What's the best turkey money can buy?
These days, it's a complicated equation: You can spend as little as 99 cents a pound on a standard supermarket bird or as much as $5.99 a pound for one of the new "heritage" varieties that have become more available this year. (It's too late to order one for Thanksgiving; they'll be available to order next September for Thanksgiving 2004).
Since we like to pull out all the stops for holiday meals, it's tempting to spend the extra money on a heritage turkey — especially with foodies carrying on about how extraordinary they are. The heritage breeds, with names like Narragansett and Bourbon Red, are supposed to be much more flavorful. The birds have a longer growing period than commercial turkeys; as a result, they have an extra layer of fat. They also have a higher proportion of dark meat. And since they are more agile, they get more exercise than even free-range commercial birds, and so they're said to have a firmer texture.
The supermarket breed — called Broadbreasted White — suffers in comparison, heritage turkey fans say, because it's been bred to yield as much white meat as possible (hence its name). Because of all that tinkering with nature, a Broadbreasted White is so top-heavy that it can't mate; it must be artificially inseminated. This is true even for organic and free-range turkeys. And in fact, free-range Broadbreasted Whites are so unsteady on their feet that they don't "range" much at all. (The heritage birds are actually labeled free-range as well.)
We decided to put heritage turkeys to the test. The Times Test Kitchen roasted three turkeys: a brined, free-range, hormone-free turkey; an unbrined heritage turkey; and an unbrined standard supermarket turkey. We decided to overnight-brine the free-range bird because serious home cooks looking for the best flavor tend to do so.
We placed onion, carrot and celery in the cavity of each bird. We rubbed each with 4 tablespoons of melted butter, sprinkled each with a scant teaspoon of salt, then loosely draped them with foil.
The two commercial turkeys were roasted according to package instructions: The free-range bird went into a 350-degree oven for 4 hours and the supermarket bird roasted at 325 degrees for 4 hours, 20 minutes. Frank Reese, the farmer who raised our heritage turkey, told us it needed to cook very slowly or it would become tough. We roasted it at 275 degrees for 6 hours, 20 minutes. Thirty minutes before the turkeys were to come out, we removed the foil to let them brown. We then let them rest for 40 minutes before carving them.
Although the dark meat of the heritage bird is what's often touted, we were amazed at its white meat, which was finely grained, extremely succulent and the most flavorful of the three birds. The white meat of the free-range turkey was delicious, but didn't measure up to that of the heritage bird. Its texture was coarser, though it was very moist. The white meat of the supermarket turkey was stringy, dried out and fairly flavorless.
The heritage turkey's dark meat was quite firm, rich and deeply flavorful, though we needed to add salt. We were surprised to find that the dark meat of the free-range bird was almost as good. The dark meat of the supermarket bird was markedly better than the white meat, though less rich than either the heritage or free-range turkey.
Skin lovers found the skin of the heritage turkey a bit tough. However, we felt we had erred in attempting to brown it at such a low temperature. Next time we would turn the oven up to, say, 375 for the last half-hour.
Also, we couldn't help but feel in retrospect that the brining had much do with the excellent result we obtained with the free-range bird, and that if we had brined the heritage turkey it would have been even more delicious.
In the end, though many of us preferred both the white meat and dark meat of the heritage turkey, to others it was a toss-up. Is the heritage turkey worth paying at least twice as much? Perhaps, perhaps not. Then again, we'd like to see these turkeys make a strong comeback so that one day they'll be widely available at a lower price.