Heritage birds also have the ability to withstand the environmental rigors of outdoor production systems. They have a slow to moderate rate of growth. Today’s heritage turkeys reach a marketable weight in about 28 weeks, the same as pre-1950 commercial varieties. Broad-Breasted whites are ready for slaughter in as little as 12 weeks.
Why buy a heritage turkey? Taste, for one thing. Those who have cooked a Broad-Breasted White side by side with a heritage turkey like the a Bourbon Red or Standard Bronze swear by the heritage birds.
Why? Well, for one thing, heritage turkeys maintain a layer of fat absent in the Broad-Breasted White. As the bird cooks, this fat slowly bastes the white meat, which is quite plentiful in a heritage turkey, despite the lack of oversize, genetically modified breasts. This lovely fat layer virtually eliminates the possibility of dry white meat, a common problem with the Broad-Breasted White variety.
Additionally, the variety of the heritage turkey’s diet, which includes grubs and other insects found at pasture, rather than the limited commercial feed fed to industrially raised turkeys, contributes to the rich and flavorful meat of the heritage varieties.
And because heritage birds grow more slowly and are harvested later in their life cycle, they have time to develop the rich flavor we used to associate with roast turkey. There’s no need for the machinations chefs have had to come up with to add flavor to their Thanksgiving birds. Brining, deep-frying, 25-hour sage rubs — all history if you cook a heritage turkey.
Aside from taste, you can feel good about choosing a heritage bird for your meal. Roger Mastrude of the Heritage Turkey Foundation explains:
“Genetic diversity is critical for the maintenance of agriculture. With genetic uniformity comes increased susceptibility to disease and weather fluctuations. The extinction of entire breeds also results in the loss of genetic material for re-establishing flocks should a disaster hit.