By Michael Crupain, MD, MPH
(Note: This Article was originally published in the American College of Preventive Medicine Resident Physician Newsletter)
There is nothing that better symbolizes a Thanksgiving meal than turkey. According to the Turkey industry, between 80% and 95% of Americans consume this bird on the fourth Thursday of November each year. While we can’t be sure if Turkey was really eaten at the first Thanksgiving, it has certainly been an important part of the tradition and American culture for at least 200 years.
The modern Turkey however, is a far different bird than the Turkey Benjamin Franklin told his daughter would be a better symbol for America than the Bald Eagle. Today the majority of Turkey’s represent a single breed, the Broad Breasted White, which has been bred to have a small frame and large breasts. These birds grow very fast, reaching slaughter weight after only 14-18 weeks and have a taste that can best be described by the word bland.
Fortunately due to increasing awareness of the public about the practices of industrial agriculture, small farmers are starting to grow what are known as Heritage Breed Turkeys. These breeds, which have names like Bourbon Red and Narragansett, also have much more natural proportions and a much more interesting flavor than industrial birds. Typically heritage birds are raised outdoors in large fields where they can engage in more natural turkey behaviors like foraging. Heritage breed may take up to twice a long as factory birds to reach slaughter weight and cost more. Industrially produced Turkey’s however, are artificially cheap, because the costs to human health and animal welfare are externalized.
There are a number of websites that you can order heritage breeds birds from, but your best bet is to find a farmer at your local farmers market who is raising them. This way you can find out more about how the birds are raised and help support the local economy. Its best to start looking early though, because these birds are often in limited supply.
While Turkey is healthy lean meat filled with protein and important vitamins and minerals, due to the cost of heritage birds, its better to make the vegetables the focus of your Thanksgiving meal and make the turkey a side. Focusing on dishes with super foods like mashed sweet potatoes (instead of mashed white potatoes), roasted cauliflower, raw tuscan kale salad, and roasted carrots will ensure a delicious and healthy meal.
When cooking the heritage turkey, I recommend separating the legs and thighs from the breast. These different muscles cook at different rates and cooking them together almost certainly leads to dry white meat. Instead try roasting the breast separately in a 400F oven until it reaches 165F (about 1 hour). Because heritage Turkey’s have more flavor, you won’t need to brine the bird, but feel free to add some herbs to the skin and other aromatics to the cavity. For the legs and thighs, I recommend a braise. One of my favorite recipes is this one from famed chef Daniel Boulud.