Heritage turkeys, once common throughout the country, nearly vanished after the Broad-Breasted White turkey took over the retail market despite its many flaws. These ubiquitous birds cannot breed naturally and that sought-after breast meat is notoriously dry if cooked according to USDA guidelines. Brining, which became popular in the early 2000s, helps, but these turkeys are not known for their flavor or their texture.
As interest in preserving older varieties, breeds, and species of our food began to grow — a trend driven by conscientious farmers, chefs, Oldways of Boston, and Slow Food — heritage breeds of turkeys began to appear as Thanksgiving approached. They were and remain a regional delicacy, available near where they are raised and, occasionally, by mail order.
Narragansett is one of the most popular of the heritage turkey breeds, as are Bourbon Red and American Bronze. Other breeds include White Holland, Royal Palm, Slate, Jersey Bluff and Black. All are in danger of going extinct.
Twelve years ago, Sonoma County’s local 4-H launched its Heritage Turkey Project, with youth members — ages 9 to 19 — raising the birds at their homes throughout Sonoma County. Jim Reichardt of Liberty Duck worked with Hunt & Behrens, Inc., a feed mill in Petaluma nearing its 100th anniversary, to develop an organic feed, which all of the turkeys eat. He also organizes the harvesting of the turkeys each year.
This year there are 10 growers, each raising between 8 and 27 turkeys. There are about 225 birds available this year; breeds include American Bronze, Royal Palm, Slate, Black and Narragansett.
In 2006, Catherine and Chuck Thode of Sebastopol began to oversee the raising of the birds and the Russian River chapter of Slow Food stepped in to help with promotion and sales. which for several years has included an elegant dinner and auction. This year’s Heritage Turkey Sunday Supper was scheduled for Oct. 29 but was cancelled because of the fires. The location, Saralee and Richard’s Barn at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, is being used for evacuation, rescue and recovery efforts, and many of the participating chefs have been involved in feeding evacuees.
Now, sales are taking place online at slowfoodrr.org. To reserve a bird, you fill out a form indicating the size you would like — smaller or larger are the options — and indicate whether you’d like to order pies or produce to pick up at the same time. You then mail in your deposit. You pay the balance when you pick up your bird in Sebastopol; specific instructions are sent after you make your reservations.
These turkeys sell for $9 a pound, a cost that reflects the rising cost of organic feed. The money goes directly to the 4-H members who have raised the bird.
The Sunday Supper always includes a live auction of various items, which is also taking place online now at the same website. To read about the elaborate menu the participating chefs were crafting, visit “Eat This Now” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.
When it comes to cooking a heritage breed, you’ll need to make some adjustments. They are leaner than the big-breasted birds and benefit from hotter, faster cooking.
Jim Reichardt recommends deconstructing the bird, a process that the Thodes now use.
“We are so incredibly busy, the week before Thanksgiving,” Catherine Thode said, “that we love knowing it takes less time to cook a heritage bird.
“I needed more than the tutorial Jim provided in the parking lot one day, and so I turned to YouTube.com,” she added.
She found “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, Thanksgiving, Part 1,” in which Jacques Pepin demonstrates the deconstruction process.
Brining turkeys has become increasingly popular over the last several years but not everyone agrees it is a good idea when it comes to heritage turkeys. Some people think it dilutes the flavors and is unnecessary. Others, including chefs Duskie Estes and John Stewart of Zazu Kitchen and Farm, believe it is necessary to achieve moist meat. This is their brine.
Zazu Turkey Brine
For 1 turkey
2 cups brown sugar, packed
1 cup Diamond Crystal kosher salt
1/2 garlic bulb, cloves crushed and peeled
— Zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon chile flakes
3-4 rosemary springs
3-4 thyme sprigs
Put all the ingredients into a food-grade plastic bucket, add 6 quarts of water and whisk to dissolve the salt and sugar. Add the turkey, refrigerate, and let sit for 2 to 3 days.
Remove the turkey from the brine and let it drain in a large colander or on several layers of tea towels. Cook by your preferred method.
This method of flattening a turkey by removing its backbone and breaking its breast bone — a process called spatchcocking — is popular with many proponents of heritage birds, which benefit from hot and fast cooking. It is very helpful to have good kitchen shears to accomplish this. This recipe is from my archives.
Roasted Spatchcocked Turkey
Serves 8 to 10
8-11 pound heritage breed turkey, with innards, feet, neck and head
— Kosher salt
— Black pepper in a mill
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
3-4 garlic cloves
2-3 thyme sprigs
2-3 Italian parsley sprigs
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Begin your preparations about 2 1/2 hours before serving the turkey,
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Have a deep roasting pan with a rack ready.
Set the turkey, breast side down, on a clean work surface. Use kitchen shears to cut out the backbone, cutting fairly close to the bone at the thinnest part, which you’ll be able to use your fingers to identify. Cut on both sides of the bone and then twist it away from the rest of the carcass.
Turn the turkey over, spreading it open as you do. Use the heel of your hand to press down firmly on the breast bone until you hear it crack; press down to flatten the bird. Season it all over with salt and pepper.
Spread the vegetables and herbs over the bottom of the roasting pan, season lightly with salt and pepper and add a cup of water. Set the rack on top and set the turkey, skin side up, on the rack.
Put the backbone, innards, neck and whatever other pieces you have on a sheet pan, season with salt and pepper.
Arrange the oven racks to accommodate both pans and set them in the oven. Roast the innards for 30 minutes, transfer to a medium saucepan, add any pan drippings and cover with water. Set over high heat, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer gently.
After the turkey has been cooking for 50 minutes, use a meat thermometer to check the temperature of both the breast and the thigh meat. Continue cooking until the breast is between 140 and 145 degrees and the thigh is between 155 and 165 degrees. It will take between 60 and 90 minutes total.
Transfer the turkey to a platter and cover it with a double sheet of aluminum foil.
Strain the stock from the innards into a clean container.
Transfer the roasting pan to a medium burner, add about 2 cups of water and gently deglaze the pan, picking up any and all pan drippings. Add to the stock and cook until it is reduced by about half or a little less. Taste and correct for salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, use a fork to mix together the butter and flour until smooth. When the stock is reduced, add the butter mixture, a dollop at a time, and whisk thoroughly before adding more. Adjust the heat as necessary so that it simmers very gently. Remove from the heat and pour into a gravy boat or small pitcher.
Slice the turkey, arrange on a platter, and serve with the gravy and other accompaniments alongside.
Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “California Home Cooking.” Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.