More Tips For Finding a Good Turkey

The rancher explains where to look and what to look for in buying a Thanksgiving bird--and offers cooking advice.


Photo by The Bitten Word/Flickr CC

Where to look:

1. Stop being a supermarket zombie. To find a true heritage turkey that was raised on a real farm, you will need to get out of the supermarket.

2. Explore alternative stores. Independently owned grocery stores and co-ops tend to be more willing to work with traditional farmers, and their staffs are generally much more knowledgeable about the meats, eggs and dairy products they offer. They are probably the best place to look for traditionally raised, heritage breed turkeys. Good examples of such stores are: Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco; Marczyk Fine Foods in Denver; Gateway Market in Des Moines; and Poppies Gourmet Farmers Market in Brevard, North Carolina. Examples of some of the excellent co-ops I'm familiar with are the co-ops in Boise, Idaho; Bozeman, Montana; and "The Wedge," in Minneapolis.

3. Frequent your local farmer's markets. Locating a farmers market is easy: many states and localities have lists available, as does USDA . We are selling the bulk of our own turkeys this year at local farmers markets--but remember not to assume anything about how the foods were produced. Ask the farmers you're buying from how the animals were raised and what they were fed.

4. Look for CSAs. An excellent way to know exactly where your food comes from is to join a CSA (community supported agriculture). You buy shares of what a farm produces. Generally, each "shareholder" (member) gets a box of farm products each week, which members pick up at a certain spot. Many CSAs encourage their shareholders to visit the farms for themselves, so they can really know where their food is coming from and how it was raised. When they first started, most CSAs were just doing produce. But in recent years, I've spoken with people from all over the country that are doing CSAs that include turkeys and other animal-based foods. CSAs can be found by searching Eat Well Guide and Local Harvest .

5. Look online. Many smaller farms and ranches sell directly to consumers with a website. The other day, for example, I was speaking at a Sierra Club conference in Kentucky and met a local farmer who's raising Bourbon Red heritage turkeys. She told me she says most of her birds through her online store. An excellent online source of good turkeys is Heritage Foods USA . Be sure the Web site provides plenty of photos and information about how they raise their animals. If it's just showing photos of the food products, that's a bad sign.

6. Seek chefs committed to sustainable sourcing. It can be especially hard to trace the origins of your food when dining out. If you're planning to have Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner at a restaurant, look for chefs dedicated to sourcing from sustainable farms and ranches. Then they can do the work for you. Fortunately, the number of such restaurants is growing. Here are just a few of my favorites: Lumiere, near Boston; Blue Hill, Savoy, and Green Table in New York City; White Dog Café, in Philadelphia; Lantern, in Chapel Hill, NC, North Pond, in Chicago; Zingerman's Roadhouse, in Ann Arbor, MI; Highlands Bar and Grill, in Birmingham, AL; Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, CA; Frantoio, in Mill Valley, CA, and Oliveto, in Oakland, CA. An organization that promotes sustainable sourcing to chefs (and on whose board I sit), Chefs Collaborative, has a Web site listing of participating restaurants throughout the country that buy all or some of their ingredients from sustainable farms. Another good way to find such restaurants is through Eat Well Guide .



What to look for:

1. Domestic, please. I am generally skeptical about claims--like "organic"--on food imported from foreign countries. We always try to buy domestically, both because we want to feel confident about how food was produced and because we want to help build tdemand for domestic traditionally farmed foods.

2. Pasture-raised: the gold standard. All animals, not just grazing animals, benefit tremendously from being outdoors daily on natural vegetation such as grass and clover. They exercise, lie in the sun, breath fresh air, and generally live much happier, healthier, more natural lives. Turkeys love to fly, roost in trees, and perch on fences; they are omnivores, and spend their hours outdoors grazing on vegetation and foraging for bugs and seeds. Although (in contrast to cattle) they cannot live on grass alone, they gain valuable minerals and fiber from their grazing. Winter weather makes year-round access to pasture difficult in some parts of the United States, but turkeys can and should have access to grass for most days of the year. If you're buying directly from a farmer or rancher, ask if the animals were on pasture. If you're buying from a store, read the labels or ask. If it doesn't say the animals had pasture access, assume they did not.

3. Animal Welfare Approved, if you can get it. There's a growing cacophony of third-party-verified labels making all sorts of claims. A lot of them don't really mean much. By far the best for turkeys--and all animal-based foods--is the Animal Welfare Approved label, backed by the non-profit Animal Welfare Institute. Its stringent standards can be read online . The AWA label assures that the turkeys are of sound body, were not mutilated, were raised with access to pasture, and not fed antibiotics.

Regrettably, the program has only approved a handful of turkey farms to date, so AWA-approved turkeys are in short supply. However, the program is likely to be much more widely available in the future. You can look for an AWA-approved turkey near you by searching the AWA listing of farms and stores.

4. Organic is very good. The label isn't as good. USDA regulates the use of the term "organic" on food labels. If you see the official "Certified Organic" label on a food, that means the USDA is maintaining a certain degree of oversight and that the food item was (or at least should have been) produced in accordance with USDA's standards. In many ways, especially with respect to animal feeding, the standards are stringent. Turkeys labeled organic must be fed only organic feed, which has at least 80 percent organic ingredients and does not contain slaughterhouse wastes, antibiotics, or genetically modified grains. These are important distinctions from typical factory farm turkeys.

The organic standards also provide some assurance about how turkeys are housed and handled. They require that organic livestock and poultry be provided "living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals," and specifically mandate that animals have some access to the outdoors, to exercise, and to bedding. These too are crucial differences from factory farms.

The problem is that the standards have not clearly mandated access to pasture. Thus, a turkey labeled organic might not have been provided any pasture access. For this reason, I prefer to know precisely where and how the animals lived that produced my food and do not like to rely on the organic label.

5. Free range is okay--but the label is seriously flawed. The term "free range" is most commonly used for poultry. Strangely, it can mean different things depending on whether it's applied to poultry raised for meat versus egg-laying poultry. When "free range" is used on poultry meat, USDA requires that the birds have some access to the outdoors. However, there are no standards for what type of outdoor area it must be, and therefore might be a small cement patio. Note that even more problematic is "free range" when it's used for eggs. USDA has failed to create any definition of "free range" for egg-laying hens. Arguably, then, companies can label their eggs "free range" without providing any outdoor access at all--and I suspect that's what some of them are doing.

6. "Antibiotic-free" doesn't mean much. Some turkeys are labeled "antibiotic free." This is slightly better than your average factory farm product, because the animals were not continually fed antibiotics. But there are several serious problems with this label. Most important, "antibiotic free" meat can be, and usually is, from a factory farm. Also, many companies are calling meat antibiotic free even though they used other anti-microbial drugs to raise the animals. In other words, it's largely a matter of semantics.

Cooking it:

Ok, so you've made the leap and paid the extra money to get yourself a real honest to goodness traditional turkey. Now what? People often worry that their preparation may ruin their heritage turkey. And they are right to be concerned. Heritage turkeys are different to prepare, but they are not more difficult. Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill (and Blue Hill at Stone Barns) has gotten plenty of experience cooking heritage turkeys in recent years. We simply follow his instructions, found here , and our turkeys come out beautifully every time.