no one in my family will let me go back. We have successfully converted even the naysayers ("I heard they are tough and dry", "There's no way you can taste a difference"). In fact, I just picked up 4 from that farm today because past guests at our Thanksgiving now want to cook them for their own celebrations. The price, however, is only $2.25/lb...I don't know if I could justify $6/lb. However, if you have some time on your hands, sourcing something other than the Butterball will most likely garner wonderful results.

                      1. Ethics and cost aside, my family (Chinese) prefers dark to white meat. For years I've brined and otherwise tried to make my turkey more suitable to Chinese palates, which find turkey bland and dry. (Remember these are people who think chicken should be pink at the bone or it's unacceptably overcooked.) Two years ago I bought a heritage turkey, prepared it the same, and it got raves. It certainly has more of a "dark meat" flavor, and the breast is much smaller, so, as others have said, if lots of white meat is a priority a heritage bird isn't the way to go.

                        1. We did a side by side test of heritage free range vs Butterball. Our test was a blind tasting and no one could reliably identify which was which of five samples that were randomized. It should be said that I brined the heritage bird in sugar/salt solution.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: LRunkle

                            There are so many different heritage breeds that I think you should keep tasting different ones. I could never go back to Butterball.

                          2. It really depends on your priorities and taste preferences. I've cooked both free-range and non-free range, store-bought turkeys. I thought the free-range turkey had a superior taste, but some of my family members cannot discern any difference in flavor. Being organic is not important to me, so it does not come into my decision-making process. I usually order a Diestel turkey from my local market for about $2 to $3 per pound.