Friday, November 4, 2011

On Cooking a Heritage Turkey

"Did someone say turkey?"

Thanksgiving, perhaps my all-time favorite holiday (the whole point is to celebrate family and food - what could possibly be better?!?), is a mere three weeks away!  If you are hosting this year and want to serve a heritage breed turkey, now is the time to order one.  More and more specialty stores are starting to carry heritage turkeys, but not so many that you can walk in and pick one up.  Order ahead!

When ordering a heritage bird, you need to be a little flexible.  The options I got were for a 7-14 pound bird, a 14-20 pound bird, or a 20+ pound bird.  That's a wide range of poundage.  But if you talk to the butcher, he or she can probably narrow it down to the size you want once the birds start coming in.  It looks like we'll have 12-14 people this year so I went with the 14-20 pound bird (bring on the leftovers), but I expect to get a bird between 14 and 16 pounds.

Last year was my first year cooking a heritage breed turkey, a Bourbon Red.  A Bourbon Red turkey is not the same thing as your standard supermarket turkey.  For one thing, the flesh really is pink.  This caused a bit of a fuss last year.  We took the turkey out of the oven based on the temperature reading of the thermometer and started to carve.  The turkey was pink.  It was decided (by the cadre of folks milling in the kitchen) that this turkey clearly wasn't done and back into the oven it went.  Alas, it was more done than we thought and in the end, the turkey was dried out and overcooked.  So here's your word of warning- A Bourbon Red Turkey is Red!  Shocking, I know.  Don't expect the white meat to be white, because it's going to be pink.  Trust that good old thermometer.  Also, look for the juices to run clear (not pink).

Another difference is in the flavor of the meat.  The bird has a higher dark-meat-to-white-meat ratio than your standard turkey and therefore it is much more flavorful.  Also, be careful as the breast is smaller and may have a tendency to dry out.  I brined our bird for two days but still ended up with a dry bird, though as I explained above, this was mostly due to operator error.  I read several recipes last year that called for separating the legs and the breasts so that the heritage turkey would cook more evenly.  I think this would have helped, though I just can't imagine Thanksgiving without a nice, big, bird to carve into.

The game plan for this year is to try to avoid the mistakes of last year.  Firstly, I will not be drunk by the time the turkey comes out of the oven: "Sure, throw it back in for another half hour! Sounds good to me!  Where's the Pinot?"  Secondly, I will again brine the turkey and hope this helps.  Lastly, I will watch the temperature like a hawk and trust the thermometer to know when the meat is cooked, rather than rely on the color of the flesh.  This site has a nice selection of recipes for your heritage turkey.  Here's hoping for a more successful and delicious Bourbon Red in 2011!

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