November 2, 2011

Soup to Nuts: Let's talk turkey

When it comes to the Thanksgiving bird, there seem to be more choices than you can shake a wattle at. Here are some things to consider.

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

Choosing a Thanksgiving turkey has become even more complicated than a stroll down the cereal aisle.

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An organic, free-range turkey at Mark and Paula Stotts' Whispering Winds Farm in Mechanic Falls.

Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Paula Stotts and the family dog Jasper mingle with the birds.

Additional Photos Below

Locally grown birds are scarce, but still out there

LOTS OF PEOPLE prefer to buy their Thanksgiving turkey from a local farmer, but even through the holiday is still three weeks away, it may already be too late to order one. Some farms have already sold out. Others have fewer birds to offer this year because the lack of local poultry processing facilities in the state has forced them to cut back on their flocks. Here’s a partial list of Maine farms that still raise turkeys. We included some sold-out farms, because they often have waiting lists for next year.

224 Packard Road, Plymouth;
Sure, Plymouth is east of Pittsfield, quite a haul from Portland. But Portlanders have been known to carpool there to pick up their Thanksgiving turkeys. The farm only raised 40 birds this year, down from 65, but as of last week, there were still six turkeys left. The turkeys are raised grain-fed and free-range, but they are not organic. They cost $3.50 per pound.   
135 Windsor Neck Road, Windsor; 445-2141
Emma’s is one of the very few Maine farms that raises heritage turkeys, and you’re in luck – they still have some available. Their heritage birds cost $5.25 per pound and require a $10 deposit to reserve. The farm also has some Broad-Breasted Whites for sale at $3.80 per pound.

61 Ash Swamp Road, Scarborough; 730-9077,
Daniel Mays raises free-range turkeys on pasture, but they are not certified organic. They sell for $4 per pound. The farm is sold out of turkeys for this year, but still has pastured chicken, whole-hog sausage and smoked bacon for sale for your other holiday needs.

76 Wescott Road, Gorham;
Farmer Carl Anderson says he still has five free-range turkeys left for sale at $3 per pound.

332 Alfred Road, Kennebunk;
Mike and Maureen McEnaney just started raising turkeys this year. Their 20- to-30 pound turkeys are free-range birds that are allowed outside on grass 24 hours a day. They have 25 birds, but are only selling half for Thanksgiving at $3 a pound – the rest will be sold as ground turkey through the winter months. They are sold out for this year, but plan to raise more next year. The McEnaneys begin taking orders in September.

578 Lebanon St., Sanford;
Owner Tom Basinger says he usually raises his own turkeys, but this year he is purchasing them through trusted farmers who use all-natural grains with no fillers or animal by-products. The turkeys are free-range, but not certified organic. Basinger has about 50 turkeys ranging from 18 to 25 pounds available to reserve. They cost $3.75 per pound. Basinger also usually has a few 30- to 35-pound birds for sale.

West Paris; 890-2591,
This farm has about a dozen turkeys that have not yet been spoken for, according to farmer Beverly Hall. The free-range birds have a diet supplemented with grain, and have not been exposed to chemicals. Hall estimates they will range in size from 12 to 20 pounds by Thanksgiving. They are processed at a state-inspected facility. Email above address to order.

209 Mile Hill Road, New Sharon; 778-2889
The Turkey Farm’s birds are free-range, and fed grains that are certified to be free of genetically engineered material. The birds do not receive routine antibiotics, but they are treated if they are sick. The cost is $3.49 per pound.

Sopers Mill Road, Auburn;
320-1969, kath@valleyview
This farm still has “a few” Broad-Breasted White turkeys left, according to farmer Kathy Shaw. The farm also raises heritage turkeys (Bourbon Red, Blue Slate, Royal Palm), but they did not lay well this spring, so there will be none for the holidays. Try again next year.

87 Standpipe Road, Mechanic Falls; 345-9005
This farm raises organic, free-range turkeys who are fed a diet supplemented with organic grain and, at this time of year, also some organic cracked corn. Whispering Winds is sold out for this year, and already has a waiting list for next year.
184 Burnett Road, Freeport;
Wolfes Neck pasture raises Bronze Broad-Breasted turkeys that are sold for $4.50 per pound. You can request a hen for a smaller gathering (13 to 16 pounds of meat) or a tom for larger groups (18 to 26 pounds). You can order one online at for a Nov. 22 pick-up.

— Compiled by Meredith Goad

Should you buy fresh or frozen? Free-range and organic, or a heritage bird? Kosher, self-basting or premium? Hen versus tom turkey? Just a breast or a whole bird?

Here's a guide to what all this turkey terminology means, along with a list of local farms that still have birds available for your table:

Fresh or frozen?

Turkeys can be called fresh if they have been stored at 26 degrees Fahrenheit or above, according to the National Turkey Federation. (Turkey meat does not freeze at 32 degrees.) Sometimes they'll have a little ice on the skin, but that does not mean they've been frozen. Fresh turkeys are convenient because you don't have to thaw them, but they are typically a little more expensive than frozen, and have a shorter shelf life.

Frozen, or "previously frozen," turkeys may have been processed months ago. They are flash-frozen right after processing down to 0 degrees or below.

There's also a category called "hard chilled." These birds are stored between 0 and 26 degrees, and have a similar shelf life as a fresh bird. Their label may say "not previously frozen." The U.S. Department of Agriculture created this category because it felt that birds that are hard to the touch should not be labeled "fresh."

As far as taste goes, a few years ago, Cooks Illustrated did a taste test where frozen birds actually scored higher than fresh ones that had been stored at slightly above freezing. The conclusion was that as the temperature fluctuates in the fresh birds during transport, the ice crystals that form break through the cell walls and dry out the meat.

But not everyone agrees with that finding.

"Obviously, I think the longer any product is frozen, the quality definitely wanes, for sure," said Ben Forbes, meat team leader at Whole Foods Market in Portland.

Forbes said Whole Foods' frozen birds are processed just a few weeks before they end up in the store. "The frozen quality is amazing, but you still can't beat a fresh, processed bird for Thanksgiving, I think," he said.


What's the difference between a hen and a tom turkey, and does one taste better than the other?

A hen is a female bird; a tom is male. How they taste will depend primarily on where and how they were raised. The main difference is size; a tom will be larger than a hen. Designating whether a turkey is a hen or a tom is not required on the label.


What about hormones and antibiotics?

Some turkey farmers use antibiotics to keep their flocks healthy, but federal regulations do not allow poultry to be treated with hormones. So when you see "hormone-free" on a turkey label, that's just a marketing tactic the producer uses to set your mind at ease and perhaps lure you into buying his bird over another brand.


What's a "young turkey?"

Turkeys less than 8 months old.


What is a "self-basted" turkey?

Self-basted turkeys have been injected with or marinated in a solution that contains fat, broth or water, spices, flavor enhancers and other approved substances.


Do organic and free-range turkeys really taste better?

First of all, what do those terms really mean? A certified organic turkey eats organic feed, has access to the outdoors and has never been given antibiotics.

The term "free-range" means the birds have access to the outdoors. But birds can be outdoors and still be crowded into pens. It's the amount of space each turkey has, not whether they are indoors or outdoors, that determines how tasty the meat will be on your Thanksgiving table.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Whispering Winds Farm in Mechanic Falls is sold out of its organic, free-range turkeys for this year, and has a waiting list for next.


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