Time was, the hardest thing about a Thanksgiving turkey was cooking it. Buying one was easy: you just grab a shrinkwrapped Butterball from the frozen meat section in your supermarket and bring it home to your refrigerator. Lately, however, public interest in the ethics and health-consequences of conventional livestock breeding and raising has complicated the former no-brainer. We now find ourselves lost in a wilderness of pleasant sounding but poorly defined certifications. Here’s a compass for the food-conscious:
A heritage turkey can be any of several domestic breeds that retain many characteristics of wild turkeys (e.g. the ability to breed naturally, a long life span and slow development) that conventional supermarket varieties lack. Heritage breeds are typically pasture-raised, and can cost as much as five dollars per pound.
A bird may be of any breed to qualify as organic—and the one you buy in the supermarket may very well be of the modern, unviably top-heavy variety. The designation guarantees that the turkey was raised on an organic diet without hormones or antibiotics and was grazed in areas free of herbicides and pesticides.
Despite our traditional associations with the term, a free range turkey did not necessarily while away the hours in an idyllic paradise. According to the USDA, a bird qualifies as “free range” if the producers “demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” On some farms, “access” can mean as little as opening a door to an overpopulated coop that the oblivious birds never venture through. If humane treatment is important to you, you may want to look for language like “pasture raised.” Or better yet, ask your farmer point blank about her methods.
But what about taste? Well, it depends. Heritage turkeys, like their wild cousins, don’t sport “super-sized” chests, and therefore carry a higher percentage of dark meat, which some people prefer, but many don’t. Heritage breeds are also naturally a bit chewier than conventional turkeys. Altering your roasting protocol (to include a day of preparatory brining) will help compensate.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture compiled a list of the state’s turkey farms with contact information and notes on varieties available, making it easier to eat local this Thanksgiving.