A turkey is a turkey is a turkey … or is it? Today’s meat counter often offers more than just the familiar Butterball, and the choices available can be baffling. Here is a rundown on turkey terminology and what the differences in culture mean in terms of size, flavor and price per pound.
Factory farmed: Factory farmed turkeys are raised in “factory” conditions – they are kept caged and fed with a formula of grains and nutritional additives. They may also be given growth hormones to enhance size and fed antibiotics to prevent diseases. These birds tend to have very large breasts and more white meat than a free-range or heritage turkey. These are the “butterball” types that are normally found on supermarket shelves. Some may be injected with a brine solution that results in moist meat – some people describe the texture as “mushy”. Factory-farmed birds grow to between 20 and 26 pounds. Typically, these birds run $2.00 per pound and are the most common type stocked in the supermarket.
Heritage: Much like heirloom vegetables, heirloom turkeys are genetically similar to breeds that were first domesticated in America. These birds generally are raised as free-range birds (allowed to roam freely in an enclosed pasture area and graze on greens, garden vegetables and insects). They aren’t treated with hormones or antibiotics and the meat isn’t pre-brined or treated with additives. The birds don’t grow as large as the factory-farmed birds (20 pounds is a top weight), and there tends to be more dark meat on the birds. The meat may have a slightly wild or gamey flavor because their diets aren’t restricted to grains or poultry feed. Because heritage birds are rare, the per-pound price for some of these turkeys can run close to $4.00 a pound. Heritage birds are normally available only at farm stands or they can be ordered on line.
Pastured: this is a broad-breasted white turkey (a modern hybrid) that is raised as a free-range bird. No growth hormones are given, and if a pastured bird is labelled “organic,” then the bird is also free of antibiotics, pesticides and other unnatural substances. These birds grow to a maximum weight of 20 pounds.
Wild: Turkey season in Indiana fell between October 17 and October 28th this year, and a wild-caught bird makes an excellent Thanksgiving meal. Wild turkeys tend to be very small – 15 pounds is the norm for an adult bird – and they have a distinctly gamey flavor.
Fryer-Roaster: These turkeys are not fully matured birds that are around 16 weeks of age. The meat is very tender and there is less dark meat on these birds.
“Amish” turkeys: generally these are birds that are raised cage-free and have not been fed growth hormones or antibiotics. The term “Amish” refers more to the farmers who raise the birds, not to any specific production methods. The birds may or may not also be “heritage” birds.
Allow 1 to 1 1/2 lbs of meat per person. Don’t worry – there are a plethora of ways to use leftover turkey meat. It’s best not to skimp, especially if there are relatives coming.
If using one of the heritage, pastured or wild turkeys, brine the bird overnight in the refrigerator using 1 cup of table salt to one gallon of water in a stock pot, kettle or container that is large enough to contain both bird and brine. Brining helps to season the bird and allows the meat to retain its juices during cooking. Additional seasoning ingredients such as garlic, onion, bay leaves, sage or other herbs can be added to the brine. This will infuse the meat with the flavors. To prepare an herbed brine, add the dry herbs to salted water in a large kettle and heat to a simmer. Allow the brine to cool before placing the turkey in it, and then place in refrigerator. Remove from the brine (throw the brine away) and rinse off all traces of salt before stuffing and roasting the turkey. Martha Stewart suggests adding a bottle of dry Reisling to the brine; wine acts as a meat tenderizer and tends to tame any gamey flavors, so this would be a nice touch for the heritage or wild birds, or just to add additional flavor to a standard factory-raised bird.