Time was when the big decision about Thanksgiving turkey was white meat or dark meat. Or who’d get the wishbone. Or what the heck the term “the Pope’s nose” meant.

Today, the big decision is what kind of turkey? Considering the need to weigh social consciousness, farm-to-fork sensibilities, health concerns and the quest for flavor or the necessity of staying on budget, we can all be thankful there’s a cornucopia of choices.

 Talking turkey

According to the American Turkey Federation, 88% of Americans will eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Here’s a roundup of options.

Conventional/commercial. This category includes familiar supermarket brands, such as Butterball and Honeysuckle White. Typically, they’re self-basting thanks to injections of ingredients such as butter, broth, oils, water and more. They’re practically foolproof and are the least-expensive option.

The naturals. Generally, “natural” means minimal processing and no artificial colors, ingredients or preservatives. Some “naturally raised” turkeys may have been fed a vegetarian diet. But always look to the label for specifics. Amish turkeys are a good bet for “natural,” as they typically are “antibiotic-free,” “non-GMO” and raised on Amish farms that use sustainable/humane practices. Old-school, more natural processing methods such as New York-dressing, in which a bird is cleaned without water and is hung to age like steak, are another option that offers bigger flavor and a health halo.

Organic. Antibiotic- and growth-hormone-free, these turkeys are also fed organic feed that contains non-GMO grains that are free of pesticides, herbicides and animal byproducts. Some may have been fed a controlled, vegetarian diet. When free-range or pastured, they will have grazed in organically certified environments. Organic turkeys are highly flavorful and pricey.

Halal / Kosher. These turkeys are fed, raised, slaughtered and processed according to stringent religious dietary laws. They are pricier than conventional turkeys. Find them at halal or kosher butchers and some local retailers.

Rare birds

Heritage Turkeys. These are likely not your mama’s Thanksgiving turkey. But a heritage bird might well have graced a platter back in your great grandmother’s day. Heritage breeds — Spanish Black, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, etc. — trace their roots to the earliest turkeys in North America and were more common before mass industrialization came to dominate poultry production.

Heritage turkeys have a firmer texture and a higher ratio of dark-to-white meat, making for a robust flavor. The eating experience is totally unlike that of a conventional turkey, so adjust your expectations.

John Harnois of Harnois Farms in Whitmore Lake, Michigan, reports getting only one complaint about his Black Spanish heritage turkeys. “They said it was too gamey and too moist. I was upset for 24 hours, then I had dinner with a bunch of foodies, and, when I told the story and got to the part about ‘gamey’ and ‘moist,’ they said, ‘Oh, flavor! Oh, succulent.’”

Adjust your thinking about preparing these birds, as well. To keep them from being too dry, Harnois suggests cooking them for about one-third less time than a conventional bird. Or cut the bird into parts to be cooked separately.

“I generally use heritage turkeys for a braise or slow cooking that will break down some of the toughness of the meat and can mix dark and light meat seamlessly,” says Abra Berens, chef at Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan, and author of "Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables."

Heritage-turkey supply — especially from smaller producers — is often limited, so preorder if you can. Expect to pay more for these birds, which can go for $13 or more per pound.

Free Birds: Pastured and Free-Range Turkeys

“Free-range,” ‘free-roaming” and “pastured” birds must have had access to the outside in various degrees and for various amounts of time under various conditions, according to the USDA and Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC). In most cases, this means that birds will forage for food (seeds, grasses, bugs and whatever they find in the field) in addition to any animal feed they’re fed. Expect these turkeys to also be hormone-, antibiotic-free and non-GMO but, again, read labels and check with producers.

The flavor will be earthier and the texture firmer, but, when birds such as Broad-Breasted Whites and Broad-Breasted Bronzes are used, there is more white meat, and the flavor is milder than with a heritage bird.

Pastured turkeys are the bird of choice for Berens at Granor Farm. She procures them from Gunthorp Farm, which, she says, “raises industry turkeys, but outside and on pasture. The meat is similar to what people are expecting but more flavorful than a grocery-store turkey.”

Where to Buy

The following are some of the sources for the types of turkeys mentioned in this story.

·       Argus Farm Stop (Ann Arbor) —

·     Biehl's Circle B Turkey Farm (Mancelona) —  (231) 587-9580

·       Gunthorp Farm (Indiana) — (

·       Harnois Farms  — (call or text 734.645.0300 or email to reserve a turkey; also sold at the Saturday Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market and Argus Farm Stop)

        Joyce Farms (North Carolina) — (

·       Mary’s Turkeys (844-444-MARY) — Plum Market (multiple locations)

·       Peacock Farms (248-879-0020, Troy store) — and local retailers)

        Plum Market — (multiple locations)

·       Super Greenland (Dearborn)

·       Trader Joe’s — (multiple locations)

·       Whole Foods — (multiple locations)

·       Zingerman’s Mail Order — ( 

Turkey and Dumplings

For the soup

1 turkey carcass

2 onions

5 cloves garlic

10 thyme sprigs



2 cups white wine

1 bunch carrots

1 batch of Dumpling Dough

1 bunch parsley, rough-chopped

For the dumplings

3/4 cup water

 3 ounces butter

 1 1/2 teaspoons salt

 1 cup all-purpose flour

 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

1/2 cup Swiss or Parmesan Cheese

 3 large eggs 

To make turkey soup: Pick all the meat from the leftover turkey and roughly chop. In a large stockpot, cover the turkey bones with water and bring to a boil. 

When boiling, turn down and simmer until the broth is golden and tastes of turkey. Meanwhile, slice the onions thinly and mince the garlic. Tie the thyme with butcher’s twine. 

Heat a glug of oil until shimmery, then fry the thyme in the oil. Turn heat to low and add the onions, garlic, salt and pepper. Sweat until translucent. Add the white wine and cook until fully reduced.

 Cut the carrots into large chunks and add, along with 2 cups of the stock and simmer until tender.

 Strain the rest of the turkey stock.

Add the picked turkey meat and strained stock. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Poach the dumplings in the turkey stock according to the dumpling recipe.

Serve with a big pinch of the chopped parsley

How to make dumplings: Combine water, butter and salt and simmer. Stir in flour with a wooden spoon until dough covers the bottom.

Stir for 5 minutes until it steams and you smell cooked flour.

Transfer dough to a mixer and add mustard, parsley and cheese and mix. Mix on low adding eggs one by one until proper texture — dough should slide off a spoon

Fill a pastry bag (or zippered plastic bag) and let dough rest for 30 minutes.

Fill a medium-sized pot with salted water and bring to a simmer.

Cut the tip from the bag and, with a paring knife, cut the dough as you squeeze it out though the hole.

The dumplings will sink to the bottom of the pot and then float to the top.

When the dumplings begin to turn themselves over, they’re done. Scoop them from the poaching water with a slotted spoon and allow to cool on a cookie sheet.

Perfect Heritage Black Turkey

Recipe courtesy of Joyce Farms.

For the brine 

1 gallon light cooking stock (vegetable or chicken)

1 cup kosher salt

1/2 cup light brown sugar

1 ounce fresh ginger

1 head fresh garlic

2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns

3 bay leaves

1/2 bunch parsley stems (Reserve leaves for the Herb Butter)

10 pounds ice cubes

For the herb butter

6 oz (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter

 1/4  cup parsley leaves

 1/4  cup fresh sage leaves

2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

1 garlic clove, peeled

Zest from 1 lemon (reserve zested lemon)

 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

 1/2 cup dry white wine

For the turkey 

1 16 lb. Joyce Farms Heritage Black Turkey

1 medium white or yellow onion

1 orange

Reserved, zested lemon

2 large sprigs fresh thyme

To make the brine: Heat the cooking stock in a large stockpot, but do not boil. Add the salt and sugar, stirring to dissolve. Roughly chop the ginger and add to the pot. Slice open the head of garlic and add. Add the peppercorns, bay leaves, and parsley stems. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Add the ice cubes to the brine liquid, stirring to fully chill the brine. Once the brine is cold remove the fresh (or defrosted) turkey from its packaging. Remove the neck and liver from the cavity, reserving for later use. Submerge the turkey, breast-side down in the brine, and allow to soak for 24 hours, turning once. Note: For less mess, use an oven-bag or a brining-bag to brine the turkey. with less mess. If your refrigerator is not large enough to hold the brining turkey, you can put the turkey in its brining bag into a cooler, as long as you pack with plenty of ice to keep the temperature of the turkey under 38 degrees F while brining, for food safety.

To make the herb butter: First soften the unsalted butter to room temperature. Add the parsley, sage and thyme leaves, with the peeled garlic clove to a food processor. Process to a paste. Add the zest of the lemon (set the zested lemon aside) and season with salt and pepper. Add the softened butter and process until the butter is whipped and the mixture is fully blended. With the food processor running, slowly add the white wine.

To make the turkey: Remove the turkey from the brine and pat dry with paper towels. Gently slide your fingers between the meat and the skin over the breast meat. Approach from the neck as well as the body cavity to create a pocket. Insert as much of the Herb Butter as possible over each breast lobe. Use your fingers to spread the Herb Butter evenly over the breast meat.

Peel and cut the onion in half. Cut the orange and the zested lemon in half. Insert the cut fruit and the onion into the body cavity of the turkey. Insert the remaining sprigs of thyme into the body cavity.

Truss, or tie with string, the legs of the turkey to ensure even cooking. Fold the wings under the bird. Place the bird on a roasting rack on a rimmed roasting pan (if you are making a gravy add the neck and liver to the pan to flavor the pan juices), and insert into a pre-heated 325 degree F oven. Allow to cook for 2 hours, then check the internal temperature by inserting a calibrated probe thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh. Continue to cook until the internal temperature has reached 165 degrees F. If the skin over the breast begins to get too dark, simply loosely cover with aluminum foil while the dark meat continues to cook.

Allow to rest for at least 20 minutes before carving.

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