Cooking Nebraska Heritage Turkeys
- Because many of the birds we raise (e.g. Bourbon Red and Sweetgrass) are heritage breeds, they are more proportionate in their frame and meat distribution, and the proportion of breast meat to dark meat is more even. This means that the breast meat will cook more quickly than the broad breasted types, which have a deeper breast meat section.
- Because our turkeys are free-range, they travel all over our 26+ acres, using their leg muscles a great deal more than the “factory” turkeys found in grocery stores. Therefore, the legs and thigh meat are generally not as soft and flabby as the supermarket birds. We slice the thigh meat to eat along with the breast, and often just put the legs aside with the carcass for making soup, although sometimes the children like to try eating a “drumstick.” We find the flavor of all these birds to be excellent!
- Because we do not inject our birds with any type of fat or other substance after they are processed, more care needs to be taken to ensure the meat does not dry out during cooking.
There are lots of good websites with cooking information. Here are a few: Cooks.com and EatTurkey.com. We have used “James Beard's Theory and Practice of Good Cooking” as our own starting point as we have experimented over the years. His recipe can be found here.
Here are some things that we have found help us to have a juicy, tender bird as often as possible, regardless of whether you are cooking a heritage type or a broad-breasted white:
First, we make sure that the bird is completely defrosted before cooking. When it hasn’t been, we’ve made sure to add more cooking time for its weight. We can’t give you a specific number on how much more we’ve added because it all depends on how defrosted it isn’t! USDA’s tips can be found at: USDA Factsheet
Please be aware that all of the following times and temperatures were tested in OUR oven with OUR thermometers—yours will probably vary!! We like to use digital thermometers with fairly long probes. Using thermometers will go farther toward producing a good bird than you think, especially vs. the “minutes per pound” method. But, don’t leave the thermometers in the oven unless they specifically say you can do so! We’ve melted some that way - not a nice smell!
We usually figure on cooking our turkey for approximately 13-15 minutes per pound at 325 degrees, stuffed or un-stuffed. This is SUBSTANTIALLY SHORTER than many other recipes, and each person has to make their own decision as to what will be best for their situation. See our disclaimer at the end!!! We calculate a total time, and then divide this time into thirds. For the first 2/3 of the total time, we cook the turkey BREAST SIDE DOWN. We place greased (with butter or lard) aluminum foil on the cooking rack with the greased side up, and place the breast on this. We often place a sheet of aluminum foil over the top (which in this case will be the back) of the turkey to keep it from browning too much. How much browning occurs will depend on how big your oven is and how big the bird is.
After 2/3 of the cooking time, open the oven, pull the turkey out, and turn it BREAST SIDE UP. To do this, it helps if you are strong with long arms! In our house, this means Randy does this part. He wears oven mitts and uses a kitchen towel in each hand. He lifts the turkey slightly while Trina pulls away the aluminum from any place that it is sticking. Then he turns it on its side and sets it down, then re-positions his hands so he can turn it the rest of the way over. Put it back in the oven and bake for the final 1/3 of the cooking time. Just as McDonald’s now has to warn its coffee drinkers that coffee is HOT, let us note that working with a hot, cooking turkey can be a dangerous practice, so you may want to pass on this part!! Proceed at your own risk!
We have found that a doneness temperature of around 160-165 degrees in the thigh and around 154-160 degrees in the breast is good. When we poke the thigh, we like to see the juices run light pink to clear. When the bird reaches these temperatures, we take the bird out and let it sit for 15-20 minutes. It will continue to cook while it sits there! So don’t leave it in the oven too long.
We’re happy to share further from our own experiences if you’d like to contact us.
Here is an excerpt from William Rubel’s Traditional Cooking website (his cooking recommendations sound interesting – they are different from what we’re used to, and we haven’t tried them yet):
"Finish Temperature: Stuffing, if any, is cooked before it is put inside the bird. The stuffing, therefore, is only heated inside the bird, not cooked. If you do stuff a bird, for food safety reasons, stuff it just before roasting. While the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) calls for cooking turkeys until the stuffing is 160F and the bird is 180F in the thigh. These USDA recommended temperatures are so high that you will dry out the turkey. I would roast a heritage turkey to 140F, and no more. As always, let the bird rest for at least ten minutes before carving.
"A note on the cooking temperature: The USDA recommendation of 180F in the deepest part of the thigh, and 160F in the stuffing, is based on the government’s need to provide a general rule that will cover all health and safety eventualities, including the handling of the bird by people who have not observed basic hygienic principles, like washing their hands before handling the food. "As soon as you get your heritage bird home, take it out of its wrapping. If it arrived in the mail, unpack it and immediately rinse it. Always wash your hands before and after handling the turkey. The part of the bird that has the most pathogens is the skin. Even with an internal temperature of 140F the skin of the turkey will be above 220F, way over the temperature needed to sterilize the skin.
"I also remind you that the USDA suggests high cooking temperatures for other foods, as well, such as for ground beef. I recently ate steak tartar (raw ground beef) at a restaurant in my hometown, and I ate raw chopped lamb in a restaurant in Atlanta. In both cases, I knew the owners of the restaurant, I had been in their kitchens, and I knew something about where the meat had come from. Raw meat obviously does not meet USDA cooking recommendations. My point is that one needs to balance USDA recommendations against what you know about the source of your meat and the way it was handled.
"I also remind you that many aspects of our daily life involve risk-taking — driving kills over 40,000 Americans per year, and injures millions — and yet virtually all adult Americans drive. Eating is not risk-free — and I cannot assure you that my recipe is risk free. I can assure you, however, that a heritage turkey cooked to 140F in a fast oven will remain moist and delicious, while cooking the turkey to 180F is problematic in terms of the final culinary results."
Disclaimer: We are only sharing what WE have done. We cannot be responsible for any health issues or injuries due to miscalculations or misunderstandings. Many cookbooks and thermometers tell you to cook until a higher temperature is reached. Most importantly, USE YOUR OWN JUDGEMENT, and do plenty of homework. We grow turkeys, but we are not the USDA, food scientists, or professional cooks.
Please contact us by email or by calling 402-372-5005.