How Eight Heritage Turkeys Kicked a Butterball’s Butt

Midget White and Bourbon Red Heritage Turkeys Prove Superior to Factory-farm Birds

  • turkeys in pen
    At first glance, these turkeys may look like broad-breasted white turkeys, but they’re smaller — even when mature. And a recent test proves their flavor is better.

  • turkeys in pen

On Feb. 25, 2008, approximately 70 people gathered at Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, Va., to participate in a blind tasting comparing one industrial and eight heritage varieties of turkey. The food professionals, chefs, food writers and food connoisseurs in attendance all had one thing in common — an interest in great food.

The purpose of the event was to give a fair and parallel comparison of nine varieties of turkey to determine which, if any, stood out in flavor. This unique event was conducted blind, with each turkey variety cut into bite-sized pieces in covered dishes at numbered stations. Numbered toothpicks and scorecards were provided to aid in evaluating the turkeys. Additionally, whole, roasted turkeys were placed on a table, with their corresponding number, so that appearance could be appraised as well.

The turkeys were scored based on flavor, texture, tenderness, aroma and appearance.

After tasting the turkeys, the enthusiastic crowd was asked to vote for their favorite number before the varieties were revealed. Each of the nine turkeys had supporters, but when the tally was counted all eight of the heritage turkey varieties came out ahead of the industrial variety — a Butterball.

The clear winner in this historical tasting was the midget white turkey, with second place going to the bourbon red. These top two favorites each received nearly twice as many votes as any of the other turkey varieties.

The other six heritage turkey varieties tasted were the royal palm, chocolate, slate, Narragansett, bronze and black. Heritage turkeys are noted for slow to moderate rate of growth and most are considered rare by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

Susan Patterson
9/4/2008 1:46:09 AM

Midget White turkey and the Beltsville Small White turkey are two separate breeds with two separate standards. The Midget White was developed as a lab animal, the Beltsville Small White was developed as a small family meal. There is a difference here that some cannot see. They see only a small white turkey. The difference is important to people who breed and promote heritage turkey breeds. The Beltsville Small White turkey was nearly lost to us. It is a unique breed with some unique charactoristics, such as being the best laying turkey that there is and being a broad breasted turkey that breeds naturally and incubates and hatches their own eggs very well.

Jim Archer_1
9/3/2008 5:45:29 PM

This is not really a valid taste test as the turkeys were not all raised under the same conditions and not fed the same. I believe the midget white should be called the Beltsville Small White. It is a breed created to meet the commercial demand for a small turkey carcass. Was developed in Beltsville, Maryland. I don't really feel it should be called a Heritage Breed.

Aly Van Dyke_2
8/29/2008 1:37:55 PM

As a 20-year-old, culinary-challenged individual, I never put much thought into the taste, texture or appearance of the turkey my mother got from the store. And for some reason, I doubt she put much thought into it either. But when you are making a special meal, either in celebration or experimentation (which for me often ends up in disaster), I think it's worthwhile to be picky about what you chose to cook with, and that's what I appreciated with this article. Ingredients, and especially the main course, should be prepared with attention to detail. And if you're going to go all-out once or twice a year, why not make use the highest quality of ingredients to make your special dish that much more enjoyable? Who knows, maybe a heritage turkey tastes good enough to make even my cooking edible.

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