At this country’s first Thanksgiving, the pilgrims were eating a very different turkey from the holiday bird that sits on modern Thanksgiving tables.
According to rancher Bill Niman, the great majority of turkeys grown in the US are the “Broad-Breasted White” breed, a bird that’s grown for… you guessed it: broad breasts.
On Niman’s ranch, his small staff is raising heritage-breed birds that are a lot closer to the turkeys our nation’s founders would have recognized.
Bill Niman is the rancher that The New York Times called a “pioneer of the ‘good meat’ movement,” and he took some time to chat with us about his BN Ranch Heritage-Breed Turkeys, which FreshDirect is selling this holiday season.
When Bill Niman established BN Ranch, he says he wanted to “create a model farm that others could copy.” While beef cattle are their specialty, animal diversity on the farm was important to him, so he went the premiere breeder of heritage turkey pullets in the US and drove the chicks across the country from Kansas to the Niman family ranch in California.
Says Niman, “It makes sense to start with the best possible genetics, and this is a rock star breed. He’s been working with this breed for a very long time. They do really well in the environment we provide, and they taste great.”
FreshDirect: Benjamin Franklin once proposed that the turkey would make a better national symbol for America than the bald eagle. Do the turkeys on your farm rise to that standard?
Bill Niman: I would totally agree with that. They’re well-adapted, they’re friendly, they’re smart… they’re a very successful animal in the environment. Heritage breeds can fly, they can breed naturally, and their bone structure can support their own weight. And that’s not true for 99% of the turkeys raised in the US.
FD: What is life on the ranch like for your turkeys?
BN: The breeding stock is outdoors. Turkeys are omnivores and they benefit from grass, bugs and things like that, but we also give them corn, soy and wheat. They have a diet of half-day feed and for the other half of the day, they go outside.
The birds for meat are fed corn, soy, wheat, limestone and what they might find in nature. They don’t forage, but they get exercise. Their flavor comes from the collagen and connective tissue, and it’s the exercise that makes the difference… it’s the walking and flying. Free-range to us really is free-range. Sometimes they stay out all night. It’s their choice.
FreshDirect: What’s the difference in taste between your heritage-breed turkeys and the standard-breed birds?
Bill Niman: If you like the richer flavor of dark meat, the light meat on these birds has all that succulence and flavor. They’re always very moist. You don’t need to brine these birds because the flavor is so much deeper. They taste like turkey is supposed to taste.
FD: Do they cook differently?
BN: Maybe faster. We air-chill these birds and we don’t add any water to them the way they do with a lot of turkeys, but I suggest you use a meat thermometer. Then you’ll know if it’s done.