For many people, Thanksgiving is the time to splurge on a turkey and accoutrements, to cook with the highest-quality ingredients one can afford. These days, buying a bird goes beyond a frozen Butterball, with people choosing to decide whether to order fresh organic, free-range, pastured, certified-humane or heritage birds.
Take Dennis Marshall. Two weeks ago, he already was talking turkey. The professor at Purdue University in Fort Wayne, Ind., told his niece, Swissvale resident Michelle Boehm, he would buy the Thanksgiving bird if she'd cook it for the holiday.
Ms. Boehm suggested he call the Lawrenceville shop Wild Purveyors for assistance. "I really want to please her," said Mr. Marshall, who asked to be referred to as "Uncle Dennis."
After he emailed the shop to reserve a 12- to 14-pound, free-range bird, co-owner Cavan Patterson called him to give him the rundown of his choices.
"The flavor of a turkey is affected by three things: the breed, its food and how it's raised," Mr. Patterson said. "I wanted to give him some choices."
Generally, turkeys can be categorized as broad-breasted birds and heritage or heirloom breeds. Conventional, broad-breasted turkeys one would find at most grocery stores are raised in confinement, where they're fed grain and antibiotics. They're bred by artificial insemination because they can't reproduce naturally, since they're so large due to a white, meaty breast. They're also injected with saline solution and vegetable oils for flavor.
Outside of factory breeding on Pennsylvania's local family farms, some of these hybrid birds are raised under more humane conditions, with a varied diet, minus antibiotics and injections. Still, these breeds grow faster and offer more white meat.
Heritage turkeys feature more dark meat and take longer to raise, which leads to more fat and more complex flavor.
Go to a local turkey farm these days, and it's likely you'd find birds with white feathers rather than those with black, red or brown ones.
Such is the case at Pounds' Turkey Farm in Leechburg, where Tim and Rick Pounds raise turkeys as their family has since 1935.
White-feathered, broad-breasted turkeys arrive as days-old poults in late February and early March, and eventually they're raised in open-air coops on a diet of oats, corn and soybeans.
Although the birds here are not given hormones or antibiotics, they're not certified organic nor heritage turkeys, the brightly colored birds that capture some people's imagination this time of year.
"Heritage turkeys fell out of favor around the 1950s and '60s," said Beverly Pounds.
Because dark feathers sometimes leave what looks like an ink-stain on skin, the Pounds family stopped selling heritage birds decades ago in favor of ones with more perfect skin.
But customers, she said, are starting to ask for them again.
Duane Koch at Koch's Turkey Farms in Tamaqua confirms the transition from locally raised specific breeds to white hybrids. A third-generation farmer, Mr. Koch raises free-range hybrid turkeys, certified-organic turkeys and heirloom bronze Orlopp turkeys, the only colorful ones among the 300,000 birds raised by his farm and contract growers. He was quick to point out that his heritage birds are different from heirloom birds in that heirloom birds are closer to wild. They grow more slowly and are smaller than any other full-grown bird.
Having learned from his father and grandfather, Mr. Koch and his three sisters raise turkeys year round. He likes that they're social. Call to a turkey and the flock will gobble back.
"They are just nice birds," he said. His affection translates to caring for them. He said that he gives birds a lot more space to roam, and it makes a difference. "Less stress leads to better-tasting turkeys."
The result is that Koch's Turkey Farms sells birds that range from 8 to 36 pounds, which can be purchased at Whole Foods throughout Pennsylvania and Ohio. Birds from Koch's and other local outfits also can be purchased from Wild Purveyors online (wildpurveyorsmarket.com) or pre-ordered in the shop.
Organic, free-range, humanely raised or all of the above?
While Whole Foods shoppers and Michael Pollan fans may shop for various certifications, even some farmers find the gradations frustrating.
"I hate the term 'organic,' " said Dave Jones, turkey farmer for 30 years and head of Jones Turkey Farm in Cabot.
"I think they meant well when whomever came up with the certification, but you can be certified organic and raise turkeys in the sewer."
Mr. Jones raises nearly 4,000 white-feathered birds a year in a humane fashion, even if it's not certified. Certification can take years to secure and is prohibitively expensive for a farmer who raises birds seasonally.
Starting in late February, the first flock arrives from Michigan, day-old poults that eat ground field corn and soybeans he grows on his farm. Although he orders hens, a couple of toms come through.
"Some people say they're greasier when they're cooked, but I think they taste the same," he said.
He, too, used to raise birds with dark feathers but said they didn't sell. "People didn't like the speckled skin."
He does not regulate birds' feed at various times of the year to slow or increase their growth, which means the birds he sells range from 18 to 36 pounds.
The larger Koch's Turkey Farms is not only certified-organic, but also it's one of the few certified-humane growers in the region. The certified-humane program requires farms to submit mandatory audits to ensure that each animal is raised in humane conditions -- that is providing shelter, resting areas, sufficient space, the ability to engage in natural behaviors, and a nutritious diet without antibiotics or hormones.
Albert's Organics is a national distributor that is certified-humane for the raising of their beef cattle but not their turkeys, which are sourced from Grateful Harvest based in Bridgeport, NJ.
Marty's Market in the Strip District is selling turkeys exclusively from Albert's, whether they're organic for $6 a pound or less expensive natural birds for $4.75 a pound. Birds can be pre-ordered between 12 and 20 pounds.
As for Uncle Dennis, he bought a 14-pound turkey through Wild Purveyors that will come in at around 14 pounds and cost between $60 and $70.
"It wasn't the cheapest bird, but she'll appreciate it," he said of his niece. "And thankfully, she's a really good cook."
NATURAL: These birds are raised without hormones or antibiotics.
ORGANIC: These birds are certified by the USDA. They have not been exposed to antibiotics, hormones or GMOs, and their feed has not been treated with pesticides.
FREE-RANGE: Turkeys can roam freely for food rather than just being confined in an enclosure.
PASTURED: Turkeys are raised on grass, with plenty of sunshine and opportunity to forage for food.
CERTIFIED-HUMANE: Certification requires farms to submit mandatory audits to ensure that each animal is raised in humane conditions and that the farm provides shelter, resting areas, sufficient space, the ability to engage in natural behaviors and a nutritious diet without antibiotics or hormones.
HERITAGE: These are a dozen or so breeds of domestic turkey with characteristics that are no longer present in the majority of turkeys raised for consumption since the mid-20th century.
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We didn’t test this recipe, but we trust it, because it came from the brand-new “The Best of America’s Test Kitchen” cookbook.
11- to 14-pound turkey, neck and giblets removed for another use
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons dried sage
1½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon paprika
1⁄2 cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 cups water
For the gravy
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
31⁄2 cups water, divided
3 cups chicken broth
1 bay leaf
1⁄2 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
Salt and pepper
For the turkey
Set wire rack inside rimmed baking sheet. Dry turkey thoroughly inside and out with paper towels. Tuck wings under turkey and transfer to prepared wire rack. Pull legs upward and slide 12-inch skewer under bone of fattest part of drumstick across to other drumstick so skewer connects both and legs cover small point of breast.
Combine thyme, rosemary, sage, salt, pepper, garlic powder and paprika in bowl. Rub 2 tablespoons spice mixture evenly over surface of turkey and let sit at room temperature for 1 hour. Add mayonnaise, oil and vinegar to remaining spice mixture and whisk to combine. Divide mayonnaise mixture in half.
Adjust oven rack to lowest position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Brush half of mayonnaise mixture evenly over surface of turkey. Place 18-by-18-inch sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil diagonally over breast, tucking point of foil inside cavity over top of legs. Transfer turkey to oven and pour water into bottom of baking sheet. Roast until thighs/drumsticks register 165 degrees, 21⁄2 to 3 hours. Remove turkey from oven and increase oven temperature to 450 degrees.
For the gravy
While turkey cooks, melt butter in large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, carrot and celery and cook until well browned, 7 to 9 minutes. Stir in flour and cook for 1 minute. Slowly whisk in 2 cups water, broth, bay leaf and thyme. Bring to simmer, reduce heat to low and cook, covered, stirring occasionally until mixture has thickened, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
Once oven has come to temperature, remove foil and brush remaining half mayonnaise mixture evenly over turkey. Return turkey to oven and roast until breasts register 160 degrees and thighs register 175 degrees, 25 to 35 minutes. Tip juices from turkey cavity into baking sheet and transfer turkey to carving board. Let rest, uncovered, for 30 minutes.
Remove wire rack from baking sheet. Pour remaining 11⁄2 cups water into baking sheet and scrape up any browned bits. Carefully pour pan juices into fat separator and let sit for 5 minutes. Pour defatted pan juices into gravy and bring to simmer over medium heat. Simmer until gravy is thickened and reduced to 3 cups, 15 to 20 minutes. Strain gravy through fine-mesh strainer into clean saucepan; discard solids. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Carve turkey and serve with gravy.
— The Best of America’s Test Kitchen 2014 (America’s Test Kitchen; Oct. 1, 2013; $35)
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.