Heritage Breed Turkeys (And How to Cook Them)
Well folks, its that time of year again! This time around, we raised our own turkeys out on the farm, and we're excited to send them out to our Fall CSA shareholders! I've put together a little guide here to help you process and cook your heritage breed turkey (since the paragraph of instructions on the Butterball package are only so useful). This season at Howlin' Wolf Farm, we raised Bronze Breasted Mammoth turkeys, which are only available in certain parts of the country. We are fortunate enough to be in close proximity to one of the few hatcheries that raises these delicious birds. While cooking these birds isn't much different from your average turkey, there are a few differences, depending on if they're hand or machine processed.
We'll be sending out both hand and machine processed birds this season, and if you're one of our shareholders, the best way to tell is if your bird arrived frozen or fresh.
Step 1: PRE - COOK PREPARATION
Our frozen turkeys were machine processed, and simply need to be thawed before you get cookin' on them. A 15-20 lb turkey generally needs 2.5-3 days in the refrigerator to fully thaw, so you might want to clear some space out!
If your turkey is fresh this season, it means it was hand processed by our team of volunteers. While you can save the time of thawing your bird, you'll need to set aside some time to pluck out any remaining quills or tiny feathers. It can be a bit tedious, but do not despair, any whole bird you buy at the store will have at least a few feathers left on it by the time its cooked. If you miss a few quills here and there, it's not the end of the world.
Step 2: CHOOSING COOKING METHODS
After getting your bird thawed/plucked, you'll need to decide on how to cook it. The school of thought on this is as follows:
Roasting a turkey in the oven is safe, easily managed while cooking other things, and likely won't burn your house down. However, many say that this is the less flavorful option, as folks tend to let their turkey dry out, which isn't fun for anyone. Thankfully, we have some tips for you below if this is the route you want to take. Skip past this next section if this is the route you want to take.
Another way to handle cooking up a big ol' turkey is by deep frying the whole bird, for 3-4 minutes per pound. This method, preferred by dads, foodies, and pyromaniacs alike, is significantly more dangerous than baking, but the results are certainly worth the extra safety precautions you'll need to take to ensure that your (or your in-laws) home/garage/patio stays intact throughout the process.
Here are my main tips for safely deep frying a turkey:
1: HAVE A FIRE EXTINGUISHER HANDY. Safety is the name of the game when frying turkeys, and many people overlook this possibility. Key thing to remember: water fuels grease fires. Don't be that guy who made a flare up into a fireball.
2: DO IT OUTSIDE. Captain Kirk may know a thing or two about solving interplanetary affairs, but he's making a huge mistake by frying in the kitchen.
Over 40,000 homes are set ablaze by fried turkeys each Thanksgiving, so make the extra effort to set your equipment up outside, in your driveway, away from anything that looks like it wants to catch on fire and ruin your holiday. If its raining when you want to fry, you might have to hold off on cooking until it passes.
3: DRY YOUR BIRD THOROUGHLY. After thawing your turkey out, make absolutely sure that it's completely dry on the outside by dabbing off excess moisture with paper towels. This will prevent boil overs and flare ups.
Here's one of the best videos I've seen on turkey frying, and it's very helpful for getting your bearings here:
Step 3: BRING ON THE BRINE: THINE BRINE BRINGS A GOOD TIME
Whichever method you choose, you can't skip brining, but its especially important when you're cooking in the oven over a period of several hours. The Pioneer Woman puts it best: "I brine a turkey every year because it’s the right thing to do."
Being that its the right thing to do, I'm leaving the text on 25pt and hammering this idea in. Brining will keep your bird juicy and tender throughout, and will ultimately lead to many more happy good times. Of that much you can be sure.
Also, its incredibly easy.
Fill a stock pot halfway with water, add 1.5 - 2 cups of salt, stir, and place your thawed turkey in the solution. You'll want to refrigerate it for 18-24 hours, so make sure you plan accordingly. If your bird isn't totally thawed when you put it in the brine, don't worry. It still has one more day to finish up the process.
It's as simple as that. You can experiment with a number of spices and flavors, but the core concept is to get your turkey salted and full of juices so it won't dry out in the oven.
Click here for the Pioneer Woman recipe for turkey brine, if you want a tried-and-true recipe.
Step 4: INJECTIONS AND STUFFING
I've never been one for injecting my food with more food, but in the case of oven roasted or fried turkeys, its a good idea to inject them with lots and lots of melted butter. You can poke around for tips on this online, but without getting bogged down in details, this step is very important when oven roasting your turkey. The goal is to keep the whole bird at a uniform consistency of moisture, and it can be tough when it's getting cooked for 3-4 hours!
Stuffing is equally important in the oven. Most folks stick with the traditional dried bread chunks, and they're fine to use, but be sure to leave plenty of room for the stuffing to expand. It's also very helpful to add fresh vegetables such as carrots, onions, peppers, and so on in order to keep the moisture levels high as can be. Once again, this will pay off big time when your turkey hits the plate.
A final note on stuffing:
DO NOT STUFF A BIRD IF YOU'RE GOING TO FRY IT! Its a mess and won't be anything close to what you want. Simply prepare your stuffing in the kitchen and fill your fried turkey up after its done cooking.
Step 5: ROASTING TO PERFECTION
Yes, this part seems simple, and it can be, so long as you follow a few basic rules. Cooking times vary greatly based on weight, so it's best to weigh your turkey before putting it in the oven. You may be used to pop-out thermometers that come with Butterball turkeys, but in reality, they are basically worthless. If you don't have a kitchen scale, you'll definitely need a meat thermometer.
Here are the rules:
1 - Cook 25 minutes per pound of meat, at 325 degrees. This can vary slightly based on stuffing, but that's why we have the thermometer.
2 - Use a rack underneath your turkey in whatever cooking pan you use. This will help ensure that hot air can circulate around the turkey evenly.
3 - Stay nearby, and baste your turkey with additional butter, juices, and broth every 30-45 minutes to prevent the skin from drying out.
4 - Cover your turkey with foil when you're in the last hour of cooking
5 - When checking temperatures, the breast and stuffing need to be heated to 165 degrees, and the thigh should be around 180 to ensure its fully cooked.
And that, my friends, is how it's done! Let us know how your turkey turns out, and feel free to post pictures, comments, or questions below or on our Facebook page!