First of all, if you’ve already ordered a bird from us, thank you for the support! If you’re interested please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
We know our birds are a bit pricier than most of our farmer friends* (and much, much more expensive than a grocery store bird) but by purchasing one of our birds you will be kickin’ it old school this Thanksgiving and eating a turkey that truly tastes like turkey! It’s also more encouragement for us to keep raising these fun, interesting creatures and you’re doing your part to support genetic diversity among poultry. Kudos!
We’ve been eating our own turkeys for several years now and we are thrilled you’re joining us, and many others, on this heritage adventure. I’ve had a few folks tell me this is their first year ordering a heritage bird and they’d like to know more about them and more importantly, some cooking tips.
Our Blue Slates and Narragansetts, and other heritage breeds, are quite a bit different than the birds most of us are used to. According to Modern Farmer (2016) 99% of the turkeys raised in the US are Broad Breasted Whites so it’s pretty safe to assume that if you’ve eaten turkey – on Thanksgiving or on a turkey sandwich at a deli – you’ve eaten meat from a Broad Breasted White. They have been bred over time to get very big very fast and the majority of their weight is in their enormous breasts. And the pale feathers make for a squeaky clean carcass which was also seen as a bonus.
Heritage birds are more akin to the wild turkeys from which all turkeys descend. Those heritage breeds recognized by the Livestock Conservancy must fit three criteria: (1) ability to mate naturally (due to their breast size Broad Breasted Whites cannot reproduce naturally); (2) ability to live a long productive life outdoors; (3) slow growth rate. Most heritage breeds are ready around 28 weeks. Side note – Due to an incident at our hatchery that was outside of our control our birds were delayed and will be a bit younger – and smaller – at around 23 weeks. Hopefully we will hatch our own poults next spring and we won’t have that problem again!
The most important take away from all of that is that our turkeys behave like turkeys. They can run and fly and they do. All day. And they fly up into the trees to roost at night. All of that strenuous activity coupled with the fact that they haven’t been bred to have large breasts and the result is a bird with a more equal ratio of dark to white meat. Richer, denser, “gamier” meat is precisely what got us hook, line, and sinker after eating our first bird. Us Bartons are leg and thigh folks.
So what does all this mean when it comes to cooking your heritage turkey? It means several things but most importantly, since you’ve invested all this money, don’t just roast the bird like you’ve roasted all of those Broad Breasted Whites in the past. If you do, you may be disappointed and we do not want that!!
We want you to really, truly taste turkey – real turkey – so please read through a few of these resources and make some decisions based on your personal preferences, desire for ease (or difficulty), and your time constraints.
My first suggestion would be to read this wonderful piece written by William Rubel, a traditional foodways expert, about the basics of cooking a heritage turkey. Rubel provides a lot of information about heritage birds and some basic cooking principles that are super helpful. Namely, he suggests “undercooking” the bird instead of the over-cautious USDA suggested internal temperature of 180F. He also states, and I agree, that is is very important to bring your bird up to room temp before roasting and allow it to rest undisturbed for at least 20 minutes after roasting.
Most folks roast traditional turkeys for many hours at a lower temperature. Rubel and others suggest hotter, quicker cook times since heritage birds are leaner than Broad Breasted Whites. If you feel more comfortable doing a slower, lower roast Rubel suggests adding fat – butter or olive oil under the skin works. Hell, bacon would probably work too.
The Barton Method:
I use Mark Bittman’s Basic Braised Turkey recipe. Since the legs and thighs are the real showstoppers with these birds a braise is my very favorite method. It’s nontraditional in that there won’t be a big roasted bird on your table but tastewise it’s perfection. And you can still serve the sliced breasts, legs, and thighs over roasted root vegetables on a beautiful platter for one hell of a centerpiece.
This recipe requires a butchered bird in 8 pieces: 2 breasts (off the bone); two legs; two thighs; two wings (I save the back for stock). If this is something you’re interested in just let me know and I can have the processor break down your bird so you don’t have to do it at home. No extra charge cuz I love ya’.
A brined & roasted turkey:
Many of you have probably brined a turkey or at least know what a brine is. It’s a pretty popular method. I haven’t tried the NYT Cooking’s Roast Heritage Turkey and Gravy recipe but I love P. Allen Smith so I don’t doubt it’s a winner. This recipe calls for an apple cider vinegar brine the day before so this is a two-day recipe. It calls for adding butter under the skin and suggests a lower oven temperature. It also includes information to help you figure out your cook time based on the size of your bird.
LocalHarvest’s take on the heritage turkey:
LocalHarvest is a great place to find a heritage turkey and they included the recipe (and tips) from a farmer who raises them – Recipe For A Roasted Heritage Turkey. I haven’t tried this one either but LocalHarvest is certainly a trusted resource.
Heritage Foods USA recipe:
Heritage Foods USA is a great source for all kinds of information (and products). Their recipe for Roast Turkey with Omnivore Gravy uses a dry brine instead of a wet brine. I’ve never tried this but it sure sounds tasty and the dry brine has me intrigued.
I hope these suggestions help. And good luck!
* I’ve made the case in this blog post for heritage turkeys because I adore these birds. We raise them because they are fun and they taste really, really good and we want to share them with our friends and family. Many of our farmer friends raise Broad Breasted Whites but they are doing it much more humanely than the big box store suppliers. Their Broad Breasted Whites are typically pastured and out on grass so they are able to peck around for bugs and plants and feel a warm summer breeze. We understand that farmers who rely solely on farming to make their living, specifically those raising livestock, have a difficult time turning a profit on heritage turkeys – the poults can cost twice as much and they take much longer to reach market weight which means more feed and labor costs. Plus, many consumers want what they’re used to and that means big breasts and mild flavor. I do not want to take anything away from these local farmers raising commercial turkeys. These are good people and damn good farmers who are making a living off the land and raising their animals humanely. If you aren’t ready to make the leap to a heritage turkey but you still want to support local agriculture we encourage you to seek out a local farmer and order a pasture-raised turkey. Three local farms we know and respect that are raising turkeys are Tierra Verde Farms, Mason Kisamore Family Farms, and Brunty Farms.
Maybe you’ll purchase a heritage bird this year and realize that for a holiday celebration they’re worth the extra money. Hopefully you’ll fall in love with the flavor like we have. And maybe – just maybe – you can inspire some of the folks around your holiday table to seek out a heritage turkey next year. The only way farmers will raise these turkeys is if there is a legitimate market for them. We truly believe that our dollars (and taste buds!) can influence and dictate the future market for turkeys.
Mike, Lizette, Ellie, and Max Barton