Wild Turkeys – Thanks but no thanks


Kristi and I are discussing the last bits of putting the garden to bed. We’re wondering about the winter rye, our standard cover crop for the Maine vegetable plots. She planted it 10 days ago but nothing seems to be coming up. Big Mystery. Seed was fresh, there has been rain…


Mystery solved first thing in the morning.  I look out the bedroom window into the rosy dawn and there in the garden is a flock of wild turkeys, busily scratching and eating.

wild turkey dining on rye and clover

wild turkey breakfasting on rye and clover

I grew up learning about how wild turkeys were a big success story, conservtionwise, how these once abundant native birds had almost disappeared by the early 20th century, and how they had been reintroduced – had taken hold, were coming back from the brink.

Plus all the usual about Ben Franklin and The National Bird.

A great story when you hear it instead of experiencing it. Ten years ago, sighting a flock of wild turkeys was a rare treat, a real ooh and ah event.

That was then. Now I only wish they were easier to shoot and dress out. Like deer they’ve become a plague, not only restored to their old stomping grounds but also quickly spreading into habitats they never knew before. Like deer, they owe part of their success to people who want to hunt them.  As the National Wild Turkey Federation explains in its annual report:

” … At the time NWTF was established (1973), there were only 1.3 million wild turkeys. Today that number stands at more than seven million birds throughout North America, and hunting seasons have been established in 49 U.S. states, Canada and Mexico….”

All very well and good for the hunters, but as the wild turkey page at Cornell’s All About Birds site makes clear, it’s bad news for gardeners. The wild turkey diet includes seeds, fruits and buds; a single breeding cycle can produce anywhere from 4 to 17 eggs; and no one seems to have told the folks at AAB that “habitat” is no longer limited to “hardwood forests with scattered openings, swamps, mesquite grassland, ponderosa pine, and chaparral.”

I happened to be on the phone with Bill the next day, when they were back again… Let’s just say he has an exaggerated respect for my marksmanship with a 22 ( also for my willingness to break an assortment of game hunting laws).

But I was with him in spirit which brings us of course to the Thanksgiving bird and is it worth it – conservationally or gastronomically – to seek out a heritage turkey, the high-end turkey du jour.

The only way you can eat wild turkey is to hunt or know someone who does, but it is getting (marginally) easier to do your bit for conservation by cooking up one of the old-time breeds of domestic turkey, most of which are in far greater danger of extinction than their wild cousins. Narragansett, Bourbon Red, Royal Palm – just the names raise the hope of flavor missing from the Broad Breasted Whites that are standard throughout the land.

The American Livestock Breed Conservancy defines Heritage turkeys and describes a whole bunch of them here. And if you don’t know a local source you might find one through Local Harvest. (To get the largest number of  listings, ask in  the search field  for “heritage turkey. ” (Clicking on “Thanksgiving specials” returns far fewer choices.)

Several of these farms mail order, as does the well-known Heritage Foods, a pioneer in what might be called the heirloom turkey movement.

You are on your own about whether the shipping footprint cancels out the breed rescue points, especially given that local turkey farms are themselves an endangered species. But whether it’s local or long-distance, a heritage turkey is an investment. Before you make it, consider


* Regardless of breed, heritage turkeys take much longer than Broad Breasted Whites to reach slaughter weight, and most of them are free range. As a result they have more flavor, which takes time to develop and is enhanced by freedom of movement. But age and activity are not great promoters of tenderness. Heritage turkeys need not be tough – in fact they shouldn’t be – but they will be chewier than the industrial model, especially in the legs.

* Heritage breeds have a larger proportion of bone to meat than Broad Breasted Whites. Allow 1 pound per serving if you don’t want leftovers, rather more if you do. The bigger the bird, the more meat in proportion to bone but also (see above) the greater likelihood that said meat will be tough. If you need a lot of turkey two 12 to 14  pound birds are a better bet than one 24 pounder.

* Heritage turkeys are tend to be leaner than the standard brand, so they dry out fast if they are even slightly overcooked. To avoid this:

+ Be sure to take the bird out of the fridge long enough ahead of time. The meat will cook through much faster and more evenly  if it is at room temperature before you start roasting. This is widely advised against because of the danger of bacterial growth. But you are planning to cook the turkey well enough to be sure it’s safe, so although there’s no point in pushing it – don’t leave the thing out all day – there’s no reason to be paranoid.

+ Stuffing slows down cooking time, increasing the chances of dried out meat. If you can bear it, just put a few flavorings (herbs, celery, garlic, citrus slices) inside the bird and bake the stuffing in a separate pan. (Resist the temptation to brine. It will make the turkey juicier but it will also mute the flavor you’re paying large dollars to enjoy.)

+ aim for an internal temperature of 150, measured at the thickest part of the thigh (temperature will rise at least 5 degrees, probably more, while the turkey stands for 20 minutes in a warm place to reabsorb juices before you carve it, a step that should not be omitted.) This is hot enough to destroy bacteria without destroying the turkey. Even the USDA, home of obscenely overcooked, utterly butt-coveringly safe meat, has lowered its target temperature from 180 to 165.

+ Don’t expect brittle, crisp, crackly skin; age and leanness conspire against (if you DO have a fatty turkey, you’ll know it). Sliding slices of frozen butter between the skin and the meat improves both but doesn’t work miracles.

* No matter how careful you are, results will vary depending on the individual bird. Heritage turkeys are not interchangeable widgets; the farmers who raise them are still learning and the revival is still new – there hasn’t been time for breed re-improvement. Many of  these rarities were only kept going by poultry fanciers raising them as show birds, so no attention was paid to preserving traits that once endeared them to farmers and consumers. Considerable progress has already been made, but it’s going to take a while for these breeds to regain (and build on) their full potential.

* My Bottom Line: If I can find a local heritage turkey I’ll buy it and cook it, possibly using a 19th century recipe designed for what comes close to being a 19th century bird. But not for Thanksgiving. The only reason to roast a turkey on Thanksgiving is so there can be lots of stuffing basted by internal juices as the turkey cooks. For Thanksgiving I hope to find — Hudson Valley farmers if you’ve got one please e-mail ! — a good-sized Broad Breasted Bronze. This happy medium is a modern turkey, forerunner of the Broad Breasted White. It’s reasonably quick to put on weight, meaty and tender, but not the flavorless monstrosity the Whites have become. The Broad Breasted Bronzes went out of fashion several decades ago, so although they are “improved,” they are not improved past all recognition and Bill, who has raised them, says they are far and away the best turkeys he’s ever had.

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  • Cary Said,

    Oh boy, do I hear you about those pain-in-the-behind wild turkeys ;( As both a gardner AND a farmer, I am well acquainted with the pests that they are!

    P.S. Hope you find your Thanksgiving turkey!

  • leslie Said,

    Welcome Cary,

    Thanks for the supportive agreement and good hopes. So far the BBB turkeys seem to be pretty elusive – but you never know. (My luck somebody will have one for sale then turn out to be in Australia.)

  • Cary Said,

    Thank you for the welcome, Leslie! I was thrilled to find your blog and have been enjoying it since I did…your book “The 3,000 Mile Garden” (and the PBS series) are a favorite of mine, so I read your blog with much joy 😉

  • Kelsey Said,

    Well, my issue is maybe a bit unusual. Am a US citizen living in the wilds of Central Asia, where ALL the turkeys are something other than the Broad Breasted Whites. They are smallish, darkish, skinny, and have spent most of their lives trying to avoid being hit by cars, being free range to the max. Albeit owned by a farmer, aka, the guy who brings them to market.
    But, it’s Thanksgiving, so turkey there will be! Having looked at several sites with recipies for ‘heritage’ turkeys, the one thing they all lack is a time per pound/kilo, important for those of us not so lucky as to have meat thermomenters at hand.
    Any advice on how many minutes per pound in a reasonably hot oven (ovens here also not really being as minutely controllable as those elsewhere.)? Yes, yes, cook until moving the thigh results in no red juices running, but for planning purposes, how long will that be?
    Thanks much,

    Gee whillikers, THERE’S a challenge! Kelsey, I admire your determination.

    Have to say that from the purely gastronomic point of view, the best thing to do with a turkey like the ones you’re describing is to treat it like an ancient partridge: cook the legs slowly forever to make stock, make a sauce from the stock, then braise the breast forever in that. But I realize (I understand, I truly do) that you want a traditional American roast bird.

    Starting with the easy part, don’t cook it until the leg wiggles; by then it’ll be overdone. But do cook it until juices run clear when you poke the thick part of the thigh with a skewer or thin-bladed knife. Whatever time you calculate, it’s better to be wrong on the too short side – you can always broil undercooked turkey parts but there is no way to rescue them after they’re too done.

    I will spare you all the factors that govern time and temperature. Suffice it to say the oven should be roughly medium (a bit of flour in a shallow pie pan should be light brown – a bit more than gold – in about 3 minutes.) Again, better to err on the low side; cooking longer is better than burning the outside before the inside’s done.

    Be sure the turkey is room temperature before going into the oven and that it is unstuffed. (I go back and forth on brining but in this case it might be a good idea). If the turkey is less than 10 lbs., count on 18 – 20 minutes per pound plus a half hour in warm place to rest. If it’s over 10 lbs. (which I have a feeling it won’t be but …) cut that back to 15 – 18 minutes per. If, as you say, the oven seems to be running hot, allow about 15 per for smaller bird, just slightly less for larger.

    Even under ideal circumstances, the turkey will likely be on the dry side. Be sure to make plenty of gravy (starting with broth made from extra turkey parts) or some other moistener – mustard cream sauce, for instance, would be good, if you can get the cream.

    Good luck! And please write in to tell us how it came out; your situation is unusual but I’m sure it’s not unique.

    Note: The cooking times above are shorter than those published on 11/19. They reflect a decision to observe my own (very) big point about erring on the undercooked side.

    • Kelsey Said,

      Turkeys came out well!
      Our 15 person Thanklsgiving pot luck was a massive success. The two turkeys, cooked in different ovens, were perhaps a bit dry, but under dressing and gravy, no one was complaining. Someone even brought in a can of cranberry sauce. Thanks for your help!

      Thanks for the report, Kelsey – I’m delighted to hear all went well, and special points to the person who found the cranberry sauce! Our organic turkey from a new supplier was on the dry side too, to tell the truth, partly because I cooked it a shade longer than necessary – what was I just saying about checking early, before expected doneness? – and partly because I think it was as lean as your unimproved bird. Leaner than any heritage I’ve had, which is certainly saying something. I’m afraid turkey is going to go the way of pork, not enough fat for flavor OR juiciness.

      Oh well, especially at Thanksgiving, it’s the company that counts. Are you going to do another of these pot lucks for Christmas?

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