It's nearly time to gobble up perhaps one of the most American meals you'll be eating all year. But while you're giving thanks for all of the lovely food gracing your table, it's important to also bear in mind where it comes from. We're sure you've already given thought to sourcing sustainable Thanksgiving turkeys, and with help from our experts, you'll have all the information you need to make sure that you make the most of this choice.
Heidi Diestel is a turkey farmer at Diestel Family Turkey Ranch in California, proud to be raising turkeys for 4 generations, and Jenni Harris is one of the latest generation of farmers at White Oak Pastures, a 150-year-old family-run farm. Each has advice to offer to help you ensure that your Thanksgiving turkeys are only the best they can be.
1. Choose Heirloom Thanksgiving Turkeys
This holiday season, you're going to be facing a lot of labels, from organic to natural to sustainable. Whichever other labels are important to you, it's a good idea to also choose an heirloom bird.
For one, if you're concerned about tradition, it doesn't get more American than an heirloom turkey. "Cooking up an heirloom turkey is like bringing back a piece of history," says Diestel of the heirloom birds she's raising, which date back to the 19th century.
This choice is also more natural, according to Harris. "At White Oak Pastures, we do our best to emulate nature," she explains. "Even though emulations are imperfect, we are committed to this journey. Industrial animals would never exist in nature." In her case, these turkeys are a pure heritage breed, the American Standard Bronze.
Another good reason to choose heirloom birds is flavor, which Diestel says "is worlds apart from conventional birds." Harris' Bronze turkeys have much more dark meat than conventional turkeys, and therefore quite a bit more flavor.
As opposed to raising a pure heritage breed, Diestel has cross-bred three heritage varieties -- Auburn, Black, and American Bronze -- to create a mix that exceeds all expectations, combining the rich, flavorful nature of heirloom birds and the fleshier breast most American palates have gotten used to.
"Like an heirloom tomato, it gives our customer old world history of a heritage turkey, but with the familiar turkey flavor they crave," Diestel explains.
2. Remember: You Are What You Eat
That doesn't go just for you; it goes for the turkey as well. Our turkey farmers both take great care to ensure that the diet of their birds is as natural as possible.
"With access to the outdoors and clean air and water from the Sierra Nevada Foothills these birds enjoy certified organic grains milled right here on the farm," explains Diestel. "In fact, all of our heirloom birds are fed a vegetarian diet that’s 100% free of GMOs, animal by-products, antibiotics, growth enhancers and hormones."
Harris follows the same thought process, with birds that are carefully and sustainably pastured, slaughtered on-farm and devoid of antibiotics and hormones -- just a few more of the ways that White Oak keeps things natural.
3. Be Wary of Overcooking
This can be a problem no matter what kind of bird you choose, but be especially careful with heirloom or heritage birds, which are often leaner and thus easier to overcook.
You've likely heard that old adage that fat is flavor, but don't worry about this with heritage birds.
"We are farmers, not professional taste testers, but we have been told that our turkeys have more flavor than commodity birds," Harris says. "They have less fat, which makes for a nice, lean meal."
But when it comes to cooking these birds, it's best to trust the experts.
"We have done a lot of experimental cooking with our turkeys and have found what we believe to be the ideal way to roast these birds, which is a simple, family recipe that includes melted butter, margarine, or olive oil, salt, and paprika to taste," says Diestel. She also offers more specific roasting instructions, straight from the farm.
When you start with a quality bird, feed it quality feed, and cook it just right, you're well on your way to the perfect Thanksgiving turkey.
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Top Turkey Image: Angie Mosier, Care of White Oak Pastures