Turkey Talk

What's the difference between a heritage breed turkey and a conventional bird, besides the price?


You know that person. They're making a big deal out of serving a heritage turkey for Christmas dinner, and you have no idea what they're talking about. I mean, you're not completely ignorant -- you know it's a kind of special turkey grown by farmers who care about those special things. Right? And you suspect your friend might just be showing off because that turkey also sounds like it's probably expensive.

I talked to Belmont Butchery's Tanya Cauthen to find out what makes these birds so desirable.

"The simple thing is flavor," she says. "With a conventional bird, the meat itself is insipid -- the flavor has been bred out of it -- and it's been pumped full of water and flavor enhancers."

Heritage breeds are older varieties of turkeys with great names -- Midget White, Bourbon Red or Narragansett, for instance -- that have been ignored by the industrial poultry industry because they don't grow fast enough to turn a profit. Almost all conventional turkeys these days are Broad Breasted Whites. They can grow from an egg to saleable size in about three months. A heritage breed, in contrast, takes five to six months to get up to size.

Cauthen cautions against fixating only on heritage breeds. The most important thing, she says, is the way the bird is raised. "You want a turkey that was reared outside, on grass, with access to bugs and worms." A turkey raised indoors on generic turkey feed isn't going to develop the depth of flavor that a pastured bird has.

But price is still a consideration. A locally raised heritage breed can run you up to $7 per pound at Belmont Butchery. At Ellwood Thompson's Local Market, you'll find humanely raised turkeys from Pennsylvania's Koch's Turkeys at $2.99 per pound. And a Butterball? They're available for the low, low price of $1.59 per pound at Kroger.

Part of the price differential comes from the way the birds are produced. A farmer raising turkeys the traditional way in a pasture on a small farm is producing far fewer turkeys than a big, industrial farm. Volume isn't working in his favor.

But once the sticker shock wears off, you can't dismiss the way a pastured bird tastes.

"You taste it and go, 'Oh! This is what a turkey is supposed to taste like,'" says Cauthen. "It has a much bigger flavor."

Belmont Butchery (limited supply and today is the last day for special orders), 15 N. Belmont Ave., 422-8519, belmontbutchery.com

Ellwood Thompson's Local Market, 4 N. Thompson St., 359-7525, ellwoodthompsons.com

Kroger, various locations, kroger.com

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