Healthy heritage: Turkeys favored for 'succulent' flavor

Friday, November 9, 2007 | 4:38 p.m. CST; updated 11:27 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Julie Walker tends to her flock of 67 heritage turkeys at Walker's Greystone Farm near Fayette on Oct. 31. Walker and her husband, Tim, have raised heritage turkeys since 2001, but this year will be their last, she said. "It's just more labor than I have energy for," Julie Walker said.

FAYETTE — Ten years ago, heritage turkeys were not on Julie Walker’s radar.

This year, she and her husband, Tim, raised 67 heritage birds on their Greystone Farm near Fayette.

Cooking a heritage turkey

Tips cooking a heritage turkey and a recipe from Preheat your oven to 425 degrees and, if frozen, let your heritage bird come to room temperature. Cook for a short time until the inside of your turkey’s thigh hits 140 to 150 degrees. The heritage bird will not dry out at this temperature, so there is no need to cover it in foil before cooking it. According to, “The USDA recommends turkeys be cooked to 160F-180F, but these temperatures will dry out a heritage turkey. Heritage birds are much more free of disease and bacteria, unlike commercially raised birds, and do not need extreme temperatures to make them safe for consumption.” Ingredients: 15-pound fresh heritage turkey at room temperature Kosher or sea salt & fresh ground pepper 4 cups giblet broth (see recipe below) Rosemary Maple Butter (see recipe below) Oiled parchment paper Directions: Rub turkey inside and out with salt and pepper. Loosen the skin around the breast with your fingers and insert Rosemary Maple Butter between the meat and the skin as well as on the inside of the bird’s cavity. Set bird in deep roasting pan. Use a wire rack to lift the bird off the bottom of the pan. Add the giblet broth to the bottom of the pan. Using a sheet of oiled parchment paper, tent the roasting pan with the oiled parchment paper. Any type of cooking oil can be used. Brush it on both sides with a pastry brush. The parchment paper is easily affixed to the roasting pan with a strip of foil on each end or you can use clean, oiled wooden clothespins. Remove parchment paper and the last 30 minutes of cooking to develop a crispy, golden skin. Preheat oven to 425F-450F. Roast the bird until the thigh temperature reaches 140F-150F. Let the bird rest 10-15 minutes before carving to let the juices settle. A word about basting Quick roasting at high temperatures means the oven temperature needs to be maintained and frequent basting defeats that purpose. By adding butter under the skin, the bird is self-basted. Baste the bird when you remove the parchment tent. If there is not enough liquid for basting, add either more water or wine.

Giblet Broth

2 cups white wine (a deep, oaky chardonnay lends a wonder taste) 2 cups water Giblets and neck Bay leaf Simmer everything in a small saucepan for 15 minutes. Discard bay leaf and neck. Giblets can be discarded if they aren’t your type of thing or they can be finely chopped and added to the broth.

Rosemary Maple Butter

1/2½ pound butter 1/2½ cup pure maple syrup 1 tablespoon fresh minced rosemary Bring butter to room temperature and whip all ingredients together.

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At $3.75 a pound, the Walkers’ Bourbon Reds, Standard Bronzes and Narragansetts cost up to four times as much as the frozen ones in American supermarket bins.

But all of their heritage turkeys were sold by the middle of October.

In fact, not a single unsold heritage turkey could be found for sale near Columbia nearly a month before they would grace Thanksgiving tables.

Heritage turkeys are prized for their flavorful meat — the result of a more active lifestyle, diverse diet and longer life span.

“They have a kind of meat integrity,” Walker said. “The dark meat is so succulent and lovely — it’s a taste you’ve never had unless you’ve tasted a bird like this. It is truly a gourmet experience.”

The Heritage Turkey Foundation says these traditional standard breeds “have not been industrialized for efficient factory production at the expense of flavor and the well-being of the turkeys.”

After years of decline in favor of the more economical broad-breasted white turkeys, heritage turkeys began a comeback in 2001.

Although the broad-breasted whites still hold 99.9 percent of the market, heritage turkeys are becoming more popular on farms in mid-Missouri.

The Walkers’ heritage turkeys live inside a netted, fenced pasture at the bottom of a hill. About 90 heritage turkeys were happily pecking away in April, but some have since been lost to raccoons and owls.

Each of the remaining 67 birds looks unique, unlike the 55 white turkeys the Walkers also grow on their farm.

The Standard Bronzes have an iridescent shine to their neck and back, with intricate patterns on their tail feathers. Their eyes are dark and full of character; the skin on their naked heads is a blend of purple and gray, blue and red.

The males have long snoods that hang on top of their beak to make it look larger and more impressive. Their waddles droop underneath their sturdy chins. Much of the male body structure, behavior and audible communication are used as an attempt to attract female turkeys — and anything else that moves. They are not very picky.

“This is a competition. Who’s the better male? Who’s more beautiful?” said Walker. “They puff up their feathers like that so you’ll choose them as your mate.”

The heritage birds make a low, air-puffing sound by vibrating their chest feathers to impress the females. Their famous gobbling is a big, bold way of saying, “Over here — pick me!”

In 1997, a census of breeding heritage turkeys revealed only 1,335 birds in America, said Don Schrider, communications director with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. A steady increase in popularity of heritage birds brought that number up to 10,404 in 2006.

Walker fully attributes the multiplication of the heritage bird to the Slow Foods movement.

In 2001, Slow Foods captured the attention of small-town farmers and Thanksgiving enthusiasts when it named five heritage turkey breeds to its annual taste list. The purpose of the list is to spark interest in healthy foods that have become unpopular or rare.

Heritage flocks had become nearly extinct by 1990. The reason was profit.

According to the Heritage Turkey Foundation, the heritage bird was nudged out of the market to make room for the larger, more profitable broad-breasted whites.

By the 1950s, it was far more economical and efficient to raise these turkeys, which lived in confined spaces and could be harvested in three months.

The industry reports that it is necessary to produce turkeys on factory farms in order to market them at reasonable prices. However, a direct relationship between price and quality emerged. Through over-engineering, the industrialized white turkeys lost the ability to run, fly and mate.

The rich, distinct flavor found in heritage turkeys is said to come from exercise. Walker explained how movement of muscles leads to a better-flavored bird. Heritage turkeys are butchered after about eight months of life in the open pasture, giving their meat a moist, firm texture, she said.

Ava Fajen, co-leader of the local Slow Foods group, said, “People go to a lot of trouble to flavor commercial turkeys when they’re roasting them.”

A majority of Thanksgiving recipes give tips on how to marinate, deep-fry or slather your turkey with spices to make it taste better. The industry also makes an attempt to add flavor, commonly encouraging that birds be injected with vegetable oil and saline solution.

The heritage turkey does not need additives, Walker said.

“Each bird is hand-butchered and dressed — very carefully prepared for the customer,” she said. “No antibiotics or appetite stimulants or growth hormones — clean meat. They’re not fiddled around with; you get the true flavor of the bird.”

The Walkers’ turkeys will be transported to a certified butcher a few days before Thanksgiving and then back to the Walkers’ farm to be picked up by their buyers.

Unfortunately for anyone interested in purchasing a heritage turkey, each of the Walkers’ turkeys is already reserved.

Next year, if your family wants to sit down to dinner with a traditionally raised, more flavorful turkey, order several months in advance at or from a local farmer at

True heritage turkeys

Standard Bronze

The descendant of the wild turkeys native to the U.S. and domesticated turkeys brought over from Europe by colonists.

Bourbon Red

A cross of the Jersey Buff, White Holland and Standard Bronze, it was named after Bourbon County in Kentucky.


Originated in Rhode Island, named for Narragansett Bay.

Jersey Buff

Became extinct in the early 1900s, but was brought back by crossing the Buff, Bronze, and Courbon varieties.


The gray and blue color of this turkey is not a result of mixing a black turkey with a white one; it’s actually a genetic mutation.

Black Spanish

Descendant of turkeys taken from Mexico to Europe by early explorers.

White Holland

Grew popular in Holland and Austria even though the rest of Europe favored darker colored birds in the early 1800s.

Royal Palm

Raised for hobby and ornamentation, rarely for meat.

White Midget

Bred to be a small version of the industry’s broad-breasted white.

Beltsville Small White

Also bred to be a turkey for smaller families not in need of a large broad-breasted white.

Source: American Livestock Breeds Conservancy


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