Cooking Heritage Turkey

[Holy blog-pause, batman!  Sorry about the quiet time — we’ve been busy with the holidays, and relatively little has been going on project-wise.  I lost a draft of this post a few weeks ago and found re-writing it to be an extraordinarily procrastination-worthy task.  We should be getting back to normal now.]

A “heritage” turkey is fundamentally turkey the way it was before industrial logic steered the breeding of turkeys toward the fast-growing, breast-heavy animals that currently represent almost 100% of the U.S. turkey market.  (The inexpensive birds lining every U.S. grocer’s freezer each November are a fantastically efficient way to convert feed into animal protein, but in many cases they also can’t fly or reproduce, or sometimes even walk.  You might find that troubling.  I do.  But that’s not what this post is about.)

There are just a handful of breeds of heritage turkey — the three turkeys we raised to maturity this year represent two of those breeds: Bourbon Red (Snivey and Ashowattle) and Royal Palm (Snowball).

turkeysHeritage turkeys are smaller, more evenly proportioned with regard to the size of the breast compared to the rest of the bird, and in many cases — ours included — have been raised freely foraging for much of their own food rather than in a confinement feeding situation.  All of these factors combine to make a turkey that needs slightly different handling in the kitchen.

Before I set out to cook the first of our birds, I did a basic review of recipes that claimed to work well for heritage turkeys (specifically, localharvest.org, Saveur, the NY Times, williamrubel.com, marysturkeys.com, and gnowfglins.com).  There were some common themes, including a lack of brining (it obstructs the extra turkey-ness in the heritage turkey flavor), a moist cooking technique, and a warning that these birds cook faster than you’d expect.  In the details, however, I found a great deal of diversity in their suggested methods: everything from a cooking temp of 325 to one of 500, with target thigh temperatures ranging from 140 (!!) to 170 (woah).

I amalgamated the various advice and came up with the following recipe:

  • Bring turkey to room temp.
  • Cut several slits in the skin, and insert pieces of butter under the skin.  An herb-y compound butter is nice here, if you’re so inclined.
  • Season the skin with salt & pepper, and position breast up on a rack in a roasting pan filled with ~4 cups of chicken stock.IMG_4290
  • Cover the breast with parchment paper that has been brushed on both sides with oil.  The paper will help keep the breast skin from cooking too much as the bird roasts.  You’ll remove the paper about 30 minutes before the turkey is done cooking.
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  • Roast in a 425° oven until the thigh temperature is about 155°, then remove from the oven, let rest for 20-30 minutes, and carve.  For a 13 lb. bird, we found this to be as little as 2 hours.
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The first bird we cooked was tiny (9 lbs) and taught me the importance of checking for doneness early and often.  She was tasty, but ended up way past the target temp and thus got a touch dry.  The next two worked much better, and were generally quite delicious.

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