It takes a lot more than a new pair of Air Jordans to slam-dunk a basketball from the foul line. Likewise, with the Thanksgiving turkey, no matter how special the bird, you still better know how to roast it. Too much brining, cooking, tenting, and seasoning can spoil even the best breed.
That said, you might as well start out with a good bird. Most turkeys that are for sale - whether you're buying them at your local farm stand or favorite supermarket - are broad-breasted whites, bred to grow quickly and develop plenty of white meat. Some are raised outdoors with lots of space to peck in the grass and act like turkeys are supposed to. Others are raised inside with varying degrees of confinement. You'll also find heritage breeds or wild turkeys.
In the market, the broad-breasted white bird comes frozen or fresh, injected with salty broth, organic, natural, kosher, stuffed, outfitted with a pop-up thermometer, and even already roasted. Different birds vary in price. The broad-breasted variety costs between $2 and $5 per pound. Heritage breeds go for $10 per pound; wild turkeys cost between $8 and $10. You're choosing them according to the amount you want to spend, and how they taste when roasted. In general, commercially raised broad-breasted birds are the blandest tasting of the lot, the heritage and wild breeds, some say, have dark meat that tastes pleasantly gamy.
But the more care the grower takes, the better tasting the meat. James Lionette of Lionette's Market in the South End sells free range, broad-breasted white turkeys from farms in Vermont. "They are glorious birds," says Lionette. "The dark meat is really robust, something that is always lacking in caged, mass-produced birds."
Heritage breed turkeys are the ancestors of the broad-breasted whites. Breeds like Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, and Black Spanish were developed over hundreds of years to taste good and to be hardy and self-reliant. Many of these breeds are now endangered and few are raised on a large scale. Heritage breeds are known for their deep flavor and generally have more dark meat than the conventional birds. John Dewar & Co. sells Bourbon Red turkeys, a handsome heritage breed raised in Kentucky.
Lionette says that heritage turkeys are great, but expensive and difficult to find if you're looking for a local bird. "The conventional birds grow quickly and are cheaper to raise," he says. "Most small farmers can't justify the cost of heritage breeds, and to me local food is the most important thing."
Wild turkeys, fast, long legged, lean, and native to the Northeast, have been around since Colonial times. Today, most of us feast on their ample-breasted descendants, but wild birds are still available.
You can order a farm-raised wild turkey for the Thanksgiving table, but for the real thing, you need to go out in the woods yourself. This time of year turkeys in the wild are gobbling around in their nervous rafters, hurrying across the road, pecking in the grass and in the woods. Because the birds run and fly, the meat is darker and leaner, and a lot less luxurious than juicy domesticated birds. Barding (covering the breast) with bacon or cooking pot-roast-style helps if you want to bring a moist bird to the table.
Juliana Lyman, general manager at Savenor's Market, says farm-raised wild turkeys are "gamy in a good way, really rich and meaty. There's so much flavor, and it's almost all dark meat. It can stand up to any side dish and even the meatiest sausage stuffing."
No matter what you buy - even a designer, free-ranging, heritage bird - you still need to hold up your end in the kitchen. I'm sure Michael Jordan can throw it down even in flip-flops.
John Dewar & Co., Inc. 753 Beacon St., Newton 617-964-3577, and 277 Linden St., Wellesley 781-235-8322.
Lionette's Market 577 Tremont St., 617-778-0360.
Savenor's 160 Charles St., 617-723-6328, and 92 Kirkland St., Cambridge 617-576-6328.