The Real Heritage Breed Tom Turkey


A Bourbon Red heritage breed turkey.


Basting the turkey is one of the most important and forgotten duties of the Thanksgiving day prep.     Forget this step and your turkey is too dry.    And, there’s nothing worse than chewing on dry turkey.   We can blame the need for basting on the commercial production of turkeys.

The turkey we get today is not the turkey of our pilgrim ancestors.   Their bird was much darker, more athletic, and ate real insects and foliage, rather than commercial feed pellets.   They roamed free – able to fly or at least leap into the air, with their thinner breasts.

The Broad-Breasted White or BBW turkey is the bird sold predominantly in the U.S.   It’s bred for production, not quality.   It’s super-large, Orange County CA-esque ‘engineered’ breast makes it difficult to even trot out in the open yard.   It can be distinguished from heritage breeds, which have darker and more varied plumage. The darker pin feathers make the dressed birds darker in color – not the pure white we’re used to seeing in the broad-breasted bird.   This darker complexion is what made these heritage breeds fall out of favor in the American market.   And, as we turned away from these heritage breeds, many were nearing extinction just two decades ago.   One count in 1997 showed only 1335 heritage turkeys in the entire U.S.

Thus, the advent of injected turkeys and the Butterball brand.   Natural, heritage breed turkeys are more mature at harvest, so there is more natural fat in the meat, which keep them from being dry, even if you forget to baste.   Take away the fat from the quickly-matured Broad-Breasted White and you need injection, butterballing, or other ways to put the fat back into the meat to keep it moist.

The American Poultry Association lists a few standards a breed must possess to be labelled a Heritage Breed.   It must be able to reproduce naturally and it must be allowed to mature slowly in 28 weeks, which is 8 weeks longer than the standard Broad-breasted White turkey.     The BBW can’t reproduce in the wild and so requires artificial insemination to produce fertilized eggs.   It all sounds very “Brave New World” to me.

Heritage breeds, like Bourbon Red, Narragansett, White Holland, Black, Bronze, and Beltsville Small White, get more exercise.   Imagine seeing them running outside and launching into the air to catch a grasshopper mid-flight.   The bugs and grass they eat change the makeup of Omega-3 and Omega-6 oils in their meat.   So this makes a flavor and texture that’s richer and more complex, with a bit wilder than our commercial fat breasted BBWs.   Some who’ve tasted a heritage breed turkey say it’s the best bird they’ve ever tasted.

The only farm local to Cincinnati that produces heritage breed turkeys is Morning Sun Farms in West, Alexandria, Ohio, a charming little town on US-35 midway between Eaton and Dayton, near Middletown.    Owner Dale Filbrun, an Amish-looking Church of the Brethren member, raises the Bourbon Red heritage breed, of which there are about 5000 breeding birds in the U.S.   A little farther south in Georgetown, Kentucky, John Bell raises Narragansett and Bourbon Red heritage breed turkeys at his Elmwood Stock Farm.

Although the demand for darker-meat heritage brands is slowly increasing, it  hasn’t hit a tipping point yet. Breeding these birds is more expensive than the production birds, but there’s bound to be more farms switching to heritage breeds over the next few years.   So the next time you cut into a commercial turkey, think about a heritage bird that doesn’t need the constant basting on Turkey Day.


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