Your Guide to Buying and Cooking a Heritage Turkey for Thanksgiving

by Jerusha Klemperer

Published: 11/06/18, Last updated: 11/08/21

If you eat turkey and are interested in having a Thanksgiving meal that is better for people, animals and the environment — that has a lower foodprint — consider getting a heritage bird. “Heritage” is defined as a breed of turkey that has remained pure throughout many generations, with a continued focus on flavor instead of size. They’re completely different from Butterball and other commercially-raised turkey breeds, which have been bred to produce the maximum amount of breast meat in as short a time as possible.

Because of their breeding and the farmers that raise them, heritage turkeys live longer and better lives and are raised outside of the confinement of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), that have such a detrimental environmental impact. By and large, these farms use more humane practices and do not add any salt or flavor enhancements to their final product, like so many industrial operations do. This all adds up to a better tasting bird that has a much smaller foodprint.

Animal Welfare and Heritage Turkey Farms

In 2014, Butterball announced that its turkeys were American Humane Certified, but as animal welfare labels go, it’s not a very strong or meaningful one. If you truly care about animal welfare, a heritage bird is a better option. Some producers’ heritage birds will also have certifications, such as Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, etc. You can learn more about all poultry labels in our Food Label Guide and more about turkey production in our piece on the true cost of industrially-raised turkeys.

Heritage Turkey Cost

When you buy a heritage turkey, you will pay more — especially when some supermarkets offer Butterballs for free with a purchase over a certain amount at holiday times — but you will get a more flavorful, healthier product and probably buy directly from a farmer (or in the case of Heritage Food USA, from a small distributor). Think about adjusting for this by serving less turkey per person and “beefing” up on sides. Everyone’s in it for the sides anyway.

Food Label Guide

How to Find a Heritage Bird

If you are lucky enough to live near a farm or farmers’ market, that’s a great place to start. Specialty food stores will often sell heritage birds around the holidays (look for signs or talk to a manager). Independent and/or natural food stores — from small coops to Whole Foods — may have them on offer as well. If none of these options are available to you, you can check out Heritage Foods USA, an excellent online retailer that sells birds raised by the renowned heritage turkey breeder Frank Reese (see below under “Learning About Heritage Breeds”).

How to Cook a Heritage Bird

For tips on the best tasting breeds and how to cook them for maximum deliciousness, see the Cook’s Illustrated Guide to Heritage Turkeys. Heritage birds are definitely quite different from mass-produced supermarket turkeys, and you might need to try using a different technique. Have an open mind about what Thanksgiving turkey is supposed to look and taste like and you’ll be in for a treat.

Top photo by kolesnikovserg /Adobe Stock.

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