Thanksgiving is just a few weeks away, and as you plan the menu (please, nothing with marshmallows) and plot your strategy (teenagers at the kids’ table!), you should also give a thought to your bird.
Not how you're going to cook it–how it's doing. Right now. As we speak, the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving table is walking, gobbling, and growing on a farm somewhere. Do you know where?
Turkey farms run the gamut from the conventional, where birds are closely confined, fed antibiotics and growing agents, and denied access to fresh air or sunshine, to the less conventional, where they're allowed to run around, go outside, and eat feed that's all actual food.
Those unconventional turkeys have a different lifestyle, but also a different flavor. They're generally heritage or heirloom breeds, rather than the standard-issue broad-breasted white (which has legs that can barely support its weight), and so their dark-to-white meat ratio is higher.
Since the birds grow more slowly and move around, their meat isn't as soft and fine-grained. One of the reasons dry white meat is a perennial Thanksgiving hazard is that fast-growing birds are necessarily bred to put on lean as fast as they can, and a slower-growing turkey has a bit more fat marbling, and a flavor and texture that are more like other kinds of meat. A flavor and texture just crying out for gravy and dressing.
Convinced? If you’re looking to find an unconventional bird, Local Harvest is a place to start to find a small farm near you. There are also some bigger operations with significant retail distribution:
Diestel Family Farms (mostly in the West)
Mary’s Turkeys (West)
Jaindl Turkey Farms (East)
White Oak Pastures (Southeast and Mid-Atlantic)
Murray’s Turkeys (Northeast)
Many farms sell out early, but there are lots of birds still not spoken for. Speak for one.
I know what you’re thinking. Speak for one, and mortgage the house. And some heritage birds do sport double-digit per-pound price tags. But there are other options. Whole Foods Market makes sure all their turkeys enjoy minimum lifestyle standards, with no crowding or cages, and no antibiotics or animal by-products in their feed; birds that meet those standards go for $1.89 a pound. Whole Foods also has a range of heritage, heirloom, free-range, and organic birds at all price points, topping out at $5.99 a pound.
If you’re trying to feed a big family on a small budget, though, price is always an issue. If a more expensive bird breaks the bank, work with what doesn’t. Here’s what to look for in a supermarket turkey:
Check the freezer section. It costs to get the bird to you fresh, and some taste tests have found that a frozen bird can actually taste better. Why? Fresh birds can be chilled to 26 degrees, and if ice crystals melt and re-form as temperature changes, they can rupture cell walls, which makes for mushy meat. Higher-end birds are almost always fresh, but if you’re looking at standard-issue supermarket birds, consider frozen.
Think kosher: A kosher turkey is one that’s been salted, inside and out, during processing. Although the purpose is to remove blood, the effect (other than rendering the bird kosher) is similar to brining: you get a slightly salty taste, and better moisture retention. And you don’t have to be Jewish to buy it!
Don’t be fooled by youth: “Young” on the label means the turkey was less than eight months old. But, since conventional turkeys are almost always grown in four or five months, the only birds that don’t have the label are some of the better-tasting, slower-growing heritage breeds.
Read the basting label: “Prebasted” or “basted” means the bird has been injected with liquid – water or stock – which may or may not contain fats, spices, and flavor enhancers. Look for the fine print to tell you what percent of the weight of the bird is injected liquid (you’re paying for it), and what the ingredients are. And know your preferences. Some people swear by a moist, flavorful basted bird, others hate a wet, salty bird. Same bird, different people.
Don’t worry about hormones: That “no hormones” label is just there to snooker you. The USDA forbids the use of hormones in all poultry.
Eyeball it. Top-heavy, broad-breasted birds put the “ball” in Butterball, and a turkey that looks more like a bird and less like a sphere just might be a breed that wasn’t quite as fast-growing. The turkey that’s shaped more like a chicken could taste better.
Is there something else on the label that you’re wondering about? Like, say, “Zabiah Halal” (that’s handled per Islamic law)? Check the USDA definitions. If it’s not on this list, it’s marketing fluff and you can safely ignore it.
Whatever turkey you choose, when the big day comes and you’re thinking about all you’re thankful for, take a moment to give thanks for your bird.
Tamar Haspel has been writing about food, health, and science for close-on two decades. She’s written for Self, Relish, Men’s Health, Fitness, Prevention, Health, Cooking Light, and other magazines, as well as USA Today and the Washington Post. She’s published four books and is contemplating a fifth. After spending most of her career in Manhattan, she’s now gone to hayseed, and is growing, fishing, hunting, and gathering her own food in the wilds of Cape Cod. Follow her at StarvingofftheLand.com.