Cooking Your Heritage Turkey

By Sandra Kay Miller

Heritage turkeys are coming home to roost in holiday kitchens. Besides the fact that most these old fashion birds are also raised the old fashioned way -- with plenty of grass and sunshine -- they need to be cooked quite differently than their modern, mega-farmed counterparts.

Most large supermarket chains give away frozen turkeys each year when you spend a couple hundred bucks at their stores. These birds have been bred to reach maturity in only a few months and more thank likely have been stuffed full of growth supplements, antibiotics and then injected with liquid post processing. Additionally, their unnaturally large breast prevents these birds from ever breeding naturally and from their increased growth rate commercial birds are commonly so heavy their legs cannot support their own weight. Sure, the meat might be tender but that is because the poor bird could only sit in once place and eat until reaching market weight.

A heritage turkey is not any particular breed, but made up of a group of breeds such as the Narragansett, Bourbon Red, Standard Bronze, Royal Palm, Slate and Jersey Buff. What distinguish these birds from the Modern Standard White Broad Breasted variety is their slower growth, smaller breasts and their ability to naturally breed.

These differences are also reflected in the way that a heritage turkey is cooked.

Remember having to cover the breast with foil to keep it from drying out while the rest of the bird cooks -- not with a heritage turkey. Their smaller breasts create a better balance between the dark meat and white meat, which means roasting a bird to perfection is much easier since white meat cooks quicker than the dark meat. If the breast is covered during roasting, it should be done with oiled parchment paper -- not foil -- which is then removed 30 minutes before the turkey is finished roasting.

Heritage turkeys are also much more leaner and smaller than sedentary commercial birds. This means that fast cooking at high temperatures is a better method than slow roasting -- another big plus since you won't have to set your alarm to get the bird in the oven to be done in time for an early dinner. Heritage turkeys should be cooked at 425-450 degrees F until the internal temperature reaches 140-150 degrees F. Butter or oil can be added under the breast skin to add flavor and moisture during roasting.

Try this Heritage Turkey Recipe

Sandra Kay Miller raises pastured heritage turkeys on her farm in Pennsylvania. She owned a catering business, a deli and was a chef for a historic hot springs restaurant in southern California. Sandra has contributed to several cookbooks and frequently wrote for the Los Angeles Times Food Section. Her goal is to now raise the quality of food she has had the fortunate opportunity to be exposed to over the last 25 years. Sandra is listed at under Painted Hand Farm in Newburg, PA.

Tips on Roasting a Heritage Bird

Most heritage turkeys are sold fresh. Either fresh or frozen, bring the bird to room temperature before cooking.

Roast heritage turkeys in a hot oven pre-heated to 425F-450F and cook until an internal thigh temperature of 140F-150F is reached. Don't let the tip of the thermometer touch the bone. (Note: The USDA recommends turkeys be cooked to 160F-180F, but these temperature will dry out a heritage turkey. Heritage birds are much more free of disease and bacteria, unlike commercially raised birds, and do not need extreme temperatures to make them safe for consumption)

Cook any stuffing first and put inside the heritage turkey before roasting. Due to the reduced cooking time, stuffing won't become fully cooked. Alternatively, try adding a quartered orange, apple and/or pear inside the cavity instead of stuffing.

Let the roasted bird rest 10-15 minutes before carving.

Try this Heritage Turkey Recipe