Within a matter of weeks we will once again find ourselves ensconced in the holiday season. Thanksgiving ushers in a time of family gatherings and celebrations, with many exciting things for foodies to eat and cook.
Traditionally, the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table is the turkey and the choices are many, ranging from Butterball to Heritage breeds. I'd like to offer a bit of a primer on turkey terminology, so you can make the best choice for your holiday table and perhaps avail yourself of the locally grown birds from farms in our region. We'll start with turkey breeds.
The vast majority of the turkeys which grace our tables today are White Broad Breasted turkeys, which replaced Bronze turkeys in terms of popularity somewhere around the 1960's due to their lighter and better appearing carcass. Bronze turkey varieties, particularly Broad Breasted Bronze turkey, went out of favor only after being selectively bred for breast size and growth rate and now are raised seasonally by small independent farmers for the holidays and in a manner which develops their natural attributes and health, as well as allows natural breeding.
Heritage breeds, or "Standard" turkeys are ancestors of the Broad-breasted White Turkey. They are making a comeback on the American Thanksgiving table. They are free range birds and include breeds such as the Jersey Buff, the Bourbon Red and the Narragansett. Their meat has more flavor and is richer tasting due mainly to a more natural diet obtained from exercise and foraging for foods. Heritage turkeys also enjoy a longer life span with slower growth. For instance, a White Breasted Tom turkey generally reaches its goal size (around 32 lbs.) by 18 weeks, while a Heritage turkey will take from 24-30 weeks to reach a lesser weight. This of course translates into higher production costs which is passed on to the consumer, but many think it's worth the investment.
Terminology about raising turkeys (and other animals) can be confusing. What does free range and organic mean? How do these affect the turkey and ultimately how it tastes?
Free-range turkeys refer to turkeys which are given access to the out of doors. Mind you, the turkey you're eating may never have taken a step outside, but it had access. The requirements are quite minimal for the amount of common space the turkeys have access to. If the turkey had plenty of room to exercise and forage it may well have an effect on the taste. But the thing is: you have no idea. By buying from local farmers, you can be assured that the birds were given the ability to roam significant areas the the farm by speaking to the farmer and/or seeing for yourself. A couple farmers with whom I spoke emphasized that their turkeys are free to forage and roam about in addition to receiving organic feed.
Organic turkeys are fed organically certified feed and are free-range. They can not receive antibiotics or growth hormones. However, no turkeys can receive growth hormones and turkeys who are administered antibiotics in non-organic methods of raising must be put through a "cleansing" period so the medication is out of their system before processing.
By labeling the turkeys free-range and organic, it does not ensure great taste and texture. These are mainly driven by the breeding, lifestyle and food choices given to the birds. While the standard White Broad Breast is very juicy with, well, lots of breast meat (so much in fact, these birds cannot breed naturally) the slower and more naturally raised turkey will have better flavor which can be attributed to access to a variety of foods (such as grubs), exercise, better living conditions and a less stressful life.
Well, now that we've waded through bird breeds and types, let's briefly discuss strategies for cooking.
According the Local Harvest website, White Broad Breast turkey is generally cooked/roasted at 325 degrees until the internal temperature reaches 160-180 degrees. The breast is often tented with foil so it doesn't dry out while waiting for the dark meat to finish cooking. Not so with a free-range Heritage turkey, whose breast to thigh meat ratio is closer. If the breast in tented, it should be with buttered or oiled parchment paper so the breast skin does not steam and the cover should be removed 1/2 hour prior to the end of cooking. Butter, olive oil and herbs can be rubbed under the skin of the breast to increase the fat content. Due to the decreased fat and size, this turkey should be cooked at 425-450 degrees until the internal temperature reaches 140- 150 degrees* (the thought being that the turkeys are far healthier to begin with and assumed processed under closer supervision so they don't need to be cooked as high) to retain moistness in the lower fat bird.
More information regarding selecting, cooking and storing your bird can be found at the Food Safety and Inspection Service website.
Here is a list farms and stores where you can get your turkey from this year. But hurry if you want one from the farms!
Located at various local farmers markets, see website.
Ordering: Online form or directly at your local market. Pick up dates are according to farmers market
Turkeys: White Broad Breast and organic
Ordering: Call or order in person at Market Poultry
Hillside Turkey Farm
30 Elm Street, Thurmont, MD
Ordering: Call ASAP
7033 Ed Sears Road, Dickerson, MD
Turkeys: Free range White Broad Breast, pasture-raised and organically fed
Ordering: Online order form http://www.jehovahjirehfarm.com/orderform.php
16701 Yeoho Road, Sparks, MD
Turkeys: Broad Breasted White, Heritage and Bronze
Cost: $3.75/lb-$5.50/lb. (for the latter two)
Ordering: Preferably by email to tell them what turkey and size you want. Orders can be picked up the Saturday or Sunday before Thanksgiving. Supplies are limited at this time, so hurry!
Maple Lawn Farm
11788 Route 216 (Scaggsville Rd.), Fulton, Maryland
Turkeys: Sho-Nuf free range turkeys, smoked turkeys (additional cost)
Located throughout the D.C., VA and MD region
Turkeys: Maple Lawn Farms All Natural Turkey and Eberly Organic Turkey
Ordering: Done through the catering department of Balducci’s
Located throughout the D.C., VA and MD region
Turkeys: Free range and organic
Ordering: Contact your nearest Whole Foods and ask for the “Holiday Table”
21846 Trappe Rd, Upperville, VA
Turkeys: Free-Range, Certified Organic and Certified Humanely-Raised and Handled Heritage Breed Turkey
Cost: See website for pricing - http://www.ayrshirefarm.com/eatorganic.php
Ordering: email firstname.lastname@example.org or call The Home Farm Store at 540-687-8882
* The USDA recommends that the deepest part of the turkey thigh reach 180 degrees Farenheit.