For most families, Thanksgiving dinner would be unthinkable without this large native-American bird on the table. Long before the arrival of European settlers, wild turkeys populated the United States, Mexico and Central America and the Aztecs were busily domesticating them. The conquistadores took some of these domesticated birds back to Spain, and before long Europeans were breeding them into a much plumper version. Interestingly enough, European settlers brought some of these domesticated birds back to the New World in the 1600s and eventually began crossing them with America’s wild turkeys.
Most U.S. turkeys raised today are from the White Holland variety, which has been bred to produce a maximum of white meat (a U.S. favorite). In fact, the breasts of today’s turkeys are so massive that they must rely on artificial insemination because they can’t get close enough to mate. Although male (tom) turkeys can reach 70 pounds, those over 20 pounds are becoming less and less available. The female (hen) turkey usually weighs from 8 to 16 pounds.
Gaining in popularity is a smaller version of both sexes (sometimes called a fryer-roaster), which weighs in at between 5 and 8 pounds. The trend toward these compact turkeys is the result of both smaller families and the desire of turkey producers to make turkey every day rather than exclusively holiday fare.
Heritage turkeys — the bird Benjamin Franklin favored over the eagle for America’s national bird — were nearly extinct by the 1990s. Their popularity is now on the rise; by 2004, about 20,000 were being raised, and that number is climbing. There’s no clear definition of exactly what constitutes a heritage turkey, although the term generally refers to varieties officially recognized by the American Poultry Association beginning in the 1870s. Eight varieties of heritage turkey are currently of particular interest: Beltsville Small White, Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, Narragansett, Royal Palm, Slate, Standard Bronze and White Holland. What heritage turkeys have in common is that they are usually free-range and have smaller breasts and larger thighs and legs, which provides a better balance between light meat and dark meat.
Heritage turkeys are immensely more flavorful and the color of the meat (both dark and white) is darker than that of a standard turkey. The texture is firmer but not tough and certainly not mushy like some standard turkeys. Heritage breeds can be found in specialty meat markets and some supermarkets.
Turkeys are available fresh and frozen year-round. They’re sold both whole and as parts — such as breasts or drumsticks. Some whole turkeys have had a built-in plastic thermometer implanted that pops up when the turkey is done.
Self-basting turkeys have been injected with butter or vegetable oil. Smoked turkey — whole or breast — is also available, as is canned boned turkey. Turkey is very similar to chicken in many regards, including USDA grading.
Note: From The Food Lover’s Companion, Fourth edition by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. Copyright © 2007, 2001, 1995, 1990 by Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.