Why is Heritage Turkey Considered the Best? (Plus recipe and menu ideas)


heritage turkey vs commercial turkey

What exactly is a heritage turkey? It’s a naturally mating bird with a slow growth rate (taking 26-30 weeks to mature) that spends most of its long life outdoors. By contrast, industrial turkeys live in cages, are bred to grow quickly(14 to 18 weeks to mature) , and can reproduce only through artificial insemination. In addition to growing slower, a heritage turkey is also more active, which results in less fat. In terms of flavor, a heritage bird is worlds away from the dry, tasteless turkeys most of us have grown up eating on Thanksgiving. In the picture below, the bulbous beast in front is a traditional broad breasted turkey and the handsome bird is a heritage breed. Heritage birds have a rich, full flavor and have darker meat. They’re closer to wild birds than the mushier, whiter-meat turkeys bred for obesity and early maturity. 

 Find Cooking Instructions and Recipes Below.

Heritage Turkey vs. Broadbreasted Turkey



The turkeys we eat today came from Central America, were brought to Europe, domesticated there, and then re-imported back to the United States (Pilgrims brought them as early as 1620) where they were crossed with North American wild turkeys.The descendants of these turkeys are what has become standard breed heritage turkeys as originally certified by the American Poultry Association in 1873. 

Commercially, heritage breeds compose a small percentage, around 25,000 produced annually, compared to 270,000,000 industrial (broad-breasted) birds. This has increased from the end of the 20th century when the broad-breasted white had become so popular that heritage breeds were almost extinct. In 1997, The Livestock Conservancy considered heritage turkeys the most critically endangered of all domestic animals, finding fewer than 1,500 total breeding birds in the United States. Along with Slow Food USA, the Heritage Turkey Foundation, and small-scale farmers, The Livestock Conservancy hit the media with advocacy. By 2003 the numbers had grown 200% and by 2006 the Conservancy reported that more than 8,800 breeding birds existed in the United States.

Heritage breeds like the Rio Grande and Standard Bronze grow feathers in an array of striking patterns and can range from tawny to black.

 Industrial Broad Breasted Turkeys

Almost every turkey, excepting, of course, the heritage birds, sold in the United States was bred to develop a grotesquely large chest. 

The eight-billion-dollar-a-year industry has grown the past 25 years — buoyed by consumers seeking a source of low-fat protein. Between 1975 and 2000, per capita consumption of turkey grew from eight to 17.75 pounds, according to the National Turkey Federation. Nearly all the 270 million turkeys Americans eat each year are broad breasted Whites. Through the tweaking of its genes by selective breeding, the broad breast provides the poultry industry with a quick-growing, meat-laden bird with an over-sized breast that can be quickly and cleanly processed. While it may be the perfect bird for mass production, perfection takes its toll. 

Broad breasted Whites have lost many of the traits that make turkeys, well, turkeys. They’re genetically damaged and the industry could be just a virus or disease away from wiping out the breeds. Broad breasted Whites have been only bred commercially for 40 years and 40 generations of very narrow genetic selection. It’s what is called “in-breeding”. It’s the issue of mono-cropping. Because they are genetically identical, they’ll all be susceptible to whatever diseases, viruses or anything else that comes along. 

By the 1950s, processors that didn’t want birds with dark pinfeathers — because they looked unsightly on a naked Thanksgiving turkey — were rewarded with the broad breasted White, a bird that yielded a lot of meat and was unmarred by pinfeather discoloration. It continues to reign as bird of the masses.


Heritage birds’ flavor profile is  a deep, rich, turkey taste with darker meat. Unlike broad-breasted turkeys, Heritage birds live long enough to develop a layer of fat beneath the skin, which imparts a rich flavor to the meat. They also have larger thighs and legs because they still run and fly which produces especially dark, juicy meat.The aroma of the bird when cooking is distinctly different and more appealing that the industrial bird. They’re closer to wild birds than the mushier, whiter-meat turkeys bred for obesity and early maturity.

Italian food critic Carlo Petrini was troubled that industrialization was standardizing food flavor and purging from the palate thousands of food varieties and flavors. In 1986, he founded Slow Food. In the U.S., turkeys are Slow Food’s highest profile campaign.

Salt water is a big part of what is purchased if the industrial turkey has been ‘enhanced’ by the manufacturer. For frozen turkeys, 8% to 20% of the bird’s weight could be a sodium-water solution.  This means you’re paying for saltwater; a 20 lb “moisture enhanced” turkey equals only 16 lbs of meat (4 lbs is nothing but water). It also means that a 4-oz serving from that same turkey could add as much as 540 mg or 23% of the daily recommended amount of sodium to your diet (2300 mg).

On November 11, 2011, Elizabeth Gunnison published the results of a blind taste test in Bon Apetit of identically-prepared Heritage and Traditional Broad Breasted Turkeys. The Heritage turkey won – 4 out of 5 tasters preferring the Heritage. “The eating experience is far from the only factor at play here,” says Gunnison. “Thanksgiving is a symbolic holiday, a time when it makes more sense than ever to be mindful of the environmental and moral issues that come along with eating. Heritage turkeys provide an opportunity to support endangered breeds and to eat a bird that lived the lifestyle of its turkey dreams.”

 Time to Mature

Without man around to help through artificial insemination, there wouldn’t be a next generation of industrial broad breasted white turkeys. They are usually brought to market within 12 weeks of hatching, at an average weight of 27 pounds. A heritage breed turkey will mature at 25-30 weeks at an average weight of 16-18 pounds. This explains why heritage turkeys cost more. They must be fed and cared for for more than twice as long and yield almost half as much meat.

Turkeys can fly, among other things

Turkeys are meant to fly. The sad, flightless, white-feathered American Industrial broad-breasted birds bear only a passing resemblance to turkeys in the traditional Thanksgiving illustrations that we all know so well here in the United States. With short legs and wide breasts — the better to serve up white meat — broad breasted white turkeys do not fly and can’t even reproduce on their own. A scruffy specimen with short stubby legs, its disproportionate supply of white meat has come at the expense of taste and texture. It’s stupid to boot. Commercial producers say they have to keep the broad breasted turkeys in buildings because they’d drown in the rain.


Obviously, a heritage bird that takes twice as long to mature for half the yield is going to be more expensive. But it should also be noted that many grocery stores sell turkey (especially year-old frozen broad breasted birds) as a loss leader. The remaining Thanksgiving items purchased make a loss leader turkey a very sensible marketing cost. However, that loss on the turkey, a conscious promotional cost, negatively affects only the artisan farmer and his retail distributor whose product’s price now compares poorly to the competition. 

“Our turkeys are very expensive, not because of the turkey but because of the processing and shipping,” Frank Reese said. “The problem is the infrastructure to support truly honest-to-God sustainable agriculture is not there.”  

In a new world in which 66 percent of global consumers (and 73% of Millennials) are willing to pay more for sustainable goods, why does the “loss leader for an unsustainable industrial turkey” ploy work? Why are consumers attracted to genetically engineered broad-breasted turkeys that are harmful in so many ways over the smaller farmers’ sustainable, more flavorful and natural heritage breed turkey for price alone? 


Note: the bird in the top of the photo is a Heritage turkey


General Tips:

  • Always bring the bird to room temperature before cooking.
  • Roast heritage turkeys in a hot oven preheated to 425F- 450F (allowing for a blast of higher temp to brown) and cook at 350 degrees until an internal thigh temperature of 140F-150F is reached. Don’t let the tip of the thermometer touch the bone.
  • When you put the turkey in the oven, put the feet facing the back wall and the breast facing the door, so you expose the dark meat to the most heat and protect the light meat
  • Please note: The USDA recommends turkeys be cooked to 160F-180F, but this 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.

Easy Heritage Turkey Recipe *


  • 1 12-to 18-pound heritage turkey  
  • 3 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 ½ tablespoons black pepper
  • 4 tablespoons butter, cut into four pieces
  • 1 medium onion, quartered
  • 2 stalks celery, cut in two or three pieces each
  • 1 medium apple, halved
  • 8 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 cups turkey broth, water or a mixture of half water and half apple juice


  1. At least four hours before roasting, rub turkey inside and out with salt and pepper; refrigerate. Remove from refrigerator 45 minutes before roasting. Heat oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Set turkey in roasting pan fitted with a V-shaped rack. Slip your fingers under skin to loosen it. Rub butter over breasts. Stuff vegetables, apple and thyme into the cavity. Tuck wing tips under the bird.
  3. Pour broth or water into pan, around bird. Put turkey in oven and roast, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 325, baste turkey with pan juices, cover with a foil tent and return to oven. Cook for another 30 minutes. Remove foil, baste again and place foil back on turkey. Cook for 30 more minutes. Remove foil.
  4. When turkey has roasted for a total of two hours, insert a meat thermometer straight down into fleshiest part of thigh, where it meets drumstick. Check a second spot, then remove thermometer. (Do not let thermometer touch bone.) Thigh meat should reach no more than 165 degrees. Juices should run clear. (If bird is larger than 14 pounds, keep foil on longer and begin checking meat temperature at two and half hours.) To assure perfectly cooked white and dark meat, you may remove bird when meat thermometer shows thigh temperature at 155, then remove legs and roast them separately for another 15 to 30 minutes, depending on size of bird.
  5. When bird has reached desired temperature, remove from oven and let rest for at least 30 minutes, covered in foil and with a damp towel on top of foil, to retain heat and allow juices to return to meat. Remove foil and towel and serve.

Recipe: Roast Heritage Turkey and Gravy*


  • 1 16- to 20-pound heritage turkey
  • 1-quart apple cider
  • 1 cup kosher salt
  • 2 lemons, quartered
  • 5 bay leaves
  • 1 medium apple, quartered but not peeled
  • 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and quartered
  • 6 garlic cloves
  • 1 bunch thyme
  • 8 tablespoons/1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 6 sprigs rosemary
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon pepper
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 3 cups turkey or chicken stock, plus more if needed
  • 4 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 hard-boiled egg, chopped (optional)


  1. A day ahead of roasting, remove neck and giblets from turkey. Mix cider, salt, lemons, bay leaves and 3 quarts water together in a large bowl or stockpot; stir to dissolve salt. Submerge turkey in the bowl or pot, cover and refrigerate overnight or up to 24 hours. Alternatively, put turkey and brine in two clean, unscented plastic garbage bags (one bag inside the other), tie well and place in a cooler with ice or ice packs.
  2. When you are ready to roast, Pre heat oven to 425 degrees. Rinse turkey and pat dry. Stuff apple, onion, garlic and most of the thyme into turkey. Lift skin at neck and gently use your hand to separate skin from breast meat. Rub half the butter under skin and slip in remaining thyme and two rosemary sprigs. Use remaining butter to rub outside of bird, then sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper.
  3. Set a rack into a roasting pan and place four rosemary sprigs on top of the rack. Place bird on top of rosemary. Add turkey neck and giblets to bottom of pan. Take two pieces of heavy foil cut to the length of the pan. Fold the two together to create a single sheet to tent the bird.
  4. Transfer to oven, lower heat to 350 degrees, and roast. Roasting time will be 3 to 3 1/2 hours for an 18-pound bird. Add 10 minutes per pound for larger birds. Subtract 10 minutes per pound for smaller birds. Midway through cooking time, remove giblets and neck and add wine and 1 cup water. Twenty minutes before roasting time is complete, begin to test for doneness with a digital probe thermometer inserted at the deepest part of the thigh. It is done when thigh registers 160 degrees. Remove bird from oven and transfer to a serving platter.
  5. Place roasting pan over low heat on the stovetop and add 2 1/2 cups stock. Scrape all the browned turkey bits from bottom of pan. Skim 2/3 of the fat from top of drippings and discard. Bring drippings to a boil; reduce to a simmer. You may wish to strain at this point to remove stray bits, but they add character to the finished gravy.
  6. Finely chop giblets and neck meat. Dissolve cornstarch in 1/2 cup stock. Add slurry to drippings, stirring constantly, until thickened. If gravy seems too thick, whisk in a bit more stock. Add chopped egg and giblets and neck meat. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
*Recipe from Kim Severson in The New York Times