Talking Turkey with Richardt Visser

The turkeys most of us are used to seeing at Thanksgiving consist disproportionately of white breast meat, with small wings and drumsticks and little bits of dark meat hidden around the joints. You would likely guess that this is the result of selective breeding, but only a few of us realize how different the commercially produced turkeys are from those originally found in the wild. Heritage turkeys provide more balance between white and dark meat while helping prevent the extinction of the breeds that fed our ancestors.

The Modern Commercial Turkey

Turkey has been a part of North American cuisine since long before there were written records, but it was only in the 1940s that commercial breeding really took off. The birds were bred to have more white meat, meaning more breast meat. Another trend that quickly took over in commercial breeding is the penchant for white turkeys, as dark feathers can sometimes leave small dark deposits of melanin in the flesh, making the meat less attractive to picky consumers. This has led to the most common commercially bred turkey being the Broad Breasted White.

The selective breeding for this breed of turkey has resulted in birds that grow too large for almost any oven – as big as 70 pounds, if left to grow to maturity. This size can also result in cardiac and respiratory problems, and injured joints or broken legs, and stops the turkeys from breeding on their own. To prevent the turkeys from growing too large, they are usually harvested young, between 12 and 19 weeks.

Bringing the Past into the Present

The mass breeding of the Broad Breasted Whites quickly crowded out the 10 breeds that are now known as heritage turkeys. By 1997, there were fewer than 1,500 turkeys left between all the heritage breeds, including some that were down to their last dozen or fewer individual birds. Around that time, multiple organizations came together to restore the breeds, with great success. Some of the most common heritage turkeys bred for meat and conservation are:

  • Bourbon Red turkeys range in color from brown to dark red, with white flight and tail feathers. This breed is on watch status according to the Livestock Conservancy, meaning there are fewer than 5,000 breeding birds in the United States.
  • Standard Bronze turkeys are also on the Livestock Conservancy’s watch list. These are the most popular turkey in pop culture, and look the most like what people typically think of when they envision a turkey thanks to the fact they’re nearly identical to wild turkeys. These are smaller than the Broad Breasted Bronze that is sometimes produced commercially.
  • •The Narragansett breed of turkey came very close to extinction, but has now come back from being critically endangered and is on the watch list, meaning there are between 1,000 and 5,000 of the breed in the United States. These are patterned with stripes and blocks of black, gray, tan, and white.
  • Slate Turkeys can vary in color from white to black, but only ash-gray birds fit the American Poultry Association’s standards for the breed. These are raised for meat and exhibition.

Richardt Visser of Circle V Poultry is one of the growing number of farmers working on rebuilding the heritage turkey population.

“I have raised quite a few breeds of heritage turkey,” Richardt says. “I have been sticking with the Standard Bronze (not to be confused with the Broad Breasted Bronze) that I have been getting from a small family-owned hatchery named Country Hatchery who have a great bloodline of the Standard Bronze.”

Standard Bronze turkeys at Circle V Poultry

In order to be considered a heritage turkey flock, turkeys must meet three criteria:

  1. Mate Naturally: Heritage turkeys must be able to reproduce naturally without any assistance or artificial insemination.
  2. Long Outdoor Lifespan: The birds must have a long lifespan, during which they are allowed to reproduce. Hens can generally reproduce for 5 to 7 years and toms for 3 to 5 years.
  3. Slow-to-Moderate Rate of Growth: While Broad Breasted Whites rarely live to 20 weeks old due to their rapid growth due to early harvesting, heritage turkeys take 28 weeks to reach a marketable weight and generally live much longer in order to fulfill guideline No. 2.

While most commercially bred Broad Breasted White turkeys have to be kept indoors and can barely walk at full size, heritage turkeys are more closely related to their wild ancestors that could survive on their own.

“Heritage birds can fly, they are hardier, less disease-prone, healthier, and they just seem more curious and intelligent,” says Visser. “Other than keeping their wing feathers trimmed to keep them from flying and putting them in overnight shelter to keep them safe from predators, they are easy keepers. I think it is important to keep these breeds alive. They are the original domestic genes we should preserve so that we don’t one day wonder how we ended up with a weak, giant turkey and not have the means to go back!”

Consumer Demand

Because they are more rare and require more space and time to grow, heritage turkeys are typically several dollars more expensive per pound than their broad-breasted brethren. As of 2010, the cost of a heritage turkey was roughly five times that of a standard bird. However, despite the higher costs, consumer demand seems to be growing.

Many consumers feel the higher prices for these birds are well worth it thanks to the improved flavor they offer.

“Heritage turkeys have a finer grain meat due to their slower growth rate, therefore I think they are generally a little more juicy and flavorful,” Richardt says. “I actually started raising heritage turkeys first because there is/was a demand for them at the Three Rivers Market in Knoxville. My heritage sales have tripled from three years ago, but so have my pasture-raised broad breast turkeys, and if I had more heritage birds this year I could have sold them.”

Restaurants like Knoxville’s Northshore Brasserie are also getting in on the heritage turkey trend.

“The natural flavor in the meat is so much better,” says owner Brian Balest. “We are also committed to serving the best responsibly raised products available. Consumer feedback has been very positive!”

If you are interested in serving heritage turkey at your restaurant, you will need to work with a breeder near you to ensure you can get the supply you need. While many of the heritage breeds have bounced back from the brink of extinction, they are still not as plentiful as the commercially bred breeds, so planning ahead will be necessary.

Ingredients

Turkey:

  • (1) 10-12 lb. Heritage Turkey
  • 2 tbsp. Omnivore Limone
  • 14 c. chopped sage
  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 6 c. low-sodium chicken stock

Gravy:

  • 4 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 14 c. flour
  • omnivore salt

Directions

Turkey:

  • 1. Create a dry brine by rubbing the Limone salt mixture under the skin of the turkey, then store turkey in the refrigerator for as long as 3 days.
  • 2. Pre-heat oven to 500 degrees F
  • 3. Combine sage and butter, then rub mixture over the entire turkey. Place the turkey in the oven and turn the heat down to 300 degrees F.
  • 4. Roast turkey for 3 to 4 hours, or until a thermometer registers 150 degrees F in the breast and 165 degrees F in the thigh.

Gravy:

  • 1. Simmer the turkey neck in stock until the stock cooks down to 4 cups, then discard the turkey neck.
  • 2. Melt butter over low heat, then whisk the flour in and cook for 3 minutes to create a roux. Allow to cool.
  • 3. When turkey is done cooking, remove it from the pan. Pour off drippings and fat, then place roasting pan over medium heat.
  • 4. Add drippings and stock, and use a whisk to remove any turkey bits stuck to the bottom of the pan.
  • 5. Whisk in roux, then simmer until it reaches the desired consistency.
Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.

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