Healthy Choice, Tasty Bird
For many families, turkey is king of the holiday meal. But for those dealing with food allergies or other dietary challenges, finding the best bird can be a royal pain. Concerns about additives--or simply a desire for the tastiest, healthiest, highest-quality meat--rule out a quick selection at the supermarket. More consumers than ever are ordering organic or free-range turkeys, and cooks on a quest for top-tier taste are turning to local farms whose practices are in line with their own ideals.
Such is the clientele of Polyface Farms, Inc., in Swoope, Virginia, where several generations of the Salatin family have raised turkeys, chickens, pigs and cattle using old-fashioned, sustainable farming methods. Joel Salatin, the current patriarch and a prolific author on natural farming and the virtues of a local food supply, says pasture-raised turkeys (and other animals) are increasingly sought after for a variety of reasons—including the health of both people and the planet—but that taste trumps everything.
“The demand for this kind of food is far outpacing the supply,” Salatin says. “The number one thing people are actually looking for is taste.”
Salatin keeps his turkeys — the same large-breasted white birds preferred by industrial turkey operations — outdoors and on the go instead of confined in close quarters.
“These turkeys are on pasture, so they’re ingesting copious amounts of chlorophyll, the number one detoxifier out there in nature,” he says. “We try to get the birds to eat as much green material as possible, which means moving them frequently—even daily—by using totally portable shelters and fencing.”
When vegetation is lush and fresh, the turkeys will eat more of it before resorting to the other feed they regularly receive, he says. Pasture-raised birds don’t need vaccinations or antibiotics to protect them from the pathogen buildup that’s inherent among factory-farmed birds either, he adds. The end result is a turkey that’s completely different in both taste and texture.
“It has a more vibrant, richer taste,” Salatin says.
Polyface Farms doesn’t ship its products. Instead, Salatin encourages consumers to seek out local farms and establish a buying relationship.
Marjorie Bender, a research and technical program director at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) in Pittsboro, North Carolina, agrees.
“People are becoming more in tune with having locally available food, and they like supporting farmers that they know,” she says. “They want to be able to put a face with their food.” Add to that consumer concerns about industrial meat-production practices and you have a buying population that’s “looking for something that makes them feel safe,” she says.
Bender and others at the ALBC are involved in the work of saving livestock breeds, including turkey, that have faced extinction in recent years. So-called “heritage” turkeys—breeds with names like Bourbon Red, Narragansett and Standard Bronze—were in serious danger of disappearing just a decade ago. Now thanks to the efforts of the ALBC, as well as interest from turkey farmers and consumers in both raising and buying the birds, they’ve made a comeback. Bender reports that since 2002, the market for heritage turkeys has almost doubled each year. She points to taste and texture as appealing factors.
“Heritage turkeys are outside in the sunshine, foraging for grasshoppers and crickets and eating the grass and weeds,” she says. “Indications from other studies have been that the flesh from these animals is higher in some of the good fats, like Omega-3, and in vitamins.”
Both Salatin and Bender say that pasture-raised and heritage turkeys require different cooking considerations than industrial turkeys. Salatin says Polyface Farms turkeys typically cook in 30 percent less time. The same goes for heritage turkeys, says Bender, who adds that a lower oven temperature (about 325 degrees) is optimal.
Turkey isn’t the only entrée carving out a place on holiday platters. Consumers are also seeking pasture-raised, exclusively grass-fed cattle that are free of hormones and antibiotics. Heritage breeds are hot commodities when it comes to beef, too.
“Some breeds are more easily obtained than others,” Bender says, adding that names to look for include Dexter, Highland, Red Poll, Piney Woods, Devon, Belted Galloway and Galloway.
For more information about heritage turkeys and other meats, visit albc-usa.org. Other websites, including eatwild.com and localharvest.org, list farmers by region to help consumers connect with local food sources.
Instructions and recipes for cooking pasture-raised and heritage turkeys and other animals can be found at heritagefoodsusa.com.