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by Julie Kunen, Slow Food USA

‘Tis the season! No, not the Christmas season, the Thanksgiving season — the most delicious holiday of the year. Understandably, you might be expecting a blog post about turkey. Preparing turkey, how to not overcook the turkey, eating turkey, what to do with turkey leftovers.  And you won’t be disappointed. But this blog post is not about your average turkey. No, it is about the Royal Palm and the White Holland, the Bourbon Red and the Narragansett, the Bronze and the Slate (also colorfully known as the Blue or Lavender turkey). Undeniably, this is not your average blog post about your average turkey.

As you may have surmised, I’m talking about heritage turkeys. Specifically, the eight heritage turkey breeds recognized by the American Livestock Conservancy, a non-profit group dedicated to conserving America’s living heritage of livestock and poultry breeds. The turkey is America’s other national bird, yet as recently as 1997, heritage turkeys were in danger of extinction. There were only about 1,300 breeding birds left in the US, their genetic diversity about to be lost. After a campaign by Slow Food USA, together with groups like the Livestock Conservancy and dedicated small farmers, to promote these endangered breeds and celebrate their deliciousness, there are now upwards of 30,000 heritage turkeys in the U.S. For further recognition and protection, these heritage turkey breeds have been entered into the Slow Food Ark of Taste. 

Heritage turkeys can be much more delicious and certainly more nutritious than the industrially farmed white broad-breasted turkey that constitutes over 99% of the commercial turkeys processed and eaten in the U.S. These birds have become freaks of un-nature, bred to grow as big as possible, as fast as possible. For starters, the birds have such absurdly large breasts that they can no longer fly or reproduce by themselves. Heritage birds, in contrast, are raised more slowly, feed on pasture and are produced on smaller scale farms. The farm systems that produce them are healthier both for the birds and for the environment. For example, pastured turkeys have been found to be higher in Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids from eating clover and other pasture greens than industrial CAFO-produced birds fed a corn diet. The key point is this: heritage turkeys tend to have more succulent, juicier, richer, and meatier-tasting meat.

But how to turn that flavorful potential into reality on the big day, ensuring that your heritage centerpiece is savory and irresistible? Several cooking magazines, farmers, and chefs have weighed in over the years on the best ways to cook a heritage bird. 

Fine Cooking explains that heritage turkeys have more fat from being raised outdoors and adapting to stay warm. Their slower growth (6-7 months versus 4 months or less for industrial birds) means that their meat is more flavorful. And what’s more, they have a more equal balance of dark meat to white, since less of the animal is breast. And dark meat means juicy, rich meat. 

As with industrial turkeys, chefs and home cooks alike fiercely debate the proper roasting temperature for heritage birds. As epicurious explains, the smaller, longer, leaner-breasted heritage breeds should either roast quickly at a higher temperature or more slowly at a lower temperature. Some farmers recommend cooking the birds at a higher temperature (such as 425°F to 450°F) for a shorter period of time (epicurious suggests no more than 2 hours for a 12 to 14 pound bird), while others choose to roast their birds more slowly and at a lower temperature than the standard (325°F, 3 1/2 to 4 hours for a 12 to 14 pound bird).

Fine Cooking suggests that the birds can be brined or you can cook the breast and legs separately, perhaps roasting the breast and then braising the legs. 

Others, such as Saveur, suggest not brining the birds, since doing so doesn’t allow their natural gaminess to come to the fore. An alternative is a technique called barding – wrapping the breast in bacon or pancetta, oil soaked paper, or spreading butter under the skin to prevent the meat from drying out. Foodprint suggests roasting the turkey legs bone in or braising them. 

The key is to not overcook the meat. While you can cook the turkey until a meat thermometer inserted into the leg reads 165°F, epicurious even suggests that you can safely undercook heritage birds. As they explain, “the cleaner, drug-free living conditions of heritage birds make them less likely to be infected with the kind of bacteria that require cooking to a higher temperature, and an internal temperature of 140°F to 150°F will yield moist, juicy, more tender meat.”

Speaking of tender, other options include braising in stock, beer, or wine, frying, or sequencing your meat – starting the legs first for a long slow roast in the oven, which is what Cooks Illustrated suggests, then adding the breast to the oven later. 

Because the necks of heritage breeds are fattier than those of industrially farmed turkeys, they shouldn’t be stuffed — doing so will make the stuffing soggy. Instead, try inserting sturdy vegetables like carrots or onions into the turkey neck. Or, according to epicurious, you can stuff the neck cavity with a halved apple, with the cut side against the turkey’s flesh to buffer the breast against heat and protect it from overcooking. 

Heritage Foods, which preserves endangered species of livestock and was founded by Patrick Martins, one of the leaders of Slow Food, has cooking instructions, videos, and recipe blogs in abundance. And just this month, the Sioux Chef published this recipe in his article for the New York Times, “Sean Sherman’s 10 Essential Native American Recipes.” 

Finally, I leave you with a thought-provoking essay by Brian Barth for Modern Farmer about the long history and heritage of turkeys in America and why eating them is an act of celebration. This in-depth story makes the case for heritage birds and features gorgeous portraits of the different breeds. 

Happy Thanksgiving!