It is the day after Thanksgiving 2013. This will always be the year I discovered heritage turkeys. Was it worth it? It sure was. Here’s my experience with this up-and-coming star of Thanksgiving dinner.
The short answer to “what is a heritage turkey” is that it’s a turkey of a different breed than the mass-produced broad-breasted white that you get from just about any grocery store for Thanksgiving. Click here for a more detailed post about it, as well as links to even better explanations than my own. But, the bottom line is that there are two different things that are supposed to make heritage turkeys better: more natural genetic lines (free from in-breeding and genetic manipulation) and a healthier, free range life (which is separate from genetics and which bird that’s not stuck in a cage may have).
My little darling showed up on Tuesday via Fedex. It is not lost on me that I am trying to support a more holistic way of life while getting my food shipped to me with an abundance of fossil fuels. I tried like crazy to find a farm in New Jersey that is breeding heritage breeds. Unfortunately, although there are lots of farms in NJ (yes, we have farms – we are the Garden State) that are treating their turkeys well (see: free range, paragraph above) none that I could find are raising exclusively heritage breeds. So I had to turn to the internet. I found HeritageFoodsUSA, which ships their turkeys from a farm in Kansas. In the morning when I first discovered them, they had 12-14 pound turkeys available but they’d sold out of the 10-12’ers. By the afternoon, the 12-14 pounders were gone too so I hurried up and ordered the smallest size left, a 16-18 pounder. (I now have leftover turkey for lunch all next week).
The turkey came complete with a flyer that told me my turkey was a Bourbon Red and that it had been allowed to Roost, Fly, Flirt and Roam the Kansas Prairie. I hoped that my turkey had had a good life before someone cut off its head.
Research suggested that heritage turkeys shouldn’t be brined, but I am a stubborn old bird and brining my turkey makes me feel like I’m doing something useful. So I cooked up my super secret brine (spoiler alert: salt, sugar and whatever else in my refrigerator that makes me feel like I know what I’m doing). I put it in the bucket and stuck it on my back steps with a big, heavy cover over it. For as long as I’ve been brining my turkeys in this house – and this year makes 14 years – I always fear that some massive wild animal will escape the highway half a block away and eat my turkey. Perhaps those hateful deer that refuse to understand we are the frontier between suburbia and urbia? Lucky for my turkey, those bastards seem to exist exclusively on a diet of my tulips and my coral bells heuchera.
It was a tad too cold to brine outdoors. (My iPhone said it was expected to go down to 28 degrees overnight). No one wants the turkey to refreeze overnight, so I set the alarm to 3:00 a.m. to get up and bring the turkey in for a couple of hours. I slept right through it. Luckily, the salt in the brine kept catastrophe at bay. The next morning, the water was way to cold to put my hands in, but it was still liquid. All this to save myself from clearing enough room in the packed refrigerator for a bucket of turkey.
I prepared the turkey as I usually do – salt and condiment rub (I was in a rosemary and basil kind of mood this year), butter under the skin and onions for juiciness. It definitely looked different than any turkey I’ve ever made (and I usually buy the fancy free-range ones from Whole Foods). It had a leaner breast and different-colored drumsticks. After discovering these interesting things and rescuing its neck and liver from its belly (why- oh why. I will never understand this), I tented that sucker with (recycled!) aluminum foil and stuck it in the oven.
My research indicated that slow roasting is the only way to go with heritage turkeys. (Unlike the brining thing, I actually decided to follow this advice). I cooked it at 400 degrees for 40 minutes, then brought the oven down to 250 degrees. Heritage turkey aficionados also recommended to ignore the USDA advice to get the internal temperature to 165 degrees, which is overcooking, contributes to turkey dryness and which is unnecessary with heritage turkeys because their healthier lifestyle means they carry far fewer diseases so there’s no reason to incinerate it. (Note to all of you considering this at home: I am not advocating this position. I am just telling you what I read. Your exposure to salmonella is on you). I aimed for 155 degrees, put the meat thermometer in, and went off to arrange some candles and fancy soaps and generally carry on with the pointless things we hostesses like to fixate on.
It took a full seven hours for my Boubon Red to reach 155 degrees. I pulled it out of the oven and, thanks to my newfound maturity and patience (cough: the yams weren’t ready yet), I let the turkey sit for a full half hour before carving. It was divine, easy to slice through and aromatic. When I got down to its breast bone I was fascinated to discover it was a different color than any I’ve ever seen before, kind of a dark gray-ish. I got big, juicy, beautiful slices from its breast, which was pleasantly surprising since it looked so much leaner than regular store-bought turkeys. As I was carving through it I realized the dark meat was nowhere near done. I remembered reading that heritage turkeys might have more difference in cooking times between dark meat and white meat. Into the oven went the dark meat. It turns out we were all stuffed before the dark meat was done so that it was relegated to leftovers. Must come up with a better system next year.
The verdict: an intense and delicious flavor that was noticeably stronger and better than even the free-range turkeys I’ve eaten in the past. It wasn’t dry or hard by any stretch (brining, people. I’m convinced) but it would not win the juiciest turkey award. That wasn’t its point of distinction. What made it different was its flavor: strong, delicious, somehow “right.” I am officially a heritage turkey fan. And with the slow cooking it was as tender and easy to cut as a rotisserie chicken.
As the word gets out about the superior flavor, I hope that more people will raise and buy heritage turkeys. It made me feel close to the spirit of the season to eat a meal a step closer to the one they ate at the first Thanksgiving.