In the EatingWell Test Kitchen, we roasted more than 20 turkeys, including all-natural and conventional birds, while preparing our Thanksgiving story and found that conventional birds (with added salt solution) do stay moister, but if you’re watching your sodium intake, avoid them.
Some facts to consider about different types of birds:
Conventional birds are often “pre-basted” or “self-basting,” meaning that the turkey is injected with a solution that can contain broth, stock, water, seasonings, salt and/or other flavor. This can account for up to 3 percent of the net weight of the bird. The label must include all of the ingredients in the solution.
The Broad-Breasted White—the breed of most conventional turkeys—was bred to grow quickly, producing a lot of meat fast, particularly in the breast area. Artificial insemination is necessary for reproduction. Hens are slaughtered between 14 and 16 weeks of age, and weigh in at 14 to 17 pounds, while toms go to slaughter at 16 to 20 weeks of age, when they weigh a whopping 26 to 40 pounds.
Heritage breeds, such as Royal Palm, Bourbon Red and Slate, are older registered breeds of turkey. At Heritage Foods USA, to qualify as “heritage,” turkeys must be able to breed naturally, grow slowly and cannot be slaughtered until they are at least 160 days old. (After 10 weeks, they must also have access to the outdoors from 8 a.m. until dusk.)
A varied diet of plants, grasses and insects gives heritage breeds a more nuanced flavor than conventional turkeys. If rich and gamy is what you crave, order a wild turkey from D’Artagnan (dartagnan.com). They have Eastern Wild Turkeys in the 9-pound range available from September through March.
Certified organic poultry standards prohibit all use of antibiotics and hormones. (Hormone use in poultry production—even conventional—has been banned since 1959.) All feed is vegetarian and certified organic—including pastureland—which means that it is not treated with pesticides or herbicides and cannot be genetically modified. Animals have access to pastureland, sunlight and enough land for exercise, and grazing is done in a manner that does not degrade the land through erosion or contamination. Animal cloning is forbidden. Localharvest.org lists local farms and online sources for organic turkeys.
Since USDA-certified organic labeling requires that animals be traced from birth to slaughter (including feed sources and medications), problems related to animal diseases and human foodborne illness can be easily traced to the source. Keep in mind: Organic doesn’t necessarily mean grass-fed; however, certified organic livestock generally graze on open-range land three to six months longer than conventionally raised livestock to reach market size.