We did something this year we’ve never done before: provided the turkey for our extended-family Thanksgiving dinner. We raise heritage turkeys – Bourbon Red, Royal Palm and Black Spanish. Heritage breeds differ from those used in the commercial meat industry because they are able to breed naturally, and can even fly short distances. Several of my turkeys regularly fly from the ground up to roost on the top of our horse shelter – 16′ off the ground. By contrast, the broad-breasted varieties favored by ButterBall because of their huge breasts, are so heavy they can barely walk towards the ends of their lives, and have to be artificially inseminated as they are too big to breed naturally.
Because turkey toms will fight aggressively in spring, and I didn’t want to have to pen birds up to avoid the fighting, I keep only one tom – currently a Bourbon Red – which means that eggs hatched from the Royal Palm and Black Spanish hens are mixed. There is no market in our area for mixed breed turkeys but we hatched them anyway, knowing they would still have a purpose.
The small breast and leaner muscle mass – my turkeys free-range several acres and eat a natural diet of greens and bugs rather than living in mass confinement and sitting in front of a feeder all of their lives – mean they need to be cooked differently in order to retain moisture and tenderness, so while I processed, I asked HWA to research the best way to cook a heritage turkey.
I had planned to skin him as I do most of my birds, and then slow cook him in an oven roasting bag. I don’t have a pot big enough to dunk a bird the size of a turkey so did not think plucking was an option. However before skinning, I tried pulling out a few feathers and long story short, I found that dry plucking was actually easier than plucking after the bird has been dunked! The feathers released just as easily but they didn’t stick to my hands as they do when wet, so I was able to pull the feathers out by the handful and toss them immediately into the trash. The only feathers that challenged me were the wing tips and the tail feathers, but a little extra muscle and those too pulled clean out.
Once the plucking and eviscerating were done, I turned him over to HWA, who basted with an herb butter concoction, including cutting a few slits in the skin and stuffing some herb butter into the slits. We then trussed the wings to the body with string to keep the wing tips from over-cooking, stuffed the cavity with quartered onions and lemons, and placed him in the oven set to 225 degrees for a 12-hour cook. A timer reminded us to re-baste every three hours. After the 12 hours at low heat, we turned the oven up to 375 for about 30 minutes to brown the skin.
The result? A moist, tender turkey that got rave reviews. And, while my heritage birds may not have the enormous breast of a broad-breasted turkey, there was plenty of meat for anyone who wanted to, to go back for seconds. And thirds. And, in some cases, fourths. When dinner was over, there was still enough meat left over to leave a gallon zip-loc bag with our host and take another home with us. Just like families across the country, for the next week we dined on turkey leftovers.