A great Thanksgiving feast depends on the right choice of bird, and there’s much more to picking a turkey these days than counting the guests to parse out the weight (think one pound per person). Here’s a quick guide to the three main types of turkey available today.
The commercial turkeys we grew up on are bred for maximum efficiency by giants like Butterball, sometimes with hormones and antibiotics. A few companies raise them in pastures under organic conditions for sale at gourmet markets. “It’s a meatier breed,” says Dan Barber, chef at Blue Hill, in upstate New York. “In fact, the breasts are downright Marilyn Monroe-ish.” These cost around $1.50 per pound, but if they’re pastured, they’re a bit more – expect to pay $3.50 to $7 per pound.
Known as heritage turkeys, once-forgotten breeds like the Bourbon Red and American Bronze have become the go-to birds for food snobs everywhere. Less meaty than their commercial cousins, these all-natural turkeys – raised free-range on small farms – have a richer, more assertive flavor. “There’s white meat, but it’s not as abundant, and the flavor is certainly more intense,” says Clark Frasier of Arrows Restaurant in Ogunquit, Maine. Not surprisingly, heritage birds are much pricier – expect to pay at least $10 per pound.
And then there are the wild ones. These exotic North American birds are raised to USDA standards on just a handful of farms, so the only way you’ll land one from the wild is to shoot it yourself (or just buy one online from specialty food retailers like D’Artagnan, which sells 5- to 7-pound free range wild turkeys for about $83). Scrawny birds with gamy dark meat, they tend to dry out while roasting. “I like to laden them with wild boar bacon, prosciutto, or pancetta, or deep-fry them,” says chef Tim Love of Lonesome Dove in Fort Worth, Texas.”Basically cooking in fat to keep them moist.”
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