So you’re cooking a turkey this Thanksgiving. Since no one knows more about choosing the right turkey than your local butcher, we asked one of our favorite butchers in the country, Fleishers Craft Butchery, for their take on what we should know when buying our bird this year. Bryan Mayer at Fleishers is an expert on talking turkey, and here’s what he had to say:
Whether you were picked or you volunteered, there’s a lot of pressure riding on this one meal. After all, Thanksgiving is a holiday whose sole purpose is to feed people, avoid arguments with crazy uncles and, of course, yell at the TV during the big game. With all this action, you’d think we’d choose an easier protein to cook. Steak, maybe a roast of some kind—heck, even fish. But no! Turkey it is. With its many different breeds, the ways they’re raised and the uneven cook times for white and dark meat, the odds may appear to be stacked against you. Fear not! We’re here to help.
Before we can even get to cooking methods, brining, stuffing or gravy, we’ve got to get you the right bird. This can mean many things. To us at Fleishers, that means a bird raised outdoors, on pasture, free from growth hormones and any unnecessary antibiotics, by farmers we know and trust. But even these things are painted with broad strokes. Let’s break it down by breed and go from there.
Broad Breasted White/Bronze
First to know: all domesticated turkeys are descended from wild turkeys that were native to the Americas and bred for different purposes. In the early 1900’s, somewhere around the time of the Green Revolution, we needed more turkeys, larger turkeys and, of course, larger breasted turkeys. Enter the Broad Breasted Bronze. From a marketing standpoint, their dark-colored feathers were considered unattractive on the skin when plucked. So, enter the Broad Breasted White. This is when production really started to kick in. Unlike the Bronze birds, which were long-lived and required up to seven months to reach market weight, the whites were an excellent, efficient converter of feed to white meat, which satisfied our country’s simultaneous shift in taste away from dark meat.
Per the Livestock Conservancy, a heritage bird must meet the following criteria:
Natural Mating – Pretty self-explanatory.
Long, productive, outdoor lifespan – This just means that they need to be able to breed over the course of a few years, anywhere from 3-7 years, depending whether it’s a hen (female) or tom (male). And they must be able to withstand the rigors of outdoor production systems, where they are still given shelter to protect themselves from the harshest of environments.
Slow growth rate – Exactly what it sounds like. These birds are given about 28 weeks to reach market weight, allowing them to develop strong skeletons and healthy organs to support the building of muscle. This was how the Broad Breasted Bronze birds were raised prior to the advent of the Broad Breasted Whites. Much different from the Bronze of today.
Some of the heritage breeds you’ll see are Bourbon Red, Narragansett and New Holland (Bryan’s personal favorite).
Why it matters
Whether you choose a Broad Breasted White/Bronze or a heritage bird, you’ll want a turkey that’s raised in an environmentally responsible and humane manner. This will absolutely ensure meat is the highest quality and most flavorful. While the Broad Breasted White and Bronze Turkeys reach weight at about 18 weeks, the heritage birds are slower growing and reach weight at about 28 weeks. This additional time allows for the muscles in both birds to develop texture and taste—something lacking in their industrially raised counterparts.
Call them free range, free roaming or free running—a great-tasting turkey comes from a bird that gets to move around! While they are poults (young turkeys) the Broad Breasted birds are kept in spacious barns at low stocking densities for up to two months. That means that they are protected while they are young, in an environment that allows them to develop natural behaviors. After that, it’s free and truly unrestricted access to the outdoors, where they can peck, scratch, roost and graze. They are always given access to the barns for protection. Remember, heritage breeds must mate naturally! Their feed, on top of what they are grazing for, should be a slow-growth, vegetarian diet. But let’s remember, birds are not vegetarians nor are they grass-fed!
And I’d like to once and for all dispel the myth of gaminess. I’m not even sure what that word is supposed to mean. To me it’s the adult version of saying it’s “yucky”! Pastured birds are flavorful. They have a rich flavor that can be nutty, or sometimes buttery, all enhanced by a partially foraged diet. And while their industrial counterparts may have larger breasts, that doesn’t equate to better breasts. In fact, pastured birds—and specifically heritage breeds—have more fat in their breasts. That’s good fat! And it’s due to their age. Also because of their age, they’ve got thicker skin. That thicker skin helps to shield the meat and keep moisture in, making for the crispiest skin imaginable.
Hopefully this will convince you to put a pasture-raised or heritage turkey on your table this Thanksgiving. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to feed my family a turkey that tastes the way turkey should taste. What’s more natural than the flavor of a fully pastured bird?