Who am I...and does it make a difference? This tom is the Broad Breasted White, the supermarket turkey almost all of us have grown up with. We tasted organic, heritage, wild, and frozen turkeys to decide what to order this Thanksgiving. Photo by Bodai Imre.
The turkey is a native American bird, and as everyone educated here knows, was enjoyed by the Pilgrims and their Native American friends at a dinner in Plymouth Plantation, Massachusetts in 1621, to celebrate their first harvest. This feast is often referred to as “The First Thanksgiving.” It is a little-known fact that the three-day feast celebrated by the Pilgrims, which we replicate on the fourth Thursday of each November, was never again repeated in Plimouth Plantation; nor was it deemed by the colonists to be a “Thanksgiving Feast.” In fact, days of thanksgiving observed by the Pilgrims were devoted to prayer, not feasting. So we are not replicating the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving Day each year...but let’s not split hairs over such a great American tradition*.
*President Abraham Lincoln declared the first national Thanksgiving Day in 1863, observed on the fourth Thursday of November.
Fast forward a few hundred years, and we’re consuming 400 million turkeys a year. Ninety-nine percent of them are Broad Breasted Whites, a breed with short legs and a huge breast, bred to meet Americans' overwhelming taste for white meat. As much as we gobble up those big birds, there’s been rumbling that they’re dry, tasteless, and bear no relation whatsoever to that enjoyed by our forefathers (or even our grandparents). Some of the ancient breeding stock still survived on family farms, enjoyed by the farm families and available in tiny quantities—e.g., 400 birds comprised what was left of the entire species, and only as show birds.
According to William Rubel, an author and cook specializing in traditional cooking, what is now being called a heritage turkey is what poultry breeders call a “standard breed.” A standard breed is defined as one that has been bred to be true to one of the older registered turkey varieties (see the list below). A heritage bird must breed naturally, live seven to nine years, and grow slowly.
In 2002, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, a non-profit dedicated to protecting breeds of farm animals from extinction, and Slow Food, global organization dedicated to preserving artisanal foods and production practices, joined to work with farmers to try to save four of the best-known heritage turkey breeds before they became extinct:
The Bourbon Red, also known as the Bourbon Butternut or Kentucky Red, was named for Bourbon County, Kentucky, in the bluegrass region, where it originated. It was developed from stocks of the Jersey Buff, taken to Kentucky and selected for improved meat production and a darker red color.
The Jersey Buff, a historic variety from the mid-Atlantic states, named for the beautiful color of its feathers and used in the development of the Bourbon Red variety early this century.
The Narragansett from Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island—the first American turkey breed to be developed from a cross between native Eastern Wild turkeys and the domestic turkey stock brought by English and European colonists.
The Standard Bronze, named for its unusual shimmering green-bronze color, which appears metallic in the sunlight. This is the bird Benjamin Franklin proposed as the national symbol of America. It was bred from Narragansett and wild turkeys, and was the most popular turkey until the Broad Breasted White was crossbred to provide more white meat. The Standard Bronze also has a place in history as the breed depicted in the iconic Norman Rockwell painting, “Freedom From Want,” show below.
Norman Rockwell’s paean to Thanksgiving, “Freedom From
Notice the elongated breast of the Standard Bronze,
the most popular turkey of Rockwell’s day.
Compare it with
today’s Broad Breasted White turkey, bred to have much
more white meat.
Other heritage breeds include:
The Beltsville Small White, developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at its Beltsville, Maryland, research center beginning in the 1930s.
The Black, a variety that originated in England, a direct descendant of Mexican turkeys taken to Europe beginning in the 1500s.
The Slate or Blue Slate, named for its color, which is solid to ashy blue over the entire body (also called the Blue or Lavender turkey).
The White Holland, a white-feathered variety that originated in Europe, developed from Mexican turkeys brought to Europe beginning in the 1500s.
The White Midget. Developed in Massachusetts in the 1950s for the smaller turkey market, they are similar to the Beltsville Small White but are a little smaller and not as broad-breasted as the Beltsville.
The common ancestor for all heritage breeds is the wild turkey, native to these the Americas. Wild turkeys were brought back from Central America to Europe by the Conquistadors. Then they were imported to back to North America by English settlers as the black Spanish turkey, which was bred with the wild North American turkey. The Standard Bronze was the result and the other breeds followed. (To learn more about the history of the turkey in North America, click here.)
In an effort to come up with a tasty Thanksgiving story and an even tastier recommendation for NIBBLE readers, we recently tasted several specialty turkeys. We were surprised by the results, which we detail below. To understand what we tasted, start with these definitions:
A legacy bird. While there are no legal or set guidelines to define heritage animals, to be truly heritage the animal must have a specific set of genetic traits and be raised sustainably on pasture, where they can forage and carry out their natural behaviors. Almost all heritage turkeys are near extinction. Efforts are underway to reintroduce them to the public. preservation of artisanal foods, are helping promote and market the breeds. The term heritage is unregulated, and definitions of exactly what constitutes a heritage breed may vary.
An organic turkey can be any breed, including a Broad Breasted White. Organic simply means that the bird has met the standards for USDA Organic certification, including an organic diet, surroundings including bedding and grazing areas that are pesticide and herbicide free, no hormones or antibiotics, and humane treatment. For many consumers, lack of pesticides and hormones in their food is the most important consideration, and why they purchase organic.
Similar to organic, these turkeys can be any breed. They have not met the more stringent standards for USDA Organic certification, but they have not received antibiotics.
These birds were not confined to a cage, but were allowed to roam and forage. Thus, their diets were augmented with grubs, worms, and grass, improving the flavor of the meat; the exercise supposedly improves the texture.
If you want more information on how the animal was raised and it is not on the label, there is generally a phone number you can call.
In terms of marketing, words like tender, juicy, succulent, and moist are used to describe all of these varieties—as well as supermarket birds. Of course, much of the result lies in the skill of the cook as well as in the bird: take the best bird and overcook it, and it will not be tender, juicy, succulent or moist.
What Creates Flavor
Flavor in any animal is a function of four factors:
The underlying quality of the meat. Flavor is a fundamental expression of an animal’s genetic stock.
The age of the animal. Older animals acquire more fat, which provides more flavor; and heritage animals grow more slowly than commercial animals. Heritage turkeys are generally seven or eight months old, compared to commercial birds which are three or four months old.
How it was raised. The more exercise an animal gets, the more its muscular flesh builds, the better its flavor. Animals allowed to roam in pastures and free-range poultry in yards get exercise; animals confined in pens and coops do not.
What it was fed. Animals allowed to graze and forage will develop a deeper flavor than those fed a pure grain diet (different grains also produce different flavors). Free-range turkey (and chicken) will eat grasses, grubs and insects to produce more flavor nuances.
The Contenders in the Blind Tasting
The contenders were identified only as Bird 1, Bird 2, etc. until after the tasting and voting. They were then revealed as:
Bird 1: Organic Turkey
Fed only whole organic grains and pure spring water are fed to the birds, these free-range birds are raised in a pesticides- and herbicide-free environment with no antibiotics, growth hormones, no arsenicals or artificial light are permitted at any time.
Bird 2: Frozen Supermarket Turkey This was a brand-name frozen turkey, not a generic. Keep in mind that as with steak, ice cream, or any food product, there are average producers and great producers.
Bird 3: Heritage Bourbon Red
These Heritage birds are the oldest breed of turkeys. They fly and breed naturally. Their chest bone is longer, and they are naturally well proportioned, which means that they have a larger quantity of the dark meat than the more recent chest-heavy breeds. They are raised outside in the fresh air where they can forage. They are raised humanely, not given antibiotics, and are fed a certified organic diet Heritage turkeys all have richly flavored meat, are succulent and juicy, and are naturally well proportioned, which means that have not been genetically altered to produce birds with larger breasts. They are also heartier and can be raised outside in fresh air and where they can forage, which affects the quality and taste of the meat.
Bird 6: Heritage Standard Bronze
The Standard Bronze turkey was developed in the 1830s in Rhode Island by crossing Narragansett turkeys with wild turkeys.
Bird 7: Wild Turkey
The most “authentic” turkey, this is the bird that inspired Benjamin Franklin to nominated it as the symbol of America (it lost to the American Eagle). Very lean with a long, arched chest bone, it looked like an aerodynamic track star compared to the other birds. Slender of chest, it had the least white meat. For an authentic Thanksgiving, try it.
The birds were prepared simply: salted and peppered, and cooked according to weight (which ranged from 10 to 15 pounds).
They were served plain—no salt, no pepper, no sauce, no sides—allowing the tasters to experience the bare essence of the meat. Palates were cleansed with spring water or wine.
The birds came out of the oven at roughly the same time, were allowed to stand, and were carved by three of the greatest chefs in America—instructors at the culinary school—who also participated in the tasting.
Going into this tasting, we would have bet on a different outcome than we experienced. However, any good scientist repeats tests. One tough strip steak does not condemn the category. It only means that one steak from one source at one point in time prepared by one chef at one point was chewy.
Remember, we were tasting without benefit of salt, gravy, anything: just plain unadorned meat. These notes were written when tasting blind, although the birds are identified below. In full disclosure, we prefer dark meat, but certainly do eat white meat when it is hot out of the oven moist.
Bird 1: Organic Turkey
White meat was pebbly, papery. Dark meat was pink, moist, very tasty.
Bird 2: Frozen Supermarket Turkey The meatiest legs. Excellent texture and taste, very “birdy” flavor, classic white meat. Dark meat is darker in color and a little chewier than Bird 1, but a lovely, pure flavor—excellent. The interesting thing about this bird is that the white meat and dark meat flavors are not at extremes: white meat lovers should enjoy the dark meat, and dark meat lovers should enjoy the white meat.
Bird 3: Heritage Bourbon Red
Smaller, broad breast with lots of breast meat but smaller drumsticks. Chewy all over without a lot of flavor. The dark meat is very dark; moist but just too chewy with no other payoff.
Bird 4: Heritage Standard Bronze
The third best—chewy, but not as chewy as Bird 3. Moist dark meat, white meat O.K. Still waiting for a turkey epiphany, and not getting it. Only one bird to go.
Bird 5: Wild Turkey
This scrawny, elongated bird looks like an Olympic runner from “Chariots of Fire.” Almost no meat on the upper breast, but big thighs. Surprisingly, very tender white and dark meat. I wish it had more turkey flavor. Bird 6 and Bird 7 are the second and third best; I guess 7 wins it by a hair.
In deference to the Heritage Bourbon Red, which was chewy, we had read that heritage turkey dark meat can be a little tougher than commercial dark meat, but that brining for a day prior to roasting was a solution to a more tender and juicy bird. Our turkeys were not brined, and we found both the white and dark meat to be chewy on both birds. We did not find the flavor payoff to be significantly distinctive to make brining a priority—especially at five times the cost.
Free-Range, Non-Antibiotic Turkey
Frozen Supermarket Turkey
Heritage American Bronze
Heritage Bourbon Red
*Not in this tasting
Eastern Wild Turkey. Photo by Gary M.
Stoltz courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife
Heritage American Bronze Turkey. Photo
courtesy of Tanglewood Farms.
Heritage Bourbon Red. Photo courtesy of
While the birds that were celebrated at the first Thanksgivings have become virtually extinct, today’s commercially produced, factory farmed Broad Breasted White turkeys, are tasty.
One tasting does not a decision make. Good restaurant critics go back to taste three or four times before making a pronouncement about the food. And, as with steak, different breeders will producer different-tasting birds.
Supermarket Turkey vs. Heritage Breeds
The Broad Breasted White—there are two variations, the Broad Breasted Bronze, which is brown in color, and the Large White—was developed in the 1950’s, crossbred many times over to ensure a larger breast and more white meat, and an ability to grow quickly to an enormous size—both qualities to serve the American appetite for white meat, and lots of it. These days it is the standard commercial turkey, known by some as “the Dolly Parton of turkeys.”
Broad Breasted Whites have short legs, cannot fly and have difficulty mating naturally: engineered for size, the buxom toms are so top heavy, they cannot mount the hens (the birds are bread via artificial insemination). They are usually raised in crowded indoor factories and fed a diet of grains, often with antibiotic supplements to keep bacteria in check. Industrial turkeys are often injected with saline solution and vegetable oils in an attempt to help improve the taste and texture of the meat.
Heritage turkeys have less white breast meat and longer legs with more thigh meat than the Broad Breasted White. Many say the flavor of the heritage turkey is richer as a result of the breed, feed quality and length of life. As mentioned above, heritage turkeys are older, slaughtered at eight months instead of the usual four to five months for a Broad Breasted white, which means they can put on more fat, leading to more succulence and deeper flavor. Most are free range, meaning they can roam in a yard, and forage for natural food: grubs, bugs and grasses that provide more flavor to their flesh. Their exercise gives them firmer flesh than birds who live their lives in cages. They are naturally active and can take flight: they like to roost in trees.
A more mature bird puts on a layer of fat, which is why the organic and heritage birds (in theory) taste more moist and why commercial birds need to be injected with oil so as not to taste dry.
Heritage birds are sold fresh, not frozen. And because the birds are leaner, most producers recommend that you brine them for at least a day before roasting to enhance their juiciness.
Organic and sustainable farmers raise all types of turkeys. Some raise heritage breeds, but others raise the Broad Breasted Whites. The difference between their Broad Breasted Whites and those raised on factory farms is that the former are treated humanely and are not subjected to the deplorable conditions of a factory farm.
Notes on Buying & Cooking Birds
Tips on buying and roasting, Butterball.com has lots of goodies: a printable customized shopping list; a roasting time calculator; detailed cooking instructions including roasting, grilling, and charcoal grilling; stuffing and gravy tips; how-to videos; and health and safety handling advisories for those concerned about salmonella.
Fresh birds have a 3-5 day shelf life.
Frozen birds should be defrosted overnight in the refrigerator—not at room temperature, which encourages bacteria growth.
Birds should be cooked at 325°F. USDA-recommended temperatures for doneness are: breast meat 170°F, thigh meat 180°F, center of stuffing 165°F.
White meat cooks faster than dark meat. About 2/3 through the cooking cycle, you’ll need to cover the breast lightly with foil so it doesn’t dry out while the dark meat finishes cooking.
Use a meat thermometer. Instant-read thermometers like the one at the right are are fast and leave a smaller puncture. If you don’t have one, click here to buy one.
Insert it into the thigh close to the body of the bird. Be sure it rests in meat and is not touching bone.
The bird continues to cook after removed from the oven, so remove it when it is 5 to 10 degrees below the final temperatures.
For just $13.99, the Taylor High-Temperature
Instant-Read Pocket Thermometer will ensure
your bird comes in on target.
If you don’t have a thermometer, you can tell that poultry is done when the juices run clear, without any hint of pink. You don’t have to cut into the bird: tip it until the juices run from the cavity.
The key to juicy poultry is to let it rest before carving. Cover the bird with foil to keep it warm and set it aside for 15 to 20 minutes (up to 30 minutes for large turkeys). Resting allows the juices to redistribute, making each bite more succulent.