How to Cook a Heritage Turkey

November 20, 2009  •  Local Sources, Technique

I pondered writing this post to focus on why it’s a good idea to buy local meat. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting the movie Food, Inc. in the mail from Netflix this weekend and I know I’m going to be ready to get on my soapbox about the horrors of our food system. Well, I decided to save you the lecture today (although I plan to write a post soon about the discussion I had with the head of a grass fed cattle ranch in California) and thought instead I’d tell you about my turkeys.
They came from Dallas Gilbert of Eastern Plains Natural Food – that’s a food co-op that I belong to and each year I get one of his ducks and two of his heritage breed turkeys (I think these are Blue Slate) along with some of his buddy’s chickens and usually some other local and natural meat products. When I first started doing this, I visited the farm to see Dallas and see how he raises his animals. I was initially impressed with the care and concern he puts into the operation, but after last Thanksgiving’s feast, became a convert forever of these heritage breed turkeys!

People often ask me how they taste different and it’s hard to actually describe. They have a more pronounced taste, but not gamey. They have smaller breasts than the commercially mass produced ones that are bred to have Pamela Anderson equivalents – not really healthy in a bird, and as they say in the commercial, “That’s not natural!” They are definitely leaner, which brings me to the point of this post. A heritage breed bird definitely benefits from brining. It hasn’t been shot up with saline water already like pre-packaged commercial turkeys, and that’s a good thing. Plus the beauty of brining yourself is you can flavor it any way you like. I created this one and love it. I also have a couple of other tips for getting a really moist and juicy bird:

  • Consider cutting the bird into pieces and cooking the legs and thighs about 15 minutes longer than the breasts and wings. I’ve not done this, but it seems to be all the rage in the cooking magazines this year. The theory is that dark meat cooks more slowly so if you cook a whole turkey until the legs and thighs are done, the breast is overcooked.
  • My recipe below uses compound butter smeared under the skin of the bird before roasting. It melts and seeps into the meat as it cooks, imparting juiciness that may be missing from a really lean turkey as well as flavoring from the herbs.
  • Sometimes I cook my turkeys for the first hour with the breast side down so that the juices are running into the breast. Then I flip it to finish cooking and to brown the skin on top.
  • While I haven’t done it, I have a friend who swears by those oven roasting bags for keeping her turkey moist. The idea is that the steam recirculates and drips down on the bird instead of evaporating out.
  • I always make two smaller birds instead of one large one – easier to handle, easier to cut one while the other stays hot, and cooks faster.
  • I gave up stuffing my bird a long time ago – if you stuff it you have to cook it long enough to heat all the way through that stuffing, and by then usually the breast meat is completely dried out. Make dressing in a casserole dish and drizzle turkey drippings over it to give it that “from the bird” taste.

Whatever approach you take this year (and however your bird turns out), I hope you’ll join me in being thankful for such a fabulous meal shared with friends and family. That’s really what it’s all about!

Apple Cider and Herb Brined Turkey
Serves 8

14 pounds turkey
1 brining bag
1 cup Kosher salt
1/2 gallon apple cider
1/2 cup fresh sage leaves
1/2 cup rosemary sprigs
1/4 cup black peppercorns
6 tablespoons butter, softened
1 tablespoon chives, minced
1 tablespoon tarragon, minced
1 tablespoon parsley, minced
olive oil

Two days before cooking turkey, place whole turkey (neck and organs removed) into the brining bag. Bring 1 quart of water to a boil and add salt; stir to dissolve. Transfer to a large bowl and add ice cubes, stirring until liquid is cooled. Add the apple cider, salt water, 1/2 gallon additional water, sage, rosemary and peppercorns to the turkey in the brining bag. Press the air out of the bag, seal, place in a large roasting pan, and refrigerate for two days. (The turkey should be fully covered in the brining liquid; add additional water if you have a larger turkey.)

When you are ready to cook the turkey, remove it from the brining bag and discard the liquid. Rinse the turkey under cold running water and pat dry. Place the turkey into a roasting pan, breast side up. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Using a fork, combine the butter with the chives, tarragon and parsley to create a compound herb butter. Using your fingers, gently create a pocket under the breast skin on each side of the breast bone, taking care not to tear the skin. Rub half of the herb butter under the skin on each side, pressing the skin down to distribute the butter under the skin. Brush the skin with olive oil. Roast at 400 degrees for 1 hour, then reduce oven to 325 degrees F and continue to roast until turkey is fully cooked. The thigh should read 180 and the breast should read 165 using an instant read meat thermometer. If the skin is fully browned and the meat is not yet at temperature, tent with foil for the remaining cooking time. Let meat rest for 20-30 minutes before carving to allow the juices to redistribute

Want one of Dallas’ turkeys for your table? If you’re in Denver, call Marczyk Fine Foods and see if they have any left. They are more expensive, but for taste, health, and political reasons, I think well worth it.



4 Comments  •  Comments Feed

  1. John Bricker says:

    Like to know what temp to cook a 34 lb heritage turkey and how long it will be?

    • Michele says:

      John, there are lots of debates about how to cook a turkey – high heat fast, low heat slow, covered, uncovered, wrapped in butter soaked cheesecloth, deep-fried – i think the bottom line is that lots of ways cook it just fine. I brine mine because I buy heritage breed birds, and for some reason I find that the brined bird cooks faster. A very general rule of thumb is 15 minutes per pound, but I’d start checking it long before that. I roast mine uncovered at 350 degrees until the skin is nice and brown and crispy and the thigh measures 165 degrees. If the skin is turning too dark before the meat is cooked, tent it with foil. A turkey will stand and stay warm for awhile, so even if it’s ready 45 minutes ahead of when you thought you were going to eat, it will hold, wrapped in foil. Happy Thanksgiving!

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