Generally speaking, turkeys — and other birds — are best eaten in the same year they’re hatched. We like to start a batch in April or May, and put them in the freezer that October or November. That ensures the birds are young and tender; an older bird can get tough.
We’ve also preferred to raise heritage breed turkeys. They’re significantly smaller than the broad breasted “Butterball” turkeys you see at the grocery store, but much more interesting to have on the farm. They tend to have higher survival rates in the brooder. They can fly and roost much like wild turkeys. They’re colorful. And, most importantly, they can reproduce naturally. (Broad breasted turkeys are so huge, they can’t actually mate. They need to be artificially inseminated. And that’s something I just don’t want to have to help them with.)
Most years, we try to get a mix of heritage turkeys and broad breasted birds. A heritage turkey is excellent for a dinner and a night or two of leftovers. The BB turkeys are really too big to be practical, unless we’re hosting a really large gathering, so we cut them up into pieces and freeze separate portions in gallon-sized ziploc bags. Each bag is just right for a meal or two.
Since we’re not particular about breeds, we tend to get a “hatchery special” or “surplus turkey assortment”. They send basically whatever is left over after filling orders for specific heritage turkey breeds. At a place like Cackle Hatchery, a batch of 15 surplus heritage turkeys will run $114, or about $7.60 per bird, plus shipping. Not bad when you consider that specific breed poults, such as Bourbon Reds, cost more than $9 per bird. (For comparison, 15 broad breasted white turkeys cost $87.75, or $5.85 per bird.)
Still…any way you look at it, turkey poults are expensive. And heritage breed turkeys can theoretically reproduce on their own. Why not keep a few hens, and a tom, over the winter and see what they manage to produce the next spring? Could save a small fortune, right?
Could. But never has – at least not for us. We’ve tried letting the turkey hens brood a clutch of eggs. A couple of them actually hatched, but the hen proved to be a better setter than mother; the poults were killed by something or other within days. We tried hatching the eggs ourselves in an incubator, but were never able to get the temperature and humidity settings correct. With more time and patience, and perhaps an investment in a really good incubator, we may have gotten better results. But at the end of the day, I concluded it made more sense to invest in a fresh set of hatchery poults each spring.
That left us with several mature heritage turkeys. They were fun to have in the barn, and we enjoyed watching them do their turkey antics out in the pasture. And the females did give us some eggs – at least for a few months out of the year, and for a couple of years. Then the eggs slowed to a trickle, and I realized we simply had a bunch of glorified, grain-consuming pets. And we don’t do “pets” with the livestock. Time to make a meal out of them.
Given the age of these birds, I was concerned that they would be tough. So, I did a little experimenting and hit upon a solution: brine.
The middle of last week, I butchered a very old Blue Slate turkey hen. After plucking and eviscerating her, I figured we had about six or seven pounds of bird. I then “disassembled” it by removing both leg quarters, both wings, and the breast meat. All of these prime pieces went into a big bowl, and everything else (the carcass, neck, and scrubbed-up feet) went into a large soup pot.
I then used a mason jar to measure out enough water to just cover all the pieces in the bowl; it took three quarts. A standard brine solution requires one cup of salt per gallon of water, so I pulled a bunch of the meat out, added 3/4 of a cup of salt to my bowl, and stirred until all the salt was dissolved, and put the meat back in. I covered the bowl, and put it in the refrigerator for a few days. (Theoretically, I suppose we could have left the bowl out at room temperature; the salt acts as a preservative. But we had room in the fridge, and I preferred to keep things cold.)
Sunday morning, I discarded the brine solution and put most of the turkey pieces into a Crock Pot. (The remaining piece I wrapped up and returned to the refrigerator, because my daughter wanted to make turkey curry out of it later.) I added a little apple cider vinegar, a little water, a chopped onion, and seasonings — and then set the Crock Pot on high and let it go. From time to time, I stirred the pieces around. Otherwise, it was the world’s easiest meal. By 5pm, the meat was tender and practically falling off the bone. And was the perfect centerpiece for Sunday Dinner.
So, out of one smallish turkey hen that was otherwise useless, our family got (1) an excellent Sunday dinner; (2) a dinner of turkey curry; and (3) enough soup for one dinner for all of us, with enough left over for me to have for lunches for the rest of the week.
Not bad. Now, to get started on the four other turkeys still taking up space in the barn…