Saturday, November 13, 2010

How to cook your heritage turkey

If you've ever cooked a heritage-breed turkey, you probably noticed that it's a bit different from cooking a large, broad-breasted bird. Generally heritage turkeys are smaller, leaner, and with proportionately less breast meat. We've also noticed that heritage turkeys are a somewhat different shape; they are more elongated compared to the Butterball types, with longer legs, which can make it a challenge to find a roasting pan to fit the bird.

I won't go into stuffing questions here, but I do want to talk about brining, which in our experience makes a noticeable difference in the roasting process. Here is an explanation for this, from the wonderful book "Charcuterie" (Ruhlman and Polcyn, W.W. Norton & Co., 2005):

"Brines, more so than dry cures, are an excellent way to impart seasoning and aromatic flavors. A brine penetrates a chicken or pork loin rapidly and completely, bringing with it any flavors you might have added to the salty solution [garlic, onion, tarragon, pepper]. Chefs often use brines for pork, chicken and turkey, the three types of meat that benefit most from brining, because they result in a uniformly juicy loin or bird that's perfectly seasoned every time.

"Roasting a brined chicken or turkey and hitting at just the right point of doneness is easier than with an unbrined [turkey]. You can actually overcook it, in fact, and it can still be juicier than a perfectly cooked bird that wasn't brined. The brine seems to allow the breast to withstand the high temperature while the slowpoke legs and thighs continue to cook."

IMPORTANT NOTE: You'll need to plan ahead if you're going to brine your turkey. In addition to the actual brining time, allow extra time for chilling the brine before putting the turkey in the brining pot. Also, once the bird is removed from the brine, it needs to "rest" in order for the salt to equalize through the meat; allow a resting time of about the same as the brining time for best results. (Extra rest time doesn't hurt anything; it's better to have it rest longer than to shorten the rest time.)

Sound complicated? It's not, really. Here's how it usually shakes out, if you're planning for Thanksgiving: Make the brine on Monday and chill it overnight. Put the turkey in the brine on Tuesday and leave overnight. Remove the turkey from the brine Wednesday morning, then let rest until you're ready to roast it on Thursday.

To make a basic brine for turkey, combine in a large pot:

1 gallon water
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
Seasonings (for turkey, I like to use celery, onion, carrot, peppercorns, tarragon, and thyme)

Note: You may need to double this recipe, depending on the size of the turkey and the container you use for brining.

Bring all ingredients to a simmer, and stir to dissolve the salt and sugar. Remove from heat and chill.

If your turkey is on the smallish side, you can use a large stockpot for brining. A food-grade bucket with lid also works well. This time of year, here on the farm it is cold enough outside to keep the brining pot outside, so I usually plan to put the turkey in the brine before we go to bed, and stays cold and is ready to remove from the brine in the morning.

Which brings me to the amount of time needed for brining. For a turkey of 10-15 pounds, allow 24 hours. If it's smaller than 10 pounds (like our Midget White hens), 12 hours is about right. (If it's more than 15 pounds, allow 24-36 hours.) Don't forget to leave time for your turkey to rest between brining and roasting!

Now, to the cooking part! If you have access to a smoker, I encourage you to try smoking your turkey. It takes longer, as usually the temperatures in the smoker are lower than your oven; my smoker generally cooks at between 200 and 225F. It's hard to say an exact amount of time for smoking, as there are lots of variables (size of the bird, smoker temperature, outside temperature, etc.). I suggest you just allow plenty of time and check the internal temperature of the bird every so often. I definitely recommend brining the turkey if you're going to smoke it.

In spite of its recent popularity, I personally do NOT recommend deep-frying heritage turkeys. In my view,  brining and then roasting (or smoking) results in the best-tasting heritage turkey.

Here is my preferred method for roasting: Preheat oven to 450F. Place the turkey straight from the refrigerator or cooler into the oven, then immediately reduce the heat to 325F. After the first half-hour of cooking, baste several times per hour with pan drippings or extra fat. (If you choose not to brine the turkey, basting is particularly important.)

If your turkey is under 6 pounds, allow 20-25 minutes roasting time per pound; for a 6-16 pound bird, 15-20 minutes; and for a turkey over 16 pounds, about 13-15 minutes. If using a thermometer, insert it into the thigh, taking care not to let it touch the bone; internal temperature should be 180-185F.

As is usual with all roasted meats, remove the turkey from the oven and let it rest for 15-30 minutes before carving.

That's it! There are lots of ways to cook a turkey, but this is my favorite: brining and then either roasting or smoking. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post them! I will be glad to provide ideas about stuffing, gravy, or anything else in another post.


  1. Oops, I forgot to mention an important point on brining: The turkey needs to be kept completely submerged in the brine. This can be done a number of ways, depending on how big your brining container is. If I'm brining in a stockpot, I find a plate that fits inside the pot and lay it down on top of the bird. Then I weight it down, either with a Ziploc bag or a clean cottage cheese container filled with brine and closed up. If you have a very large turkey, you'll have to experiment to find the right amount of weight to keep it submerged.

  2. You tell how you roast but not how you smoke. Have time and/or meat temperature guidelines to share?

  3. Sure! I just smoked two Midget White tom turkeys yesterday. One was about 15 lbs and the other was about 13. I brined them as described above. I hot-smoked them at about 220-230F until the thigh temperature was close to 150F, which took 6 hours or so in my smoker. I use alder chips, mainly because we have lots of alder on our property, but I also like the taste. Brined and smoked turkeys are quite moist, so it's hard to tell accurately when they're done without using a thermometer. Good luck, and Happy Thanksgiving!