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Heritage Turkeys

Heritage turkeys forage for food and live twice as long as modern birds. They can also cost 10 times as much. Do they taste great enough to command their premium price?

Published Nov. 1, 2014.

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What You Need To Know

Eating turkey on Thanksgiving is an American tradition, but today’s supermarket turkeys barely resemble those enjoyed by early settlers. Starting in the 1950s, turkey breeders, catering to consumer preferences for white meat, started breeding turkeys to have big breasts and small legs. These birds could grow to full size on less feed and in half the time as the old-breed turkeys could—making turkey cheaper than ever before. Farmers also started raising the birds indoors and introduced artificial insemination, which made a turkey dinner a year-round option (in nature, turkeys hatch in the spring and reach “eating size” by late fall—not coincidentally, around Thanksgiving).

While supermarket turkey can taste great if it’s carefully cooked, something has been lost. Near extinction not so long ago—and still on the “priority” list of the Livestock Conservancy—old-breed heritage turkeys have had a renaissance in the past decade, with a handful of farmers putting in the extra time, expense, and effort to raise these colorfully plumed birds that, unlike modern commercial turkeys, can fly, roam freely, and breed on their own. Could turning back the clock bring back the flavor that’s disappeared from modern turkeys?

To find out, we bought heritage turkeys from seven farms scattered across the United States. Breeds included Standard Bronze, American Bronze, and Bourbon Red, as well as a bird whose label reads “parent stock includes five different heritage breeds” and even an Eastern wild turkey raised in semicaptivity. All were pastured, meaning they were free to range outdoors and forage to supplement their feed.

The turkeys we unpacked were a far cry from the usual round, pale, plump supermarket turkey. All featured startlingly long legs and wings, a more angular breast and high keel bone, almost bluish-purple dark meat (a sign of well-exercised birds), and traces of dark pinfeathers in the skin around the tail. When we cooked one set according to a standard method, we also found their flavor worlds apart from ordinary turkey—far more rich and flavorful. We then roasted all seven types of birds again according to Cook's Illustrated recipe customized to their unusual anatomy, and their flavor was even more extraordinary.

Tasters raved about the “buttery,” “nutty-sweet,” “incredibly satisfying, rich flavor” of the meat. The biggest revelation was the white meat. Tasters found their favorite samples “amazing,” “unctuous and silky,” with “sweet, succulent flavor,” and a texture that was “perfectly tender” and “really moist.” So what was it about these birds that made them, as one taster put it, “the turkey of my dreams”?

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