Going Old Turkey: Why Heritage Turkeys Make Thanksgiving Better

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This November, ditch your frozen bird for a heritage turkey, the thoroughbred of the poultry world whose bloodlines date back to the early 1900s. It’s as close to eating like a pilgrim as you can get.

LOOK FAMILIAR? Heritage birds don’t look old—or any different from supermarket birds for that matter. In fact, they’ve served as the inspiration for grade-school turkey cutouts for generations. “They’re the iconic turkeys you see in pictures,” says Alexes McLaughlin from Heritage Foods USA, a farm-to-table mail-order service that sells six different breeds of heritage turkeys. “Their coloring is gorgeous—an amazing array of brown, black, white and grey.”

BORN TO RUN. Since heritage turkeys spend most of their life on the move at farms with big prairies, they’re known for their thigh and wing meat as opposed to their breast meat. All of that cardio also means more dark meat since increased blood flow results in richer colors.

AGE IS NOT JUST A NUMBER. At least when it pertains to heritage turkeys, which are at least twice as old as commercial turkeys (roughly 28 weeks compared to 12 weeks) when they’re sent to slaughter. “It’s like the difference between veal and a roast,” says McLaughlin.

LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX. These birds get down. While supermarket turkeys enter the world thanks to artificial means—primarily because they’re too obese to get into the right position—heritage turkeys are willing, and able, to have sex with each other.

SERVED FRESH TO YOUR DOORSTEP. They’re so fresh that they’re never frozen. Instead, Heritage Foods USA chills its birds at about 34 degrees Fahrenheit and overnights them to you about a week after the turkeys have been sent to the big dinner table in the sky.

PRICE CHECK. At about $10 per pound, heritage turkeys are expensive for poultry. But all things considered, McLaughlin argues they’re still a bargain. “Thanksgiving is one of the biggest meals of the year—a day when we’re giving thanks for everything we have and share time with our loved ones. In that context, it doesn’t seem like such a big commitment.”

HOW TO PREPARE THEM. Per McLaughlin, heat your preferred brine solution (typically water, sugar, salt and favorite herbs) on your stovetop until all of the ingredients have blended together. Remove from burner. Add a quart of ice-cold water. Next, add buttermilk, which tenderizes the turkey meat, at a 4:1 ratio—i.e., 4 quarts of buttermilk for every 1 quart of brine solution. Place your turkey in the brine solution and let sit for 24-36 hours. All quantities are for a 16-pound turkey. Adjust accordingly for smaller or larger birds.