Talking Turkey: How to Choose Your Thanksgiving Bird

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Belcampo turkeys on the farm in Shasta Valley. Photo: courtesy of Belcampo

Belcampo turkeys on the farm in Shasta Valley.
Photo: courtesy of Belcampo

Here we are, sweating through Hotober (our toasty autumn bookend to summer’s cold and windy Fogust) and it’s hard to conceive of trick-or-treating, much less making mashed potatoes and gravy. Pumpkin ice cream may be as close as you can get to even thinking about Thanksgiving. But turkey farmers around the Bay are already counting down the weeks to their holiday harvest. Yes, the birds are getting fat, and now’s the time to figure out what kind of turkey you want on your table come November 28.

Options abound, as do prices. So, how can you get the best of your bird?

    Here a few questions to help you deconstruct your turkey-buying possibilities:

  • What is your budget?
  • Are you looking for a fresh or frozen turkey?
  • How many people will you be feeding (and how many leftover-turkey sandwiches do you want to make)?
  • What’s important to you and your family: Organics? Avoiding GMOs? Humane practices? Helping preserve heritage breeds?
  • Do you, your family, or your guests have a strong preference for white over dark meat, or vice versa? How adventurous a cook (and eaters) are you working with?

Turkey Prices

Prices for turkeys really vary, depending on where you’re shopping, and more importantly, how the turkey was raised. Supermarkets often price their mass-produced frozen turkeys very cheaply, even giving them away if you spend a certain amount on other items. By contrast, a locally and humanely raised bird that’s been freely wandering the green pastures of Marin or Sonoma for five or six months and eating organic, certified non-GMO feed can cost between $75 and $150, possibly more, depending on size. However, there are a variety of options between free and top-of-the-line, so it’s worth calling around to quality butcher shops in your area to see what they’re offering.

Fresh vs Frozen

Refrigerator real estate is one prime reason for buying a fresh, rather than frozen, bird. The safest, most reliably way to thaw out a frozen bird is in the refrigerator. Count on a thaw rate of four pounds a day, which getting a frozen bird oven-ready can can take anywhere from two to four or even five days. In other words, you’ll need several days’ worth of turkey-sized thawing space available in your fridge if you buy a frozen bird. A fresh bird is just that, probably dispatched less than a week before being purchased.

Local Brands and Butchers

Both Diestel Turkey and Willie Bird focus exclusively on turkey raising–Diestel in Sonora, in the Sierra Foothills near Yosemite, and Willie Bird in Santa Rosa, in Sonoma county. Both are longtime family-run operations, and their birds are available at many butcher shops and speciality markets around the Bay Area. Willie Bird sells both free-range and free-range organic birds, while Diestel offers several different types: classic “original” birds, organic birds, pasture-raised birds, and its heirloom collection of old-fashioned breeds, a mix of Bronze, Auburn, and Black. All of Diestel’s birds except for the “original” birds are raised on certified non-GMO feed.

Belcampo Meat Company, in the Marin Country Mart in Larkspur, Avedano’s in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights, and The Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley will have fresh free-range turkeys raised by Bill Niman of BN Ranch. On offer will be both heritage breeds (a mix of Bronze, Narragansett, Bourbon Red, White Holland, and Spanish Black) and Broad-Breasted Whites.

Says Christian Shiflett of Avedano’s,

“We think [Bill’s] birds have the best flavor around. They also maintain a great texture which is at least partly the result of the air chilling process that the birds go through after slaughter. The heritage birds tend to cook a bit faster due to their leaner body, but you can roast/smoke/bbq/fry either kind.”

This holiday season, BN Ranch will also be selling their birds direct to consumers through their website. BN Ranch will have both heritage and Broad-Breasted White turkeys available for shipping either fresh or frozen.

The Fatted Calf (in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley and the Oxbow Market in Napa) will be taking orders for heritage turkeys raised by Good Shepherd Ranch in Lindeborg, Kansas. According to a recent Fatted Calf newsletter, farmer Fred Reese “began raising birds in the 1950′s, maintained and improved his flock over the years and now has the oldest continuous strain of standard bred turkeys in North America. Some of Frank’s heritage turkeys come from bloodlines dating back to the mid 1800’s.”

Slow Food Russian River will be partnering with Sonoma County 4-H for this year’s Heritage Turkey Project. The 180 turkeys, raised by young 4-H farmers in Sonoma, are a mix of Bronze, Narragansett, Midget Whites and Holland Whites.

Marin Sun Farms, based in Inverness, will be selling turkeys raised on its farms in West Marin. They’ll be offering both Broad Breasted Bronze and heritage turkeys, which are a mix of several breeds.

According to Jeff Bordes of Marin Sun,

“Both the Broad Breasted Bronze and heritage turkeys are raised completely out on pasture, in a way that closely resembles the natural behavior of wild turkeys; they even roost up in the trees! They enjoy a diet of grasses, pasture plants, and insects.”

All Marin Sun Farms turkeys are sold frozen.

What size should you ask for?

  • 6-8 people, 10-12 lbs
  • 8-10 people, 12-16 lbs
  • 10-12 people, 14-16 lbs
  • 12-14 people, 16-18 lbs
  • 14-16 people, 20-22 lbs

The bigger the bird, the higher the meat-to-bone ratio. You’ll want at least 12 ounces of meat per person, which will be come out to about 2 pounds of raw, bone-in bird for a small turkey, and about 1 1/2 pounds raw bone-in bird for a larger one. It also helps to be flexible.

As Joshua and Jessica Applestone note in their book The Butchers’ Guide to Well-Raised Meat,

“You cannot tell by looking at a young bird how big it will be, and you cannot stop it from growing until you slaughter it…to sell fresh birds means slaughtering mere days before Thanksgiving, five at most, between a typical Saturday slaughter and a Wednesday pickup.”

If you order a 12 pound bird, you might not have the means (or oven size) to take a 30 pound bird instead, but expect a window of say, 2 to 4 pounds between what you order and what you get. Being a lover of cold turkey sandwiches, I never mind extras, and you can always send home care packages with your guests. But if the specter of weeks of turkey tetrazzini wakes you in a cold sweat, order smaller.

Marin Sun Farms Broad Breasted Bronze and heritage turkeys are pasture-raised. Photo: courtesy Marin Sun Farms

Marin Sun Farms Broad Breasted Bronze and heritage turkeys are pasture-raised. Photo: courtesy Marin Sun Farms

Free Range vs Pasture-Raised

As with chickens, and eggs, “free range” and “pasture-raised” mean two different things. Free-range birds are not confined in individual cages, and they have access to the outdoors. Pasture-raised birds, by contrast, spend most of their days outside, usually rotating to a new field every few days. At night, they typically roost in mobile poultry pens to keep them safe from predators. Pasture-raised turkeys also have a more natural diet, since they’re able to supplement their grain-based feed with plants and high-protein bugs and bug larvae found in the fields. Organic turkeys are raised free-range, are kept free of antibiotics, and are raised on organically grown feed.

What about Breeds?

The typical supermarket bird, the Broad-Breasted White, is just that: a bird that’s been bred as the Carol Doda of turkeys. These birds offer what supermarkets think Americans like: lots and lots of very mild white breast meat. Since the 1960s, these have been the dominant–and in many places, the only–turkey breed in the U.S. Heritage breeds, by contrast, are breeds that were popular during the nineteenth century up through the 1930s. These breeds are now experiencing a renaissance, much like heirloom vegetables. They are closer in style to wild turkeys, offering more dark meat, a little more chew and typically, more flavor as well. Heritage breeds grow slowly, part of the reason for their high price. A typical heritage bird needs up to 28 weeks of care and feeding to reach its finished weight.

All well and good, but if you have a houseful of white-meat-only eaters, splurging on a heritage bird may leave a lot of dark meat on the platter. Instead, think about looking for a bird like Marin Sun Farm’s Broad-Breasted Bronze, a cross between the newfangled Broad-Breasted White and the old-fashioned Bronze, or a free-range, local Broad-Breasted White like those raised by BN Ranch.

Order Ahead

Once you’ve decided on the type of bird you’d like, order ahead. Procrastination is no friend to the turkey buyer. Most independent butcher shops contract with local ranchers for a certain number of birds. Remember, it can take up to 28 weeks to raise a turkey to roasting size. if you’ve got your heart set on getting a bird of a particular breed or provenance, placing your order several weeks ahead will spare both you, and your butcher shop, from boiling over with last-minute turkey-sourcing stress. Also, remember that four-pounds-a-day thawing rule; you can’t buy a rock-hard frozen turkey on November 27 and expect it to be ready to roast the next morning.

  • Avedano’s will start taking turkey orders during the first week of November, either over the phone or in person at the shop.
  • Pre-ordering at The Local Butcher Shop is a must, as they only order a few extra. They’ll be taking orders now through November 22, either in person or by phone.
  • Reserve your Heritage Turkey Project turkey (with a $40 deposit) from Slow Food Russian River by mail. Print out the order form from the Slow Food Russian River blog.
  • Marin Sun Farm’s frozen turkeys are available for pre-order on their website and at their butcher shops in Oakland and Point Reyes Station for pick-up during the week before Thanksgiving. For those with the freezer space, they’ll also be available on a first-come, first-serve basis in their retail butcher cases.
  • Belcampo will take turkey orders by phone or in person from November 1 through November 27, depending on availability.
  • Fatted Calf will take turkey orders by phone or in person at either store. A $25 deposit is required.
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About the Author ()

Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen is a longtime local food writer, author, and cook. Her books include The Art of Vintage Cocktails (Egg & Dart Press), World of Doughnuts (Egg & Dart Press); Kids in the Kitchen: Fun Food (Williams Sonoma); Honey from Flower to Table (Chronicle Books) and The Astrology Cookbook: A Cosmic Guide to Feasts of Love (Manic D Press). She has studied organic farming at UCSC and holds a certificate in Ecological Horticulture from the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. She does frequent cooking demonstrations at local farmers’ markets and has taught food writing at Media Alliance in San Francisco and the Continuing Education program at Stanford University. She has been the lead restaurant critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian as well as for San Francisco magazine. She has been an assistant chef at the Headlands Center for the Arts, an artists' residency program located in the Marin Headlands, and a production cook at the Marin Sun Farms Cafe in Pt Reyes Station. After some 20 years in San Francisco interspersed with stints in Oakland, Santa Cruz, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, she recently moved to Sonoma county but still writes in San Francisco several days a week.
  • Tanglenet

    My understanding is that you are confusing Heritage and Heirloom Turkeys. Diestel only sells Heirloom. For more information, please check out the Heritage Turkey Foundation. Mary’s does sell Heritage. Not sure about Niman.

  • patti livernash

    my Aunty Ella recently got a twelve month old Honda just by working from a macbook… you could look here w­w­w.J­A­M­20.c­o­m

  • Stephanie Rosenbaum

    The terms “heritage” and “heirloom” are often used to mean the same thing, but generally, “heritage” is taken as a more specific term, referring to birds that are bred naturally (rather than by artificial insemination) and are one of a handful of specific, mostly pre-20th century breeds. When I asked Heidi Diestel of Diestel Turkey about their heirloom turkeys, she responded, “Since our turkeys are a collection of older breeds [including Auburn, Black, and American Bronze], we define them as our organic collection of heirloom turkeys rather than using the term ‘Heritage’.”