Correction: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect location for Nick’s Organic Farm. It is in Adamstown, Md., not Adamstown, Pa. This version has been corrected.
You buy charmingly lopsided heirloom tomatoes. You haul massive Hubbard squashes home from the farmers market. So when Thanksgiving draws near, it’s only natural that you order a heritage turkey for the centerpiece of your holiday feast.
Farmers have seen heritage breeds gain in popularity as buyers become more interested in their food’s origin and history. The farms we talked to sell pasture-raised heritage birds, meaning the turkeys are allowed to roam, and whatever they forage is supplemented with feed. Heritage birds also come to market a bit older than other breeds.
What does that mean in terms of taste? The Food section ordered three heritage varieties that are commonly available in the Washington area: a 6.8-pound Narragansett from Springfield Farm, a 13.8-pound Bourbon Red from Nick’s Organic Farm and a 16.5-pound White Holland from Sunnyside Farm.
The catering team at Wagshal’s Market in Northwest Washington prepped and cooked them for our tasting panel according to our directions. After receiving a rub of unsalted butter, salt and pepper and a few aromatic vegetables in their cavities, the birds went into a 475-degree oven to start, then they slowed down to 275 degrees and cooked to an internal temperature of 165 (white meat).
That apparently was not the way to go, we learned. Our taste test became a lesson in how not to ruin a $130 turkey. The breasts on our turkeys were dry, but we could taste the promise.
“Not just a wad of bland cottony Butterball,” one taster noted about the White Holland. Another taster’s overall impression of the breast meat from all three: “Good turkey flavor but quite dry — I chalk that up to the way they were cooked.”
“I believe to cook them low and slow is the way to do it,” says Dru Peters of Sunnyside Farm in Dover, Pa. She advises her customers to cook the turkeys, unbrined, at 275 to 300 degrees for 11 minutes per pound. David Smith of Springfield Farm in Sparks, Md., also recommends lower-temperature cooking.
Peters suggests that cooks take their turkey out of the oven when the breast meat registers an internal temperature of 158 to 160 degrees (lower than the FDA’s guideline of 165, so take that into consideration). Then the bird should be tented with aluminum foil to rest for at least 30 minutes.
Smith says heritage breeds have even amounts of white and dark meat. Broad-breasted varieties have been bred for a ratio of 65 percent white to 35 percent dark meat. Not surprisingly, our thinner-breasted heritage turkeys were less equipped to handle the high temperature.
We detected small variations in moisture and salt among the breast meat samples, but not enough to pick a favorite.
The dark meat was a different story. All tasted like cooked game, which we liked, but to varying degrees.
“The flavor barely resembles turkey,” assessed one taster of the Bourbon Red. “The meat is so gamy, it almost tastes like venison.” Another opinion: “The dark meat of the Springfield Farm bird seemed to be the most flavorful and also noticeably more greasy than the other two.” Each bird had its merits. Still, we agreed that the Narragansett had a slight edge.
Sophia Maravell, of Nick’s, attributes the heritage birds’ rich flavor to the fact that they are more closely related to wild turkeys than varieties that have been bred into commercial ubiquitousness. “We want to show people what turkeys used to taste like,” she says of the farm her father started in Potomac and Adamstown, Md., now in its first year of offering a heritage breed.
If you think they taste a little like money, too, you’re not completely off base. Prices for heritage breeds can be almost twice as high as those for Broad-Breasted Whites or Bronzes. Nick’s, the priciest on our roundup this year, charges $9.99 a pound for the Bourbon Reds. Sunnyside’s Holland and Midget Whites are $5 per pound, and Springfield’s Narragansetts are $8 per pound.
The reason? Heritage breeds can take up to twice as long to grow to a given size as non-heritage breeds, according to Smith.
Just don’t give them twice as long in the oven.
Holiday Guide 2012: Recipes, decorating tips and other advice to help with a stress-free holiday season.