How to Buy the Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

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In the kitchens of America’s finest chefs, a debate is stewing about your Thanksgiving dinner: Should you eat a heritage-breed turkey with an ancient lineage or an industrial bird, bred in the 1950s by Big Agriculture?  

The case against the industrial bird, the Broad-Breasted White, is damning: Selected for ample cleavage and speedy growth, they are so voluptuous they topple over on spindly legs and so genetically engineered they have to be artificially inseminated to reproduce. 

The heritage-breed turkey, on the other hand, mates naturally and can’t be confined to factory pens. They actually use their muscles, making for a richer, more nuanced meat. “Heritage turkeys are more interesting to eat, with great flavors,” says Bradford Thompson, former chef of New York’s Lever House. “This is closer to what the pilgrims ate.”

Heritage breeds are raised from strains developed in the 1800s, a marketing point that has generated explosive sales over the past decade. But after a few experimental holidays, many cooks have been disappointed: For as much as $200, you serve up a scrawny bird with minuscule breasts.  

“They’re harder to cook,” says Thompson. “Leaner, darker, gamier—delicious, but we’re not used to it. The American population is still not ready to eat gamy meat.”

So gradually, quietly, celebrated farm-to-table chefs such as Blue Hill’s Dan Barber, a James Beard award winner, continued carving up the Broad-Breasted White as well as popular heritage birds, like the Bourbon Red.  

“I don’t think a Broad-Breasted White tastes better than a Bourbon Red,” says Barber, who wishes the Broad-Breasted White had never been invented—but believes that as long as it’s here, we might as well eat it. “The cost difference is very significant, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to be arguing for what is so much more expensive just for flavor.”

What’s more, Barber points out, industrial turkeys are more efficient: “A Broad-Breasted White is up to 40 percent larger than a Bourbon Red. If you calculate its feed conversion [the rate at which an animal turns grain into meat], it converts better than the older breed, using less grain.”

While pasture-raising Broad-Breasted Whites—an option Barber supports that lets the bird exercise and add weight more naturally, making it more flavorful—would seem to be a happy middle ground, heritage-breed advocates worry about an impending turkey Armageddon. Industrial birds are so genetically similar that they are more susceptible to new strains of disease, meaning there’s no good way to stir the DNA pot to start over again if an epidemic strikes. 

So which turkey is the better choice? Barber, for one, is serving both. However, there are a few other options to consider. Below are four of the most popular varieties, including price and how they taste.

Narragansett
Tasting notes: moist and gamy
Origin: Rhode Island and Connecticut
Size: approximately 18 pounds
Price: $10 per pound

Bourbon Red
Tasting notes: heavy breast, intense dark meat, chewy
Origin: Bourbon County, Kentucky, 1890s
Size: 16 pounds
Price: $10 per pound

Standard Bronze
Tasting notes: meaty, rich, with ample dark meat
Origin: New York, early 1800s
Size: 20 pounds (largest of the heritage breeds)
Price: $10 per pound

Broad-Breasted White 
Tasting notes: tender and plentiful white meat, mild flavor
Origin: A laboratory, 1950s
Size: 32 pounds
Price: Less than $1 per pound

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