Without a doubt, turkey will be at the center of the vast majority of dinner tables this Thanksgiving. While we’re not suggesting you forgo your usual holiday fare, what if it were possible to make this Thanksgiving even MORE traditional by passing on the supermarket variety turkey and opt instead for a heritage bird?
Lisa McManus and the staff at America’s Test Kitchen took painstaking efforts to taste test heritage birds against mass-produced supermarket turkeys to find out if they really do taste great enough to command their premium price. Here’s what they found.
Heritage Turkey Defined
The Livestock Conservancy and the American Poultry Association agree that a heritage turkey is defined by these three criteria:
1) Heritage turkeys must have a long productive lifespan – five to seven years for breeding hens, three to five years for breeding toms – and have the genetic ability to withstand the environmental rigors of outdoor production systems.
2) Heritage turkeys must have a slow to moderate rate of growth, reaching marketable weight in about 28 weeks, giving the birds time to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs before building muscle mass. Commercial turkeys grow to full size in only 12 to 14 weeks.
3) Unlike commercial turkeys that must be artificially inseminated, heritage birds are the result of naturally mating pairs of both grandparent and parent stock.
Test Kitchen Findings
Heritage turkeys are a far cry from what you’d find in the supermarket. They feature “startlingly” long legs and wings with more angular breast and high keel bone, almost bluish-purple dark meat (a sign of well exercised muscle), and traces of dark pin features in the skin around the tail.
When cooked according to their standard method, they found that their flavors were worlds apart from “ordinary” turkey. Taste testers reported they were far more rich and flavorful. When roasted according to a new recipe, they found that they were even better.
Tasters said the turkey was, “buttery,” “nutty sweet,” and “incredibly satisfying, rich flavor.” They went further to describe the white meat as, “amazing,” “perfectly tender,” and, “the turkey of my dreams.”
Why So Good?
ATK took their simple taste test a step further to find out why the heritage birds were so much better. The answer they found was in the fat. Because of the maturity of the birds and the method in which they’re raised, heritage birds had more than 4 times the fat content as mass produced turkeys. This fat brought flavor, kept the meat moist during roasting and reduced friction as you bite through the meat making it more tender.
Worth It’s Weight?
Whereas supermarket turkeys cost, on average, $1.72 per pound, a heritage bird can cost as much as $10 per pound – and that’s not including shipping costs. But, ATK reminds us that this heritage bird is a centerpiece for a special occasion, much like a rib roast, or beef tenderloin (which can cost upwards of $75 to $100 at the supermarket).
Splurging on a heritage bird once a year is worth the cost, especially considering the full, rich flavor you’ll be bringing to the table. Their top pick was heritage birds from Mary’s Free-Range Heritage Turkey where a 7-to-14lb. bird will run $166.72, plus shipping.
Look for a future blog post where we’ll tell you how to roast a heritage bird to maximize its rich flavor.
McManus, Lisa. Cook’s Illustrated. The Ultimate Thanksgiving Bird. Nov. & Dec. (p.28-29).