Cooking Heritage Turkey For the Thanksgiving Feast

ceramic (majolica) gravy boat

A genuine heirloom (i.e. passed down through generations) turkey: my mother’s gravy boat. It has a matching ceramic ladle that broke about 15 years ago and has been in storage awaiting repair ever since. This speaks equally to my tendency to procrastinate and to the fact that said ladle, while cute, does not hold enough gravy to be practical.

In the edible bird department, some givens, about which more below:

1.) Like the proverbial yacht, if you have to ask how much a heritage turkey costs you probably can’t afford it.

2.) Buying a heritage turkey helps keep an endangered gene pool robust, so you get preservation points as well as a delicious dinner (assuming you cook it correctly).

I’m not in the yachting class and am already convinced on the deliciousness front, but I’m cooking two turkeys this year anyway, just for the sake of comparison.

One is a heritage bird from a farm about a half hour north of here, the other is an “organic, free range heirloom,” imported from Pennsylvania (about 5 hours south of here) by a specialty grocery. Although I haven’t cooked them yet, some things are already clear.

Those who simply want kitchen tips can go immediately to Roast Turkey 101.2 for general cooking hints and a recipe for wild mushroom stuffing. Guidance that’s specific to heritage birds is in the second part of  Wild Turkeys, Thanks But No Thanks. 

Otherwise, onward, with background research help from: My friend Ilana the egg lady at Blue Moon Farm;  her friend – and now mine – Maryann Hegel, at Freedom Farms, where I attended a turkey harvest last Saturday;  and Peter Davies and Mark Sherzer, co-owners of Turkana Farms LLC. (Mark’s a lawyer), where I bought my heritage bird.

1.)Why They Cost So Much

Just how much varies quite a bit, but a heritage bird (probably but not definitionally raised on organic principles) will cost somewhere around three times as much as a USDA Certified Organic conventional bird, which will in turn cost roughly twice as much as the supermarket standard. This is because:

* Right at the start, baby heritage chicks (poults) cost the farmer twice as much as conventional chicks. It is in the nature of turkey raising to lose at least a few poults in the first week or so, so right away the heritage grower is out of pocket at twice the going rate.

* Whatever their individual merits, all of the many heritage breeds take roughly twice as long as the agribusiness standard to make market size. During this extended period, those birds that survive childhood are eating more and more and more, all the while requiring protection from predators and an assortment of other regular attentions.

*Heritage  market size is @ 8 – 24 lbs, compared to conventional’s 10 – 40 lbs. or more, so fixed costs like shelter and care are higher on a per-pound basis.

* Most growers of heritage turkeys are small to tiny fry as the turkey biz goes. They can’t buy feed grain in cost-saving quantities and they don’t sell enough birds to recoup the cost of proper on-farm slaughter facilities. There aren’t many inspected slaughterhouses willing to accept small orders; those that do charge a lot for their services and of course the turkeys must be transported to and from.

2.) Doing Your Bit for Conservation

Almost all – maybe 97 percent – of the commercial turkeys in the US belong to one breed: the Broad Breasted White, a miracle of efficient feed conversion that otherwise has very little to recommend it, being both profoundly handicapped and not especially tasty. Then another percent or two are Broad Breasted Bronze, immediate progenitor of the whites and not a whole lot better in either regard.

But even if the Broad Breasted’s were models of animal health and gastronomic delight, confining an entire domestic species to a single very narrow gene pool is orders of magnitude not smart.

heritage turkeys, New Jersey Buff, Bourbon Red

Alternative turkeys: a couple of closely related heritage breeds: New Jersey Buff hen, Bourbon Red tom, photographed at Blue Moon Farm

As I see it, you could save money and still help out by donating a less-big chunk to a worthy organization like the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy , but that’s a lot less fun. You can’t serve a thank you letter for Thanksgiving dinner – and you don’t get the extra bang-for-buck of helping a nearby farmer stay in business.

Chocolate slate turkeys, broad breasted bronze turkey

Genuine heritage birds (Chocolate Slate) on left; psuedo-heritage bird (Broad Breasted Bronze), delivered to Freedom Farms by mistake but raised as carefully as his cousins.

One minor irritation: Organizations like The Heritage Turkey Foundation and Slow Food and many individual suppliers wax lyrical about the particular merits of Bourbon Reds and Narragansetts, Chocolate Slates and Royal Palms, but can you order them by name? Probably, somewhere, but everywhere I looked “heritage” was the extent of the guarantee.

Obviously, this gives the growers maximum wiggle room to hedge their bets with assorted breeds and then deliver whatever does best in a given year, but I think it may also be because so many of them buy day old poults, rather than breeding their own, and they’re buying from hatcheries that are willing to sell a relatively small number – tens and hundreds, rather than thousands – of birds.

The catalogues from such places are closely related to seed catalogues when it comes to enticement. This breed is gorgeous, that one is especially sociable, this other is teetering on the brink of extinction. If you’re not breeding your own, you have no incentive to stick to just one when browsing in the candy store.

Unfortunately, if you’re not slaughtering your own you have no way to keep them separate for marketing purposes. They leave the farm as distinct as can be, but they come back headless, footless and featherless, looking pretty much the same.

That said

conventional and heritage turkeys, ready for cooking

There’s no mistaking the difference between heritage (above) and not (below).

The fat bird on the bottom is the one imported from PA. It is a Broad Breasted Bronze. It is not, however, the same as these

 Broad Breasted Bronze tom turkeys

A couple of the standard issue Broad Breasted Bronze turkeys that landed by accident at Freedom Farms.

When I ordered the commercial turkey I was just trying to compare Broad Breasted Modern with Heritage, but it turns out (after a bit of googling) that the bird I got is probably an Orlopp Bronze, a protected hybrid of a hybrid, created by Hendrix Genetics, a huge multinational major player in livestock breeding.

None of this means it won’t be delicious, and none of it necessarily means it has genes not normally found in turkeys. (Can’t say for sure about that part since although it was supposed to be organic, it wasn’t) But in any case this does suggest that “new and improved” might be a more accurate description than “heirloom”.

My oven is orders of magnitude too small for me to cook them at the same time;  the largest contingent of leftover eaters will be here on Friday, and by me the whole reason to have Thanksgiving is in order to have stuffing that has indeed been stuffed into the bird.* So I’ll be cooking the BBB on Thursday and the Heritage (which will come out better if cooked unstuffed) on Friday.

Stay tuned for a comparison based on the cold leftovers, which can be tasted side by side.

Might as well give it a shot, even though it’s actually apples and oranges. The conventional bird, while theoretically raised humanely and given plenty of room to roam, was actually neither, as far as I can tell from a bit of internetly drilling down. It did get far better treatment than anything raised for the mass market, but that’s not saying much.

Maryann may be the one who’s had the best chance to really see. She didn’t cook two birds side by side, but she did cook one of the accidental  Broad Breasts she raised side by side with her Chocolate Slates. The verdict? “It was absolutely delicious.”

Her guests said they liked last year’s heritage bird a little better, but it sounds to me as though (not surprisingly) nurture matters as much as nature if you’re talking strictly about table quality.

Before we met, Bill raised BBB’s for a few years, not de-beaking or clipping their wings, letting them roam freely and all the heritage usual, and he says they were far and away the best turkeys he’s ever eaten.

Update: When Bill read this last night he denied the BBB part. I thought he’d gotten his original birds from the local Agway, which even 40 years ago would have meant the Bronze turkeys he’s raved about all these years would have been BBB’s. But I seem to have misunderstood. He traded with a farmer friend – some rabbits for the turkey poults – and as he also got a Royal Palm or two and a Bourbon Red, his Bronzes – all of which flew with no problems, one of which mated with a wild turkey, were probably every bit as heritage as any in this story.

* See The Food Lab at Serious Eats for an interesting suggestion about preventing the “stuffed bird doesn’t cook through fast enough” problem. Short version is you put the stuffing in a cheesecloth bag and get it good and hot before you put it in the turkey.


 The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy Definition of a Heritage Turkey

“All domesticated turkeys descend from wild turkeys indigenous to North and South America. They are the quintessential American poultry. For centuries people have raised turkeys for food and for the joy of having them.

Many different varieties have been developed to fit different purposes. Turkeys were selected for productivity and for specific color patterns to show off the bird’s beauty. The American Poultry Association (APA) lists eight varieties of turkeys in its Standard of Perfection. Most were accepted into the Standard in the last half of the 19th century, with a few more recent additions. They are Black, Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, Slate, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White, and Royal Palm. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy also recognizes other naturally mating color varieties that have not been accepted into the APA Standard, such as the Jersey Buff, White Midget, and others.  All of these varieties are Heritage Turkeys.

Heritage turkeys are defined by the historic, range-based production system in which they are raised. Turkeys must meet all of the following criteria to qualify as a Heritage turkey:

Naturally mating: the Heritage Turkey must be reproduced and genetically maintained through natural mating, with expected fertility rates of 70-80%.

Long productive lifespan: the Heritage Turkey must have a long productive lifespan. Breeding hens are commonly productive for 5-7 years and breeding toms for 3-5 years.

Slow growth rate: the Heritage Turkey must have a slow to moderate rate of growth. Today’s heritage turkeys reach a marketable weight in 26 – 28 weeks, giving the birds time to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass. This growth rate is identical to that of the commercial varieties of the first half of the 20th century.

Beginning in the mid-1920s and extending into the 1950s turkeys were selected for larger size and greater breast width, which resulted in the development of the Broad Breasted Bronze. In the 1950s, poultry processors began to seek broad breasted turkeys with less visible pinfeathers, as the dark pinfeathers, which remained in the dressed bird, were considered unattractive. By the 1960s the Large or Broad Breasted White had been developed, and soon surpassed the Broad Breasted Bronze in the marketplace.

Today’s commercial turkey is selected to efficiently produce meat at the lowest possible cost. It is an excellent converter of feed to breast meat, but the result of this improvement is a loss of the bird’s ability to successfully mate and produce fertile eggs without intervention. Both the Broad Breasted White and the Broad Breasted Bronze turkey require artificial insemination to produce fertile eggs.

Interestingly, the turkey known as the Broad Breasted Bronze in the early 1930s through the late 1950s is nearly identical to today’s Heritage Bronze turkey – both being naturally mating, productive, long-lived, and requiring 26-28 weeks to reach market weight. This early Broad Breasted Bronze is very different from the modern turkey of the same name. The Broad Breasted turkey of today has traits that fit modern, genetically controlled, intensively managed, efficiency-driven farming. While superb at their job, modern Broad Breasted Bronze and Broad Breasted White turkeys are not Heritage Turkeys. Only naturally mating turkeys meeting all of the above criteria are Heritage Turkeys.

Prepared by Frank Reese, owner & breeder, Good Shepherd Farm; Marjorie Bender, Research & Technical Program Manager, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy; Dr. Cal Larson, Professor Emeritus, Poultry Science, Virginia Tech; Jeff May, Regional Manager & Feed Specialist, Dawes Laboratories; Danny Williamson, farmer and turkey breeder, Windmill Farm; Paula Johnson, turkey breeder, and Steve Pope, Promotion & Chef, Good Shepherd Farm.


Blue Moon Farm photo by Ilana Nilsen

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  • Happy Thanksgiving Leslie and Bill! Thanks for a thorough and thought provoking article. I’m printing it to take to the family’s Turkey Day bash. I do have a question: In the article, you say, “(Can’t say for sure about that part since although it was supposed to be organic, it wasn’t)”. How do you know it wasn’t? The whole issue of non-organic food masquerading as organic is a concern for me, so I’d be interested to know what the tip off was.

    Hi Cindy,

    Happy Thanksgiving! Hope your family enjoys the article. In answer to your question, I know the turkey wasn’t organic because although that’s what I ordered and that’s what it said on the store-printed label, the label on the fancy plastic wrapper that was put on at the turkey farm made no mention of organic – which they DO sell. Farm label simply said “natural” (at this point one of my least favorite words). Legal USDA organic certification costs the grower money and brings a premium price, so it’s always mentioned somewhere if it exists, and anything that’s “USDA certified organic” on the original label should be just that.
    There are a lot of problems with that, too, for those of us who think organic means a lot more than “no pesticides or GMO’s,” but at least it’s something… Assuming of course that it’s being enforced, another whole can of worms I’d rather not think about just now. For today I’m sticking with being profoundly grateful I can be worrying about the quality of my food, rather than simply the – insufficient – quantity so many others are facing.

  • Boy, Leslie, you really take turkey research to the ultimate level! I am deeply impressed. And very happy for you to have done all this so I don’t have to.
    On the subject of wild turkeys, I once had one provided me by a hunter friend who recommended that I braise the legs for hours and hours, then more or less throw them out or give them to the cat and cook the breast in the braising liquid, the theory being that the legs are too tough to be edible anyway. But the breast was delicious.
    And that reminds me of Mary Risley’s self-description: Built jut like a turkey, she said, big breasts and short legs. When the delights of Thanksgiving start to wane, go to You Tube and look for Mary’s take on the whole thing: “Just Put the F*cking Turkey in the Oven” is the title–you get the picture.

  • Vee Said,

    Well now. I have never felt so completely ignorant and now somewhat enlightened in my life. I was going to say that this year I used a slow-roasting method…don’t tell the good folks at The Food Lab…and we enjoyed our first delicious turkey in our lives. That said, I’m wondering what the combination of slow-roasting and a Heritage Turkey or a Free-Range Organic one might mean. (I did not stuff ours this year, though I’m assured that I could have.) Hope that you’ll give us the results of your taste test. I do have access to free-range organic turkeys, though I choke on the $80 price tag.

    Hi Vee – nice to hear from you!

    Delighted to hear you had good results this year. The outcome of our VERY unscientific trial will be along soon, but the short version – purely from the gastronomic, not sociopolitical view – is that it looks (tastes?) like there are two things that matter the most: skill of the farmer at raising good (as opposed to cheap) turkey, and skill of the cook in preparing it.

  • Lori Said,

    I have an Orlopp Bronze for christmas and it weighs 17.5 lbs. How long and at what temp. do I cook this for? I am cooking the stuffing in the bird.

    Hi Lori – Big congrats on scoring a bird you know the heritage of! Time-per-pound is always tricky, even more so with large roasts that can vary a good deal in size, shape and fattiness. All that said, you should be ok allowing 15 minutes/lb. at 350 degrees, with an additional 1/2 hour to 45 minutes in a warm place after after you take it out of the oven so juices can be re-absorbed. Start testing a little early and keep testing as necessary, using an instant-read thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh – it should be at 155 or so (temp will rise as the bird sits). Very important to have both bird and stuffing at room temperature going in. Problem is getting the stuffing sufficiently hot to be safe without overcooking the bird. If in doubt; spread the not-quite-cooked stuffing on a shallow pan and run it briefly under the broiler. Happy Dickensian Christmas to you and all at your table!.

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