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.
What is a Heritage Turkey?
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 a 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.
There are many breeds of heritage turkeys, chief among them being the Narragansett and the Bourbon Red varieties.
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 had “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 Its 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.
Cooking a Heritage Turkey
Before you invest your hard-earned money in a genuine heritage turkey, you’re going to want to make sure you know how to cook it. The good news is, you don’t have to do any experimenting – that’s already been done for you.
Chef Dan Souza at America’s Test Kitchen ordered a half dozen heritage birds from farms across the country and spent days perfecting the cooking technique that guarantees a moist and flavorful heritage turkey. Here’s how you do it:
Breakdown the turkey by removing the leg quarters (leg and thigh intact). Souza explains that the legs/thighs and breast roast at such mismatched cook times that separating the breast from the leg quarters is imperative. And, as an added bonus, this quick butchering makes it easier to season the bird providing ample routes of entry.
After seasoning, Souza suggests letting the turkey rest overnight in the fridge, a step he promises, “leads to better-seasoned, more tender meat, as well as drier skin that readily crisps and browns.”
Set the breast aside for the moment and place the leg quarters, skin side down on a baking sheet lined with a greased wire rack in a 250°F oven to give them a head start. We recommend using a Pro-Series miniature needle probe to monitor the internal temperature of the leg quarters as they cook. When they hit 140°F, flip them over and add the breast.
Start the breast skin side down for one hour at 250°F with the leg quarters. Flip the breast after an hour and continue to roast until the internal temperature registers 155°F and the thigh registers 175°F. Using the DOT alarm thermometer monitor the temp of the breast, and when the alarm sounds spot check the thigh with a Super-Fast Thermapen.
Remove the turkey when the ideal temperatures have been reached and let the bird rest for at least 30 minutes, or as Souza suggests up to 60 minutes. Then, in a move only worthy of a heritage turkey, Souza revs up the oven temp to 500°F, stacks the turkey assembly on a clean baking sheet (to avoid excess smoking), and returns the turkey to the oven until the skin is golden brown and crispy, 10-15 minutes.
Let the turkey rest for an additional 20 minutes, carve and serve. Souza gives us an easy recipe for gravy, although admittedly he says, “now that I’ve tasted heritage turkey, I wasn’t certain it needed gravy at all.”
McManus, Lisa. Cook’s Illustrated. The Ultimate Thanksgiving Bird. Nov. & Dec. (p.28-29).
Souza, D. Cook’s illustrated. How to Cook Heritage Turkey. Nov. & Dec. (p.6-7).