With Thanksgiving practically here, and Christmas on the horizon, the season for turkey is about to rev into high gear. And we strongly recommend sourcing a fresh heritage breed over the typical supermarket variety.
The difference is not insignificant.
For the past 8 years or so I’ve been purchasing heritage breeds, or what I like to call “real turkeys.” This year, for example, my bird is coming from BN Ranch, a relatively new venture from Bill Nyman (formerly of Nyman Ranch) and his wife Nicolette. Bill and Nicolette personally drove to Kentucky to pick up their poults, which were bred naturally, not via artificial insemination. The next generation is birthed the old-fashioned way, from the eggs produced by the initial flock. The birds are raised at Nymans’ Bolinas, CA ranch, and are housed in spacious pens with indoor and outdoor access that provides ample room for exercise. Moreover, these birds are humanely raised on an all-vegetarian diet, with no beak cutting or wing clipping—they even fly.
The flavor difference is staggering. Turkeys like these are not only far tastier than the mass-produced variety—delivering authentic turkey flavor—but they are also more interesting of texture. The skin crisps properly, the breast meat is meaty and moist, and the drumsticks, ah, the drumsticks! My favorite part of the bird—especially from heritage birds that get to exercise those leg muscles—are rich, dark, slightly gamey, and very satisfying.
To Brine or Not to Brine
I think the case for heritage turkey speaks for itself. Things get somewhat trickier, however, when it comes to the question of whether or not to brine the bird. A good many prominent chefs, Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters among them, are strong advocates of brining. And there’s no doubt that brining meat in a salted water solution for a few days, before air-drying for another day or two, does result in moister meat. For a few years I cooked my birds this way, too, and with good results. But I was never quite convinced by the outcome, which always struck me as nice and moist, but also somewhat watery. For the last few years I’ve instead pre-salted the bird, and cooked them much as I do with the chicken recipe given in a previous post. For my taste, and even my mother’s, this, plus cooking at higher than normal temperatures, results in a more satisfying balance of crispy skin, and moist, evenly cooked meat. (To get a scientific take on the question of brining, and his argument against the practice, check out Harold McGee’s “Curious Cook” column from last year’s New York Times.
Now for the Turkey
For this recipe, rather than just salting the bird we’re going to employ St. Helena Olive Oil Co.’s Organic Poultry Rub, which in addition to sea salt, will further enhance the flavor of your turkey with garlic; herbs, such as rosemary, oregano, sage, and thyme; a dash of cane sugar; and spices, including chili and black pepper, cayenne, paprika, cinnamon, cumin, allspice, and coriander.
1 Heritage turkey (weight will vary, but estimate 1 to 1.5 lbs. weight for each guest)
SHOliveOilCo ORGANIC POULTRY RUB (a healthy handful)
6 sage leaves
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
4 pats unsalted butter
2 tablespoons TWIN SISTERS OLIO NUOVO
48 hours before roasting, take a nice fistful of Organic Poultry Rub and do just that—rub it into the skin as well as the cavity of the turkey. Don’t go too crazy, but don’t be too shy either. Place the bird (either uncovered or loosely wrapped in plastic) on a pan in your fridge. (This is definitely a challenge for larger birds, with which you may need to clear off an entire shelf just to fit the thing in there.)
Remove the bird from the fridge about an hour before roasting, and preheat the oven to 450°. Place a kitchen towel over the breastbone, and give it a good whack with a rolling pin. Remove the towel, and press down on the breast to flatten a bit (this helps ensure more even cooking of breast and legs). Gently lift the skin from the breastbone (see technique in the previous chicken recipe), and stuff sage and garlic under the skin. Rub the bird all over with the olive oil. Place on a rack in a roasting pan, and roast for approximately 2.5 hours for a 10-pound bird, adding 15 minutes for each additional pound. Please note that most ovens are not accurately calibrated, so these times are suggestions. Use your senses—especially the nose and eyes—to judge when your bird is finished. Let rest for 15-20 minutes, carve, and serve.