Christmas turkey. Every year it’s the same. We spend weeks planning a meal around it; we take hours discussing cooking techniques; do you brine it?; what do you stuff it with?
But, one thing we all forget when trying to get the best-tasting turkey is thinking about how it has been reared. And this is possibly the most fundamental requirement for a top tasting bird.
Of course, since you’re reading this on Live Frankly, we’re big advocates for organic, truly free-range birds. cod
Not all turkeys are created equal. Well, they may have been. But, they certainly don’t all taste the same. That’s not all down to our cooking skills – it’s because of the huge disparity in how they are farmed.
We’ve discovered that the best-tasting turkey – one that has a depth of flavour, is juicy and tender but also has structure – needs to be slow-grown for around six months. It also needs to be hung for a good couple of weeks before you buy it.
“That special moment at Christmas dinner, that quiet when you have the first mouthful and everyone thinks ‘wow’ – that’s what we spend many months of every year trying to give people,” says Peter Greig of Piper’s Farm.
That special moment can only be bought from certain farmers and butchers, who are committed to doing things the slow way.
Intensively farmed turkey: what you are really buying into
A staggering 90 percent of the UK’s 10 million turkeys are now intensively farmed, according to the Soil Association.
This includes turkeys that are kept indoors, pumped with antibiotics to keep disease at bay, and fed a high-protein diet of genetically modified grains grown with the use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers, so they grow unnaturally quickly.
These birds have been bred to be so heavy they are no longer able to fly or mate naturally. Enough said there, don’t you think? Beak trimming is also commonplace to stop them from pecking each other in such close confinement. They are typically killed at around half the age of a genuinely free-range or organic turkey. So that’s how you can buy turkeys starting at around £12 in a supermarket.
Industrially farmed turkeys have been bred to be so heavy that they can no longer mate naturally
But, “the supermarket version of ‘free-range’ doesn’t necessarily mean things are much better, as a majority of these birds are still raised in an industrial setting,” says Greig.
“The stocking density is around half that of their battery counterparts, and while they are required to have access to the outdoors, the way they are raised and housed means that most will never venture outside.”
In this system, birds that have the potential to grow to 15kg are only taken to 5kg. That’s because this is a popular size for the Christmas table. They are processed before the bird reaches full maturity.
The result is a bird that has an immature tenderness, which in theory sounds good – who doesn’t want tender meat?
But in practice it can be very challenging for a chef because it’s also full of water that evaporates when cooking and when this happens the texture collapses, creating that dry, tasteless sensation turkey is fast getting a reputation for.
Organic and genuinely free-range turkey
But, turkey didn’t traditionally taste like this – and nor should it. Opting for an organic or genuinely free-range slower-growing breed, such as a Norfolk Black, Bronze or Bourbon Red, that has been grown to full maturity creates a completely different eating experience.
These birds are encouraged to go outside from around six weeks old and can forage for clover and bugs to supplement their diet, which is much lower in protein.
This means the bird can naturally build up muscle, which can be quite tough and is one of the reasons hanging for around 10 days is such an essential part of the farm-to-plate process.
Hanging allows the muscle fibre to break down, creating a more tender bird that still has structure. Importantly, most of the water evaporates during the hanging process, leaving flavoursome meat juices.
“A major important factor is that a slow-grown bird develops a hard layer of fat under the skin,” says Stuart Perkins from Castlemead poultry farm in Somerset.
“This not only improves the flavour and texture, but keeps the bird moist in the oven as the fat renders down as you cook it.” The result is a succulent bird that reflects the way it was reared.
As Peter Greig says: “It’s complex, it’s deep, it’s lingering. It’s a taste of Devon”. And the same goes for wherever the turkey was reared.
If you want to make sure you’re getting the best-tasting turkey possible, buy from one of these brilliant farms – that also deliver direct to your door. No excuses now, eh?
Four questions to ask your butcher to ensure you’re buying top-quality turkey:
What breed is it? Opt for a heritage and slower-growing breed – a Norfolk Black, Bronze or Bourbon Red are some of the most common
How old was it when it was killed? 24 weeks allows a turkey to reach full maturity
How was it plucked? Only dry-plucked birds can be hung, so this is another assurance of quality
How long was it hung for? Ideally, you’re looking for at least 10 days and up to three weeks
6 farms that will deliver the best-tasting turkey to your door:
Coombe Farm Organic are an award-winning organic meat delivery service.
Their organic Bronze turkey’s come from Walter’s Turkey’s organic farm in Berkshire, where the birds have space to run about and enjoy natural daylight.
The turkeys are slow-grown to natural maturity over 24 weeks and hung for at least 7 days once slaughtered. This results in meat that’s juicy and tender, with just the right amount of fat.
Coombe Farm offer whole turkeys that serve eight people for £99.95. They also offer turkey crown, turkey leg and turkey breast.
2. Pipers Farm
The journey of Pipers Farm turkeys are reared on small-scale family farms in Devon and Somerset. They enjoy a natural diet and roaming around their grassy hillside home until they are 28 weeks old.
Each bird is dry-plucked by hand, then hung for at least 12 days.
A whole turkey that serves 5-6 people costs £92. Pipers Farm are also renowned for their “simplest turkey”. They roll the leg and breast meat separately and stuff it with a choice of festive stuffing. It cooks in just one hour, prices start from £42.60, serving four.
Fosse Meadows is a fourth-generation farm selling free-range turkeys that are slow-grown to maturity for 6 months. They keep their turkeys in small flocks to promote natural behaviour and feed them an additive-free cereal diet, so the turkeys have good fat marbling through the meat.
You can buy their free-range Bronze whole turkey directly from Fosse Meadows from £75 (serves 4-5), along with other Christmas dinner essentials.
Field&flower source their turkeys from a small, family-run turkey farm in Devon called Frenchbeer farm. The turkeys are slow-grown for 6 months and can roam freely from around 5 weeks.
They are dry-plucked and game hung for up to two weeks to enrich flavour and tenderise the meat, as well as guaranteeing a perfectly crisp skin.
A whole Free Range Bronze Turkey serving 8-10 people starts at £92.98.
This Christmas, field&flower have partnered with FareShare South West to support food poverty in the South West of England. For every turkey crown they sell, they’ll donate one pair of turkey legs – enough to serve 2-3 people – to help make sure that everyone can enjoy a Christmas dinner this year.
Helen Browning’s pride themselves on both rearing and sourcing the best organic meat produce, including award-winning Organic Bronze Turkeys from Walters Farm.
Walters rears its turkeys on the Berkshire Downs. These birds roam outside during the day, are fed high-quality organic cereals, and return to spacious straw-bedded barns at night.
They dry pluck the turkeys and hand finish them on the farm. They hang the turkeys for at least 7 days.
Whole birds are available from £103.31.
6. Eversfield Organic
Eversfield Organic‘s heritage Norfolk Black turkeys are slow-grown and carefully reared on the Malseed family farm on lush Dartmoor pasture. They are fed on a healthy diet consisting of organic cereals and natural ingredients – no additives or growth promoters.
These organic turkeys are clever birds and need a lot of entertainment so are kept busy with toys to play with, as well as lots of pasture to stretch their legs and enjoy the fresh Devonshire air.
Completely free range, these Norfolk Blacks enjoy stretching their legs and foraging in the fresh Devonshire air.
They are hung for two weeks to develop a slightly more game-like taste and texture.
Whole birds start from £105 (serves 8).
Main image: Pipers Farm