To buy a great turkey
October 26, 2006 10:20 AM   Subscribe

Hey MetaCooks, your opinion on heritage, pasture-raised or otherwise fancypants turkeys please? Complicating factors inside...

For the first time in a very long time, I am hosting Thanksgiving at my house. I am debating about purchasing heritage birds from a local farmer instead of going the Butterball route. (And yes, I know about the Slate article.)

The issues are:

My husband is a turkey junkie. Only the largest, most unwieldy Frankenturkey by Butterball will do. Thus, he was noticeably alarmed when I mentioned I was looking into heritage birds.

Several of the guests are picky eaters. If the turkey doesn't taste like the turkey they are used to, I think they may not enjoy the meal.

If you've gone the fancier bird route, were the results worth it? Did your guests (especially nonfoodie ones) enjoy it?
posted by Sully6 to Food & Drink (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've done Willy birds the last two years. They tasted perfectly like turkey, and were the juiciest turkeys I have ever eaten (and two years ago was the first time I've ever cooked a Thanksgiving turkey, so it certainly wasn't due to my skill).

I was only cooking for six the first year and three the following year, so I didn't need the ginormous 25-pound bird my mother used to cook, but I think Willy birds get reasonably large.

And yes, I think they're totally worth it. They were amazingly good.
posted by occhiblu at 10:37 AM on October 26, 2006

(I should add: I realize that Willie birds would not be the same as purchasing from a local farmer, since they're CA-based, but they are organic and might be a good compromise. I got mine at the Whole Foods in Deerfield (?) last year. Also, given that I misspelled them in my first post, I thought I'd give you the website for more info!)
posted by occhiblu at 10:42 AM on October 26, 2006

Sigh. Coffe first, *then* posting.

I lied entirely, except about the Whole Foods thing. I *did* get my Chicagoland turkey there, but it was Diestel brand, which is the other big CA-based organic turkey producer.

This thread, in which I was actually coherent while posting, might give you other ideas, too.
posted by occhiblu at 10:46 AM on October 26, 2006

If you buy from an individual you might keep the following story in mind.

My brother raised a giant turkey in his yard in central PA. Someone spotted it, loved the way it looked, and insisted on buying it. They returned after the holiday (with a firearm) demanding their money back and really pissed.

Apparently the thing had gotten into some fish food my brother was storing and tasted fishy.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:57 AM on October 26, 2006

I cooked a fresh, organic, free-range turkey for the first time last Thanksgiving. The family verdict was that, although it was nice to avoid the chemical soup that gets pumped into mass-market turkeys, there was no benefit in terms of taste. I didn't change the way I prepared the Turkey from past years and did an overnight brining of the bird.
posted by Otis at 10:58 AM on October 26, 2006

There was an article in Mother Jones a few years back that discussed Slow Food/heritage turkeys. The heritage turkey was a huge hit. I don't know if the guests were foodies or butterball junkies, however.
posted by O9scar at 10:59 AM on October 26, 2006

For the love of humanity, please spare yourself and your guests the Butterball. I could maybe, possibly forgive the unnecessarily inhumane treatment and generally crappy factory conditions if the bird tasted incredible. But it doesn't- if that's what your guests think turkey tastes like, take it as an opportunity to show them what it ought to taste like. Your husband understands that his turkey is so f'ing big because they pump the turkey with steroids and then inject water into the finished product, right?

I've been doing straight-up free-range organic for a few years, and it's just amazingly better. Your husband will not freak out- it's not like it tastes like broccoli. It still tastes like turkey, just really good turkey. In fact, it's just the kind of quality meat that drives the manliest of men to make sweet, sweet love to their women.

We got a heritage turkey last year (I want to say American Bronze, but I'm not sure if that's right) and it was very good. That said, I think you'll have a hard time feeding more than six with one. I did, however, have easy access to it through my co-op. I don't know if it's worth the extra effort to hunt one down- as I said earlier, a free-range, hormone-free turkey will be awesome.
posted by mkultra at 11:05 AM on October 26, 2006 [2 favorites]

I recently was given a fresh turkey that had been pasture-raised on organic food by a friend of mine who raises all the meat her family eats. It was delivered to my house within a couple of hours of being butchered. My friend had told me that if I'd never before had turkey that hadn't been frozen, I was in for a treat. We brined and roasted it, it came out beautiful, and was very tasty--but not more so than other good turkeys I've thawed and roasted. I am not a foodie and do not have a discriminating palette, so if your friends are like me, it is possible that fancy turkey would be wasted on them.

Our bird was 22 pounds. We had to buy a new roasting pan to accommodate it. Frankenturkey indeed.
posted by not that girl at 11:51 AM on October 26, 2006

You might check out this blog post on a heritage Turkey experience at Obsession With Food. Of note is the fact that he ended up with a smaller than expected heritage bird so he supplemented with a more traditional turkey breast - might be a good compromise for you. Also of note are his comments that the heritage bird was delicious.
posted by rorycberger at 11:55 AM on October 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

We did a fresh, free-range organic turkey a few years back when our ginormous Butterball didn't thaw in time. We had a pretty diverse group of picky eaters present, and no turkey left at the end of the meal. This was only partly due to the much smaller size of the turkey. Everybody liked it. But people did differ on their opinions.

One thing to keep in mind - since the turkey will be both smaller and not injected with water, it will tend to dry out more, especially in the breast, if cooked in exactly the same manner as the Butterball. The flavor is also more intense, so you want to season the turkey lightly. Look for recipes that add moisture and cook longer at lower temperatures. And keep an eye on it while browning, as that will occur much faster than with the larger birds. You want to keep the turkey covered as much as possible to keep it from drying out.

With that in mind, I think your turkey lovers will enjoy the results, so long as you've carefully calculated the amount you will need to satisfy their appetites. Keep in mind that portions will be reduced not only by weight, but also by the fact that the natural birds have a lower proportion of breast meat per pound.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 12:02 PM on October 26, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks, occhiblu, for the links. I am also heartened to hear you had a good experience with your organic bird. I've been doing pretty much all the cooking at huge family gatherings for the past 10 years, but I always got stuck cooking a massive Butterball.

mkultra, you and I are on the same page about factory farming. Over the last few years I've drastically cut down on eating meat and now try only to buy stuff that is humanely processed. (Even reading about "Our Daily Bread" at Gastropoda this week made me want to puke.)

But the thing is, we have many family members travelling hundreds of miles to be with us and I want everyone to enjoy themselves, not feel they are being tortured to eat "turkey how it should be." And for my husband, whom I love like kittens, it is his absolutely most favorite meal of the year.

But the fact that a few other posters seemed to have a good experience with their organic/pastured/heritage birds makes me think that a departure from Butterball will work out fine this year, even if it takes two turkeys.

On preview: not that girl, my mom's best friend buys her turkeys freshly butchered. She tells my mom that there's nothing like getting your turkey "while it's still warm." I think mom and I are both a little too squeamish for that. By the way, what did you brine a 22-pounder in? I usually skip brining and do compound butter under the skin, but this year I'm planning on trying the Zuni Cafe method for roast chicken (I always get spectacular results with it) because I can't figure out how I could keep the big bird brined and chilled.
posted by Sully6 at 12:06 PM on October 26, 2006

Response by poster: Ugh, that last link now takes you to a sign-up for a cookbook club. Sorry about that. Here's a better link.

It's Raining Florence Henderson, it definitely sounds like I will need two turkeys then.
posted by Sully6 at 12:11 PM on October 26, 2006

I can only say what we do for our turkeys. I don't think we could quite call them organic, there were some commercial feeds used, but they are close.

Free range Bourbon Breasted (similar to wild turkeys) and white (like Butterball) were raised in a large screen pen about the size of the average aprtment. Kind of limited free range.

We raised them on goat milk and what they picked up from the grasses we placed in there, mostly oats.

We did have one problem though, the 45 pounder (20 kg) will not fit in the oven!
posted by Leenie at 12:20 PM on October 26, 2006

"It's Raining Florence Henderson, it definitely sounds like I will need two turkeys then."

You might. If I were in your shoes, I'd try to lock down my source as soon as possible. Heritage and free-range birds seem to be much more popular lately, and reserving or pre-ordering one now should give you a better chance at getting a decent-sized bird. Also, talking to them now will give you a better idea of what's available. Depending on how big your past Butterballs have been, you might actually get pretty close in overall weight with a natural bird, so that the only real reduction would be in the breast-to-weight ratio. Then maybe, just to be on the safe side, you could purchase an additional turkey breast as well, rather than go with a whole second turkey.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 12:26 PM on October 26, 2006

Sully, my father and brother (for whom I cooked last year) think that I'm a weirdo-hippie for insisting on non-hormone, humane meat, both of them would have been quite vocal had the "weird hippie bird ruined Thanksgiving," and both of them loved the Diestel that I cooked.

They made fun of me the entire day for going out of my way to get it, but they certainly didn't think it tasted different from what they expected turkey to taste like -- just better than usual.
posted by occhiblu at 12:52 PM on October 26, 2006

see here
posted by bricoleur at 1:08 PM on October 26, 2006

One thing to keep in mind - since the turkey will be both smaller and not injected with water, it will tend to dry out more, especially in the breast, if cooked in exactly the same manner as the Butterball. The flavor is also more intense, so you want to season the turkey lightly. Look for recipes that add moisture and cook longer at lower temperatures. And keep an eye on it while browning, as that will occur much faster than with the larger birds. You want to keep the turkey covered as much as possible to keep it from drying out.

Very, very, very, good points.
posted by mkultra at 1:16 PM on October 26, 2006

sully - you ask how to keep a turkey chilled while brining. I've never done it myself, but have seen numerous recommendations for doing it in a well cleaned cooler with a hefty dose of ice in the brine. Refresh ice as necessary. If you are fanatical about it, throw the probe of a digital thermometer (you have one anyway for when you cook the bird, right?) into the brine too in order to make sure it doesn't go above 40 degrees. Another option would be to use one of those giant sized ziploc bags in the fridge.
posted by rorycberger at 2:33 PM on October 26, 2006

If you're going to brine the turkey, you might as well just buy a Butterball and save yourself the trouble. If you pay extra to get a real bird without added salt and water, don't add it back in.
posted by rxrfrx at 9:46 AM on October 27, 2006

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