More than 10 years ago, I cooked my first heritage turkey for Thanksgiving. I had been seeing the term pop up in the food press and on some chefs’ menus, and I was curious to know more about it. A heritage turkey is one of a dozen or so old varieties of turkey as listed by the Livestock Conservancy-an organization dedicated to protecting endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction-with a slow-growth rate, the capacity to live a long outdoor life, and the ability to breed and reproduce. Some of the most popular heritage turkey varieties are Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Standard Bronze, and Black. But heritage birds make up just the tiniest fraction of turkeys raised in the U.S. That’s because 99% of the 300 million turkeys sold each year are genetically identical Broad Breasted Whites. To counter this monoculture, the conservancy launched an initiative in 1997 with marketing support from Slow Food USA to try to protect the American turkey’s genetic diversity. Their goal? To create market demand for these older breeds. In other words, to save them, we have to eat them.
A different shape and flavor
Heritage turkeys are still not widely available, but if you saw one at your supermarket, it would look different from what you’re used to seeing. The more common Broad Breasted Whites, a variety cultivated after World War II to cater to both the advent of modern factory farming and the growing consumer demand for larger birds and more white meat, look roundish with thin, pink skin and generously plump breasts. By contrast, a heritage turkey is more elongated with drumsticks that are a good 1 to 2 inches longer, extending well beyond the tip of the breast. Its skin is thicker and firmer than that of a mass-market bird, which makes it less likely to tear or split. You’ll also find large deposits of firm, pristine subcutaneous fat around the neck opening—a sign that the turkey lived much of its life outdoors and developed fat stores to stay warm.
As for flavor, it’s hard to generalize about all heritage birds, but their slower growth rate (heritage birds take 6 to 7-1/2 months to reach market weight; factory birds get there in 4 months or less) translates into a finer-textured, denser, richer-tasting meat, with an equal ratio of dark to light.
But that rich-tasting meat comes with a steep price tag. Factory-farmed turkeys sell for between $1 and $2 per pound, while a heritage turkey runs $7 to $8 per pound. (Humanely raised organic and free-range Broad Breasted Whites fall somewhere in between.)
The real costs of these birds
The reasons for the high price for heritage turkey include the amount of work it takes to raise them and their slower growth rate. But the main cause is the higher cost of everything from feed to processing for the smaller scale farmer. Whether they’re worth it is a complicated question to answer.
For one thing, the price tag on factory-farmed Broad Breasted Whites is kept artificially low, since producers make their real profits on the millions of pounds of deli meat and other forms of processed turkey. And then there’s the issue of the cost to the birds themselves: Bred for excessively large breasts and for exceptional feed efficiency, they cannot fly or run. Their fast growth rate means frail bones, weak immune systems, and shortened life spans. They also can’t reproduce on their own, which is why detractors call them “dead end” birds. Plus, maintaining genetic diversity, whether in turkeys, cattle, or pigs, helps guarantee a future with these animals in it, which for many people is well worth paying a premium.
So after trying my first heritage turkey all those years ago, did I switch to cooking one every year at Thanksgivings since? Honestly, no. While I recall being impressed with the taste and texture of the one I cooked—and there were surely no complaints—that bird was not a game changer flavorwise for me or my family.
The next year, I went back to ordering our usual fresh, nonheritage turkey humanely raised on a nearby small-scale farm. But writing this article has gotten me thinking about cooking a heritage bird again this holiday season. After all, its deep, rich flavor is much more like that of the wild turkeys present at the very first Thanksgiving, and genetic diversity is something we can all be thankful for.
Beware of fakes
Some breeders crossbreed true heritage birds with Broad Breasted Whites to produce faux-heritage turkeys that look like a cross between the two and are a bit cheaper to raise. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these birds; you should just know what you’re paying for. If you’re unsure, check the list of true heritage turkey breeds at The Livestock Conservancy.
How to buy and cook a heritage turkey
Make this the year you try a heritage bird by following the tips for buying and cooking below.
If you want to serve heritage turkey for Thanksgiving (or for any special dinner this holiday season), plan for it. Many farms rely on pre-orders to be able to afford the care and feeding of these birds, so if you wait until the last minute, you may be out of luck. To avoid pricey shipping costs, do an online search for farms or markets carrying the birds in your area.
BUY MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU NEED
Heritage turkeys range from 12 to 25 lb., and because their bones are heavier, count on 1-1/2 lb. per person compared to about 1 lb. for a conventional bird. In other words, expect a 12-lb. heritage turkey to feed about eight people. Keep in mind that you’ll have as much dark meat as light meat, too.
COOK IT GENTLY
Because of its more elongated shape, a heritage turkey cooks a little more quickly than a broad-breasted bird, so the biggest danger is overcooking. The simplest approach is roasting it unstuffed at moderate heat (350°F) until the internal temperature of the thigh meat reaches 155°F. This is lower than regular turkey temps, but it’s safe and helps guarantee that the meat will be moist and juicy. If you’re a briner (I am), then by all means go ahead and brine. My absolutely favorite way to cook a heritage turkey (or any turkey, for that matter) is to separate the breast from the legs, then roast the breast at a moderate temperature, and either braise or slow-roast the legs and thighs until they are succulent and falling-off-the-bone tender.