While the rest of the world argues over how to roast the Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey I'm going to let you in on a secret: it's all about heritage breeds.
Oh sure, if you can avoid one of those cheap turkeys injected by fillers -- salt water and artificial flavorings -- you'll be doing yourself a big flavor. Organic? Fine, righteousness usually tastes pretty good. Free range? All the better -- so long as that means actually ranging and not just standing wing-to-wing in a crowded space.
I've tried them all. But AS GOD IS MY WITNESS, the best turkey I've ever eaten has been was an American Bronze, and I'm pretty sure I just barely scratched the surface of turkey deliciousness with that one.
Okay, first of all, what do I mean by heritage breed?
There is basically one breed of turkey raised in the U.S.: Broad-breasted White. It's bred for its gigantic bosom because that's what Americans like -- I'm referring to white meat, of course. This turkey can't fly, it can't run, and it can't even mate.
But long ago there were several different breeds, all a little different from one another: American Bronze, Beltsville Small White, Jersey Buff, Bourbon Red, Lilac, Midget White, Narragansett, and Chocolate. Now these birds are making a comeback.
What these birds all have in common are two things: 1) more dark meat and 2) deeper, richer flavor. In fact, you don't have to worry about drying out the breast meat because this bird is going to roast more evenly, and it's going to roast faster. Read Local Harvest to learn more about cooking heritage breed turkeys. Bottom line: heritage breed turkeys are actually a lot easier to roast than traditional turkey.
Sounds amazing, right? Well, this is the part where I confess to you that they're expensive and hard to find. You're shocked, right?
First of all, the cost: depending on where you get it, a heritage breed turkey will run you anywhere from $50-300. I know -- yikes! But it's so worth it for a special holiday meal.
Many of this years' heritage breed turkeys have already been sold. Seriously. People pre-order their birds starting in August -- they're that good. Here are your best bets:
- Local Harvest still has turkeys here and here. If you're feeding a lot of people it's actually better to buy two small birds than one big bird.
- Order your turkey from Heritage Foods. They still have smaller birds.
- Some Whole Foods stores carry heritage breed turkeys. Ask about them now. And when the counter person says "you mean organic?" say "heritage breed." When he or she says "pasture raised?" say "heritage breed." When he or she says "wild turkeys?" Say "HERITAGE BREED." Because sometimes people think it's all the same. (Although wild turkeys, ancestor to all, are also supposed to be fantastic.)
- Ask around the farmer's market. Hey, you never know.
- Ask at a specialty butcher or gourmet shop if there is one near you.
As for me, I'll be camping out at my local food coop for my heritage bird. We get one delivery each Thanksgiving, and the birds go fast -- within hours. Wish me luck.
Image via Adriana Velez