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5 Things You Need to Know About Turkey
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Want to dine like a pro? Each month, we ask local experts to share the inside scoop about a particular food or beverage. Use their tips to eat and drink better, whether you’re indulging at home or in a restaurant.
Many of us only think about turkey when it’s time to select the Thanksgiving bird. But Kate Stillman—owner and self-described “mompreneur” of Stillman Quality Meats in Hardwick, Massachusetts—has poultry on her mind year-round. We caught up with her to learn what goes into raising a 1,500-strong flock and why pasture-raised birds taste better.
- Turkeys are social creatures that like to sleep in.
“Turkeys are funny birds,” says Stillman. “They’re very social creatures. They imprint and latch on to one person. I don’t see other birds do that. Someone has to wake them up and put them to bed.” Turkeys whose handlers talk to them and touch them gain more weight on average than those that don’t experience such tender loving care—so don’t be surprised if you see Stillman’s farmhands conversing with the flock.
- A varied diet and room to roam make a big difference.
“We have a series of paddocks, fenced-in pasture areas, that we rotate our turkeys through,” says Stillman. There, they eat bugs and native grasses to supplement a diet of non-genetically modified grain. (Most conventionally raised birds consume feed made from GMO grain.) Kale, apples, and lettuce provide a little variety.
- Pasture-raised turkeys are altogether unlike supermarket poultry.
To explain the difference between her birds and ones you find in the grocery store, Stillman could talk about how she never routinely doses with antibiotics and that she processes all poultry at the farm’s own abattoir. Instead, she talks about tomatoes. Conventionally grown fruit is frequently picked green, gassed with ethylene to give the appearance of ripeness, then trucked across the country in refrigerated containers. Her approach to raising turkeys is equivalent to letting tomatoes ripen on the vine and putting them directly in the hands of her customers.
- Once you go pasture-raised, you won’t go back.
“We always call our turkeys the gateway meat,” says Stillman. “They just have a ton of flavor, and the meat has a different texture. It’s much less mushy. It has chew, texture, and density—and it’s juicy.”
- Heritage breeds are the heirloom tomatoes of the poultry world.
Stillman raises traditional breeds like the Broad Breasted White as well as heritage varieties like Blue Slate, Bronze, and Narragansett. “Heritage turkeys are like heirloom tomatoes,” she explains. “They’re what people were originally raising in this country. They’re much slower growing, have smaller breasts, and heavier legs and wings.”Heritage breeds sold out in October, but you can still order a traditional turkey for Thanksgiving via the website. Arrange for pick up at the farm, at Stillman’s store in Worcester, or at farmers’ markets throughout the Boston area.