Cooking a heritage turkey

We hatched and raised heritage turkeys this year. The hatchlings, now grown, are destined to grace the Thanksgiving tables of several lucky Massachusetts families. The older generation, which were slaughtered in June, have been a major gustatory pleasure for our own table this year. We have shared many delicious roasted turkey dinners with family and friends, as well as feasting on turkey enchiladas, turkey soup, and turkey tetrazzini.

I have cooked these turkeys using the same method I use to roast a chicken: Slather the skin with butter and then sprinkle on some seasoning (herbs de provence or shallot pepper), sprinkle a bunch of salt and pepper in the cavity, throw in some shallots or a halved onion, and bake on 375. Baste several times during the cooking. Turn the oven up to 425 for the last 20 minutes, to crisp the skin. The turkeys were amazing, moist, and flavorful. My mother cannot stop raving about how great the turkey was that we ate when they visited in September 🙂

Lately I’ve been reading up on advice for cooking heritage breed turkeys, to prepare for questions that might be asked by my customers, since they are slightly different than the commercial birds most folks are used to. Even though my simple roasting technique worked great, I guess they can be a little tricky if you are used to cooking commercial turkeys. First and foremost, heritage birds have more flavor and more fat, so they do not need to be enhanced by grilling or brining. Because of their additional fat layer, they are sometimes called ‘self-basting’, but I did baste mine just to be safe. Second, there is less white meat to dark meat ratio, so they cook slightly faster. I guess if you’re used to the standard cooking time required for commercial birds, it can be easy to dry out a heritage turkey by over-cooking it. Third, since they cook quicker, your stuffing will probably not get fully cooked. So you have to either pre-cook it, or just stick to dressing.

I found contradictory advice on the internet about cooking heritage turkeys. Is it better brined or not? Cook on a high or low temperature? Cover it or don’t? You can find someone recommending each of these options. My impression is that maybe they are just making too big a deal about the differences. I think that as long as you keep it simple, and pay attention not to over-cooking it, you will have a wonderful-tasting bird. Or, perhaps the right approach is to think of your heritage turkey as a really big chicken, and cook it like you would roast a chicken. Here are the links I found with advice on cooking heritage turkeys:

http://www.tigersandstrawberries.com/2005/11/28/thanksgiving-report-cooking-a-heritage-turkey/
http://www.nonfamous.com/blog/archives/000013.html
http://www.localharvest.org/features/cooking-turkeys.jsp
http://www.williamrubel.com/heritageturkeys/roasting-heritage-turkeys
http://www.slowfoodboulder.org/recipes.htm#turkey_cooking_tips
http://www.lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?t=2084

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