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Last Updated on November 22, 2021

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, preparations for the biggest feast of the year are well underway. One of the essential parts of holiday preparation is choosing the right bird. Even this can be a bit overwhelming, with more and more turkey options available every new holiday season. 

It’s no longer just a question of choosing between a fresh or frozen turkey. Now there are added options of organic, kosher, and a new and popular option, the heritage turkey. 

So, what is the heritage turkey, and do heritage turkeys taste better than the other options available?

What Are Heritage Turkeys? 

There are a few key criteria that a heritage turkey must meet to fit the definition. They must be naturally bred, have a slow growth rate, and have a long productive outdoor lifespan.

Heritage turkeys have been naturally bred and have spent most of their lives in the wild, not raised on commercial farms or in food labs where some brands of Thanksgiving turkeys are bred. Only 25,000 of them are produced annually in the US compared to around 230,000 conventional turkeys. 

Heritage turkeys have not been chemically enhanced in any way and have a much slower growth rate than some of their genetically manipulated competition. This natural growth rate allows the turkeys to develop a more robust skeletal structure and healthier organs, and they are slaughtered at an older age. These factors result in heritage turkeys generally having darker meat and more flavor than conventional turkeys. 

Heritage turkeys are antibiotic-free, which is not the case for conventionally raised turkeys which are given antibiotics throughout their lives to ensure they don’t get sick. Heritage turkeys contain no additives (such as preservatives or flavorings), which can have detrimental health effects for the consumer. 

Perhaps the most significant difference between heritage turkeys and many other commercially farmed turkeys is that heritage turkeys can run, fly and have been raised to withstand the pressure of an outdoor production system. Other conventionally produced turkeys are bred to grow fast in small spaces, and many can’t fly, breed, or withstand many natural environmental changes.

When you cook heritage turkeys, you’ll see that they’re sometimes not as full-breasted as store-bought ones. Instead, they have larger legs (and more leg meat) due to their more natural life cycle and growth rates. 

Heritage turkeys are a much more accurate representation of a natural evolution of the native species found in abundance in 17th century America. The American Poultry Association has defined Heritage turkeys within the above context, and expects farmers to adhere to them to protect the gene pool and ensure more ethical breeding practices. Some heritage turkeys are endangered breeds (such as the Black Spanish and White Holland), and the more natural breeding practices provide more sustainable management of these varieties. 

How Much Do Heritage Turkeys Cost? 

Heritage turkeys can cost up to four times more than your conventional supermarket turkeys. They’re expensive because it’s costly to raise these turkeys in an environment that simulates more natural production systems. 

Everything is done on a small scale, which exponentially increases cost. Heritage turkeys are given more time to naturally develop and are older when they’re slaughtered. A longer average lifespan adds to the cost and reflects on the price.

So, Do Heritage Turkeys Taste Better?

Yes, Heritage turkeys taste better. Heritage turkeys generally have a richer flavor compared to conventional broad-breasted turkeys. Lots of research and care go into raising heritage turkeys purely to achieve this rich and full flavor. Heritage turkeys are raised in a more natural environment, and as a result, are leaner, healthier, and better-tasting. 

The heritage turkey also has a more textured and flavorful taste than that of conventional supermarket turkeys. As store-bought turkeys are injected with water, salt, and other preservatives, a lot of the flavor of the turkey meat gets lost.

Why Should I Buy a Heritage Turkey?

Buying a Heritage turkey will result in a Thanksgiving dinner full of more vibrant turkey flavors, with less preservatives and added. It will also support an industry that focuses on more natural and sustainable breeding practices. Heritage turkeys carry a much higher price tag due to increased production costs and relatively small demand. As the demand for healthier, more sustainable Thanksgiving meat grows, the production costs will even out.

That being said, plenty of turkey production practices sit in between a Heritage turkey and a mass-produced turkey full of preservatives and antibiotics. There are a growing number of farming practices that incorporate free-range techniques but do not fit the strict Heritage standards. These are still much better options for those looking for better taste, fewer chemicals, and more sustainable breeding practices. 

References:

“Definition of a Heritage Turkey.” The Livestock Conservancy. Web. 19 Nov 2021.
<https://livestockconservancy.org/heritage-turkey-definition/>

Stevens, Molly. “All About Heritage Turkeys.” Oct 2012. finecooking.com. Web. 19 Nov 2021 <https://www.finecooking.com/article/all-about-heritage-turkeys>

Erica. “Is a Heritage Turkey Worth it?” 15 Nov 2012. nwedible.com. Web. 19 Nov 2021. 
<http://nwedible.com/is-a-heritage-turkey-worth-it/>

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