Dear Ask Laura,
My question is very simple, how can I find or buy a family farm turkey for Thanksgiving?
Willow Springs, Mo.
Of course! A turkey is the perfect opportunity to create a centerpiece for your holiday table that reflects your values and tastes great. A lot of things immediately jump to mind, so I am going to dive right in.
Turkeys at the store
Buying meat in general can be confusing and frustrating. In fact, one of the very first Ask Laura columns that I wrote addressed a question very similar to yours: “What questions can I ask my grocer?” I believe that the answer still stands and that it is particularly relevant when talking about turkey choices. These questions will be most helpful if you want to buy a turkey from a grocery store, co-op or mail order service.
Turkeys on the farm
If you would prefer to find a farmer near you or one that mails directly to the customer, chances are you will have even more choice. Many farmers are raising turkeys on pasture, which means that they have a diverse and natural diet, they move around naturally and have a much more distinct flavor than those from your typical grocery store. There is also a strong movement, particularly in turkeys, towards heritage breeds.
Heritage breeds are historic breeds, many of which were forgone for the “Large White”, a factory farm favorite because of its oversized breast. Unlike this mainstream bird, heritage breeds are genetically diverse so that they are resilient to health problems and generally more active and well suited to outdoor living. Not to mention they have great names; Blue and Black Slate, Royal Palm, Naragansett, Broad Breasted Bronze, and Jersey Buff are some of the birds that would like to audition for the leading role in your big day.
To make things easier, check out some of these organizations that are featuring turkeys from family farmers on their web sites through the holiday season:
As a side note, if you or your family have concerns or reservations about buying poultry because of avain flu take a look at my April Ask Laura column.
How to cook your turkey
Okay, one last thing to make sure that once you go family farmer turkey, you never go back. A few years ago, I convinced my grandmother to buy a free-range turkey (this was back in the day before I knew all about heritage breeds and those folks out there trying to help you buy them) from the local grocery store. It was significantly more expensive than the conventional bird (a fact that we just won’t be able to get around in this column) but I assured her that it would be well worth it. Unfortunatley, it wasn’t; it was dry and a little tough.
Giving my grandmother and her turkey cooking techniques the benefit of the doubt, there was one big thing that we should have paid attention to. Most conventional birds (all meat, in fact) is soaked in a water based brine to add flavor and weight. This way, you don’t pay for the actual weight of the bird (something that has always irked me about conventional meat) you also pay for the water and ‘flavoring’. Not my cup of tea…now there is a tea brine recipe somewhere in my book but that is getting a little off track.
Pastured birds aren’t lacking in flavor, in fact they have a slightly stronger flavor than your average bird, but they won’t come brined, so you should keep them moist and tender by making your own brine. A basic brine recipe calls for a half cup of salt and a half cup of sugar for every gallon of water. For flavor you can add any number of things from herbs and spices to aromatics like garlic and onions. You want to cover the turkey with the solution and set in the fridge for a couple of hours or even overnight. The solution will work to keep the meat nice and juicey and allow you to jazz up the flavor to your heart’s delight. This year, I am thinking some apple cider would do nicely……
For cooking temperatures and other specifics, please consult a cookbook.
Ok. Now have at it! And send us pictures and more Ask Laura questions!