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Cooking a Heritage Turkey - How to Roast a Moist Turkey for Thanksgiving or Christmas

By Edited Jun 5, 2015 2 8

Heritage Turkey Cooking

You are not alone if you want to eat a free range heritage turkey but are unsure of how to do it.   If you are reading this, either you are thinking about cooking a heritage turkey for the next holiday season or are panicking because you have company coming and an enormous turkey thawing in your kitchen!  In either case, read on, you’ll see heritage turkey cooking is not that difficult and is similar to cooking commercial factory farmed turkey.

What People Want in a Turkey Roast

The main things people want when eating and cooking any Thanksgiving

How to Roast a Moist heritage Turkey
or Christmas turkey are the following
  1. Meat with lots of great flavour that is not bland and flavourless
  2. Moist juicy succulent meat that is not dry
  3. Tender meat that is not chewy or tough

Other bonuses of an excellent roast turkey are really great gravy, crispy skin, delicious stuffing and a great carcass for making stock.

By choosing a heritage Turkey for Thanksgiving or Christmas, you already have taken care of great flavour.  It is not strong or odd-tasting, you will find it absolutely delicious.  Adding home-grown and herbs, garlic and spices are great for enhancing the flavour.  The more organic, home-raised vegetables you include in the meal, the better the flavours. 

Juicy, succulent and tender meat can be achieved by keeping the moisture in the bird.  It isn’t as difficult as it sounds.  Heritage Turkeys often have a decent layout of fat, especially if harvested later in the year.  The layer of fat under the skin helps the seal in the moisture while the turkey is roasting.  It also means that the skin can be fantastically crispy if salted and the turkey is not covered or sealed in foil for the whole roasting time.

Main physical differences between a commercial and heritage breed turkey

  1. Meat Density – Heritage turkeys grow slowly so their muscles have time to form properly and are exercised.  This means a longer cooking time because the heritage turkeys have denser muscle than fast growing factory raised turkeys.
  2. Bone Quantity and Density– By growing the heritage fowl slower, there is time for the bones to uptake calcium and are real bone not the cartilage often seen especially in the keel bone area in commercial birds. 
  3. Meat colour – This can be a little darker in a heritage turkey, due to exercise and free ranging in its life.  The breast meat is still white and the dark meat dark for those who have their preferences.
  4. Amount of Meat- Usually a greater percentage of the weight broiler turkeys is meat.  They have been intensively selected to produce huge yields of meat with the least food and time possible.

How Keep your Turkey Moist During Cooking

There are a number of ways to introduce and keep your heritage turkeys moist during cooking.  A popular is brining the turkey overnight in a brine solution.  This is a great option for your very first heritage turkey roast and you are particularly nervous.  A simple brine recipe can be adapted and you can add different seasonings as you wish.  By brining the turkey overnight, you add moisture to the bird and the salt also makes for a crispy skin.

Another way to seal in the moisture and introduce even more flavor is to spread butter on the bird.  Blend the butter with citrus zest, herbs, seasonings or garlic and you can either rub in a generous layer on the outside of the bird, or put a similar layer between skin and breast.  Either way, this does a wonderful job of keeping your roasting turkey moist.

Neither of the above may be necessary if you use another technique of cooking the heritage turkey with the breast down.  Many people swear by this method as any juices running down out of the meat during cooking run into the breast.  This keeps meat keeping it moist.  Cooking the turkey in a bag is another option used by some for preparing their roast turkey.

How long do you to roast a Heritage Turkey?

The Joy of Cooking suggests 20 min a pound for stuffed turkeys.  I believe commercial turkeys now cook faster than that because of their rapid growth, giving less dense meat and not as much real bone, with more cartilage instead. 

The 20 minute per pound at 350°F works well on stuffed  heritage

Digital meat probe for Roasting a Heritage turkey
Turkeys.  The most effective way to know your turkey is cooked properly is to use a meat probe.  This can be either attached to your stove or a digital meat probe should be placed in thickest part of the thigh not touching the bone.   It is recommended the breast reach minimum 170°F, we keep roasting until the thermometer reads  180°F in the thigh.  Cooking can be uneven in the heritage turkeys.

How to Roast a Tender Juicy Heritage Breed Turkey

This is how we roast a Heritage bird.

  1. Wash the bird.  Pat dry. 
  2. Season and salt inside and out if not stuffing the bird.  Salt makes for a crispy skin and great flavour.
  3. If stuffing the bird, do it at the last minute before roasting.
  4. We add herb/garlic butter under or over the skin.  It's your choice and taste so use your favourite fresh or dried poultry seasonings like rosemary, sage, and thyme.  
  5. Put about 1/2" water in the bottom of the roasting pan.  Rest the bird breast up on large approximately 1" chunks of carrot, onion and celery, and garlic if desired.  The water should not touch the bird.
  6. The roasting pan should have a lid or tinfoil if the turkey is too big.  The best roasting pans are huge thick enamel ones from auction sales as heritage turkeys are often quite large.
  7. Roast at 350°F for approximately 20 minute per pound, and is ready when meat probe reads  180°F in the thigh.  The legs will easily come away from the body, and all juices run clear not pink.
  8. Take the lid or foil off about 30 minutes before you think it is done to help it crisp up.
  9. When the turkey is cooked, allow it to sit 15 minutes or all the juices will run out when you carve the roast.

Other Roasting Tips

When roasting heritage fowl breast up, keep an eye on the join between the legs and the body, sometimes moisture builds up in there and slows cooking there.  It is a slow area anyway due to the density of bone and flesh, so make sure you prick that area so it drains and cooks.

Don't keep poking the roasting turkey with a fork to see if is done.  Juices will run out of the bird and end up in the bottom of the pan, not keeping your roast succulent. 

We have noticed birds never frozen and cooked from fresh cook roughly 1/4 less time in our experience. Fresh turkeys should age 1-3 days in the fridge after processing for the most tender bird, but 4 hours minimum to avoid toughness.


So enjoy your heritage turkey roast. Once you try free range heritage breed fowl,  you will know the difference and won't want a commercial turkey again!



Jan 5, 2012 10:45pm
Great heritage turkey cooking tips. I learned something today.
Jan 5, 2012 10:52pm
Please put me on your guest list for the next time you do this.
Jan 5, 2012 11:24pm
I don't know where I can find a heritage turkey, but after reading your article, I'm going to find out.
Jan 6, 2012 3:25am
@Jadedragon Thanks for the comment, hope it helps your nexy turkey roast. A heritage bird certainly makes a special holiday meal into an out of this world one! The notification worked too!

@aguy We plan on raising heritage turkeys again this year so no problem! That is thing with these, there is lots for everyone!

@LLWoodard I am so glad I had that effect on you! Insert evil grin here! I can barely describe the difference, all I can say is go for it!
Jan 10, 2012 6:51pm
I will have to try a Heritage turkey. I actually made a turkey just for me and a neighbor over Thanksgiving. I froze batches of the leftover meat and I have been enjoying yummy leftovers off and on since then. I used my trusty Foodsaver to freeze the meat. I have been pulling small packages from my freezer and defrosting them in the fridge when I want to eat the leftovers. I will look for the Heritage brand when I go grocery shopping next. Wonder if they will be readily available or if I will have to wait til next year to buy one. I had bought another turkey just prior to Christmas (its frozen) to make at the end of this month.
Jan 12, 2012 5:24pm
Hi EG! Thanks for reading and commenting! Sounds like you have an ongoing feast there! We have found (accidentally) 2 or 3 layers of saran wrap works well on frozen meat. We packed everything up (including the foodsaver) ready to move last year and as a last resort used the layered saran wrap. It keeps the air out really well and the chicken breasts are still good!

The best place to buy a heritage breed turkey may be from the farm or producer so there's no retail markup to the store as they can be quite expensive. If you can find them now, post holiday season is a good time for a turkey bargain!
Jan 30, 2012 1:19pm
I was hoping to have one of my bourbon reds for thanksgiving last year, but lost it to a fox! I was holding my tom the other day for some kids to pet and he's HEAVY. Definitely looking forward to cooking a heritage turkey in the future.
Jan 30, 2012 9:11pm
Sorry to hear that Astonerattnet. I think bourbon reds are the absolute best, we had Beltseville small white and Narragansett as well and the BRs had the most flavour and fat. The other were great too though. I am guilty of "weighing up" turkeys too! I hope you get to have one of these soon.
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