This year, about 99 percent of families sitting down to turkey at the Thanksgiving dinner table will be enjoying one breed: the Broad Breasted White. That’s the bird pictured in idyllic Norman Rockwell paintings associated with a specific brand of suburban America.
Craig Haney, the livestock farm manager at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, raises Broad Breasted Whites, which are prized by farmers for their lightening-fast ability to gain weight. Unlike many industrially produced turkeys, those at Stone Barns are pasture-raised.
“These are birds that are out sunbathing, dust bathing, eating ... Every year, I’m surprised at how much grass they eat,” said Haney (pictured below, top), who adds that the turkeys’ active lifestyle makes their meat a little denser. “They cook more quickly than a supermarket bird.”
Haney is married to Gabrielle Langholtz, the editor of the magazines Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. She prefers the other type of turkey raised at Stone Barns: the Bourbon Reds. The heritage breed tends to have more dark meat than the traditional bird.
“It’s closer to its wild cousin,” said Haney.
In choosing a bird, both Haney and Langholtz agree that the term “natural” doesn’t carry much weight. Natural means that the meat has been minimally processed.
“That’s what happens to the bird after it’s slaughtered,” explained Langholtz (pictured below, bottom). “It doesn’t have anything to say about the animal’s life.”
The term “organic” simply means the bird was fed organic feed. A “free-range” turkey isn’t confined to a pen, but may still spend all of its life indoors.
“Pastured isn’t regulated at this point, but if you’re buying it from a farmer you trust at the farmers' market, you know, they should be living outside,” he said.
Regardless of the type of bird, or how it was raised, in the kitchen the main objective is to keep the turkey moist. The first step, according to Langholtz, is to start with a brine about a day before roasting the bird. That involves immersing the hefty beast in a saltwater solution. (Alton Brown of the Food Network has instructions here. Or for an even simpler method, check out this video from Epicurious.)
Langholtz, who prepares the staff meal during Stone Barns’ two-day marathon turkey slaughter, notes that she doesn’t flip her turkeys when cooking them because it’s a cumbersome process. She does, however, cover the bird with a cheesecloth soaked in butter and wine. Langholtz says that method, which she picked up from Martha Stewart, is more effective than just basting the turkey. It keeps the skin more continually moist. (Check out instructions for her cheesecloth method here.)
“My number one tip that I have for getting your turkey just right is the digital thermometer,” insisted Langholtz. “You have got to cook your bird to 165 degrees exactly.”
She notes that the thermometer isn’t just a one-trick holiday pony. Instead, it also comes in handy whenever cooking meat.
Finally, at the end of the night, Langholtz takes on her favorite Thanksgiving task: making turkey stock.
While preparing for Thanksgiving, or even during the course of everyday meals, she saves vegetable trimmings in a zip-top freezer bag. Then after the holiday meal, she dumps the turkey carcass, along with the trimmings, into a big pot.
“I also will tell you, I empty all the wine glasses into there,” she said with a chuckle. “Who cares if my sister has had a sip of it? It’s going to be boiled.”
She covers everything with water and puts in on a low simmer for several hours or overnight. Then, voilà: the resulting turkey stock can be frozen in individual portions and will last much longer than those day-after turkey sandwiches.