Heritage Turkey Cooking Instructions
Congratulations on your purchase of a Bourbon Red Heritage Turkey. You bought your heritage turkeys because you like knowing that your turkey had a real life. Heritage turkeys were not hybridized to have such big white breasts that they can’t walk. They weren’t bred for meat output and their ability to survive cramped, dirty, inhumane conditions. Heritage turkeys weren’t force-fed hormones to assure rapid growth and a short life. Heritage turkeys tend to have had a longer life and time to run with their flock. They have more dark meat and a richer flavor.
The heritage turkey is very different from the turkeys you typically see in the grocery store. The commercial turkeys most Americans are familiar with are bred as large-breasted birds to produce more white meat. Heritage refers to the standard turkey and consists of a wide variety of breeds. Very few local farmers breed heritage turkeys, which are grass fed and roam the pasture they are raised on. Heritage turkeys are tender, full of flavor and cook more quickly due to having less fat than the white broad-breasted turkey. Knowing how to cook a heritage turkey is important since it does not cook the same as the traditional factory turkey.
I think this is essential advice for all turkeys. If your turkey was frozen, defrost it in the refrigerator until fully unthawed. A few hours before you plan to roast the bird, remove it from the refrigerator and let the bird come to room temperature. The deep flesh, not just the outer half-inch, needs to be at or near room temperature before you roast it in order to achieve the best results. If the bird is at 34F in its interior parts when you start roasting it the breast will be dry long before the deep tissues are cooked.
One of the most important tools in cooking is a meat thermometer. When you pay more for a heritage bird, you certainly don’t want to overcook the bird. Here’s the controversy: The USDA recommends turkeys be cooked to 160F-180F. Most heritage turkey aficionados will recommend taking the turkey out of the oven a few degrees before the 160 degrees. The temp will rise a few degrees after the bird is removed from the oven.
Stuffing will likely not cook thoroughly in a bird that is not overcooked.
Here are the steps I have used with excellent results
- Let the bird come to room temperature before roasting (about an hour and a half). Remove the giblets and neck from the cavity of the turkey.
- Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. giblets, neck and herbs in the pan and add a cup or two of water to the bottom of the pan–depending on size of pan. I like to put melted butter on the breast skin as this will brown it nicely. Cook the bird at 300 degrees.
- Periodically, place a thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh (don’t let it touch bone). Place a foil tent over the bird if the breast gets too done. Protect the wing tips with foil if you wish. The total cooking time may be about 15 minutes per pound. Don’t let the pan go dry. Add more water if needed. Decide your thermometer strategy and remove the bird from the oven when desired temp. is reached.
- Let the bird rest for 20 -30 minutes before you remove from the pan, remove the cavity contents. Strain the liquid, and make gravy while you let the bird rest.
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Because heritage turkeys tend to have little fat, and have not had water, and other things added to them they tend to cook much faster than store bought turkeys. Therefore; I advise cooking them this way, but to be honest, I am not a chef and there are many tried and true ways to cook a heritage turkey. The best advice is to keep track of the temperature and don’t let it get overcooked.
Stuffing, if any, is cooked before it is put inside the bird. The stuffing, therefore, is only heated inside the bird, not cooked. If you do stuff a bird, for food safety reasons, stuff it just before roasting. While the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) calls for cooking turkeys until the stuffing is 160F and the bird is 180F in the thigh. These USDA recommended temperatures are so high that you will dry out the turkey. I only roast my heritage turkey to 160F, and no more; however use the temperature that you are most comfortable with. As always, let the bird rest for at least 10-20 minutes before carving.
A note on the high cooking temperature: The USDA recommendation of 180F in the deepest part of the thigh, and 160F in the stuffing is based on the government’s need to provide a general rule that will cover all health and safety eventualities, including the handling of the bird by people who have not observed basic hygienic principles, like washing their hands before handling the food.
Little Bend Heritage Farm