Poultry Expert Talks Turkey

This post was first published on UConn Today on Nov. 21, 2011.

turkey dinner

As the holiday season begins, millions of Americans will sit down to family dinners that feature turkey with all the fixins’. Most of the nearly 300,000,000 turkeys that are eaten in the U.S. annually will be commercially produced Broad Breasted Whites purchased at local supermarkets.

Few diners will give any thought to the history or background of this 21st century version of the bird that Ben Franklin once proposed as the official symbol of the United States, but advances in poultry science have made this is a very different bird from its more rugged looking ancestors.

Michael Darre, a professor of animal science in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Extension poultry specialist, discussed this modern creation and its more distant relatives with UConn Today.

Q. The Broad Breasted White looks very different from its wild cousin. How did this modern creation come to take center stage at our holiday dinners?

A. The demand for more white meat from the turkey and a mild flavor compared to the flavor of wild turkey stimulated USDA scientists to select for a fast-growing, white breast meat turkey. This soon became the standard for domestic turkey production.

Q. Increasingly, we see birds advertised as Heirloom or Heritage Turkeys. While a White Breasted Tom turkey can grow to 30 pounds or more in as little as 18 weeks, the heritage birds are smaller and take longer to mature, thus they’re more expensive for the consumer. What exactly is a heritage bird and why might a consumer purchase one?

A. Most breeds of heritage turkey were developed in the United States and Europe over hundreds of years, and were identified in the American Poultry Association’s turkey Standard of Perfection of 1874. These breeds include the Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Jersey Buff, Slate, Black Spanish, and White Holland. Later added to the standard were the Royal Palm, White Midget, and Beltsville Small White. Many people seem to want to get back to the old way of things, including eating the type of birds the pilgrims ate.

Q. How do domestic turkeys differ from their wild cousins … who seem to be making a real comeback in New England. Do wild turkeys bear any resemblance to their domesticated cousins in terms of size or taste?

A. Wild turkeys are lighter in weight, slower growing, and they eat what they can find, including acorns, worms, grass, etc. They also do not have much, if any, white meat on the breast, because they fly or flap their wings more than the domesticated white birds. Also, the flavor of the meat is affected by the feed, so they have a gamey flavor compared to the domestic birds.

Q. Whether Broad Breasted White or one of the heritage breeds … does it make any difference in overall quality if a bird is fresh or frozen when purchased?

A. Freezing can alter some of the tissue, the moisture in the tissue, and how it cooks. Frozen birds should be thawed in the refrigerator to reduce moisture loss and the growth of microorganisms on the surface. If the bird is flash frozen and thawed properly, then there is no difference in quality if the bird is cooked properly

Q. Each year since 1947, the National Turkey Federation and the Poultry and Egg National Board have given a turkey to the President of the United States at a White House ceremony shortly before Thanksgiving. In the past several years, the bird has earned a pardon from the President. What do you think of the chances for this year’s turkey … pardon or dinner table?

A. Probably a pardon this year.