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What Kind of Turkey Should I Buy?

From Heirloom to Pastured - Find the Turkey Right for You


Heirloom Turkeys

Black Norfolk Turkeys

Photo © Matt Cardy/Getty Images (used with permission)

Not too terribly long ago the answer to that question was "Butterball." Now Thanksgiving cooks have a choice - a lot of choice. So be gone dried-out breast meat, under-cooked thighs, and meat so tasteless you simply think of it as "protein." Delicious, flavorful, juicy turkeys raised with care by local growers await you. You’ll support local growers and end up with a tastier, fresher bird, whether it's for Tuesday night supper, a Thanksgiving feast, or Christmas dinner. Heritage, pastured, organic, natural... find out what these terms mean so you can figure out what kind of turkey will grace your Thanksgiving table this year.

Heritage Turkeys

As heirloom is to tomato, heritage is to turkeys. It’s a step back to how things used to taste. Strict standards apply to labeling animals “heritage.” More than descending from earlier breeds of turkeys with names like Red Bourbon, Narragansett, and Standard Bronze, the American Livestock Breed Conservancy outlines that heritage turkeys must mate naturally, have a slow growth rate that results from a longer lifespan, and spend their life outdoors. Heritage turkeys are smaller than their commercially bred counterparts (all Broad Breasted Whites) and have a stronger – some say gamy – flavor. Less breast meat and more highly exercised thighs and wings mean heritage turkeys benefit from longer, slower cooking times.

Note: Depending on when you're reading this, it may be too late to score a heritage bird. Growers tend to take orders for them and sell out before the actual holiday, but you can always ask with your fingers crossed, hopes high, and taste buds at the ready.

Organic Turkeys

Certified organic turkeys have been fed organically grown feed all their lives and never treated with antibiotics. Wondering why organic turkeys cost so much more? It's simple: organic feed (made from organically grown grains) is often at least three times as expensive as conventionally grown feed.

Free-Range Turkeys

Free-range, according to the USDA, means the animal is allowed to be outside at least part of the time. For some growers this may be a short time; other growers allow the animals to roam a large area and hunt-and-peck as they like (see “pastured” below), with access to shelter, as the animal desires.

Pastured Turkeys

These birds are raised outdoors and are allowed to hunt-and-peck insects and grasses for their food (they are often also given feed to ensure nutrients and calories needed to grow to market size). Their varied diet makes them more flavorful, and the active life of a pastured bird makes its meat more developed.

Natural Turkeys

According to the USDA, meat and poultry — including Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys — labeled “natural” have not had any artificial flavorings or preservatives added. They may, however, have had salt, water, and “natural flavorings” added.

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