We asked local butchers and farmers to weigh in on the best bird for your buck

By Elena Kadvany

Turkeys on the move in full fanned-out glory. (Photo via Flickr)

Matthew Prentice, head butcher at Belcampo Meat Co. in Palo Alto, grew up eating Butterball turkeys for Thanksgiving. The widely available birds are injected with what the company calls a “pre-brine” and are raised on factory farms.

This was all he knew, he said, “until I became a butcher and was able to get a better perspective on how turkeys actually taste.”

Prentice and other local butchers argue that when it comes to Thanksgiving turkey, quality — and price — do correspond with flavor. (You get what you pay for, they say.) For a dinner tradition celebrated by so many, the average person knows little about the differences that factor into the centerpiece of their Thanksgiving meal: be it organic, air-chilled, smoked or salt-brined. So we asked some local experts for insight into tracking down a terrific turkey.

Matthew Prentice, head butcher of Belcampo Meat Co. in Palo Alto. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Belcampo

If Butterball was your old Motorola flip phone, Belcampo is the iPhoneX. Its turkeys are raised on a 20,000-acre farm in Mt. Shasta, where they roam free, eat what they want (their only diet supplement is organic maize that’s also grown on the farm, Prentice said) and are handled humanely in accordance with rigorous Animal Welfare Association standards.

The butcher shop sells two breeds: an organic Broad Breasted White turkey at $7.99 per pound and a heritage Bourbon Red turkey at $11.99 per pound. (By comparison, you can get organic, “animal welfare rated” turkeys from Whole Foods from $2.49 to $4.99 per pound.)

Cooked and ready for carving. (Photo via Flickr)

The Belcampo way is “a lot different than the conventional way that poultry is raised in the U.S., where they’re in crates or maybe allowed to go outside a little bit but for the most part they’re enclosed and they’re just fed corn and soy,” Prentice said. “They can have more birds per square inch than say, we can, which is one of the reasons why our birds are more expensive.”

If the higher prices deter you but you still want a sustainable, good-tasting bird, Prentice said to look for three markers: organic, air chilled and pasture raised.

Organic has nothing to do with how the birds are treated, or whether they’re kept in an enclosure, but rather what they’re fed.

Air-chilled means that after slaughtering, the meat is cooled down in a fridge instead of being submerged in a chlorinated water bath. The bath adds water weight, which not only affects flavor but also makes the birds more expensive, Prentice said.

He’s on to us: close-up of one of Dede Boies’s Heritage Turkeys. (Photo via Root Down Farm’s Instagram)

Again though, consideration should be given to the actual type of turkey. The Broad Breasted White, a common domesticated breed, produce what most people think of when eating Thanksgiving turkey, Prentice said: bigger breasts, ample white meat, delicate flavor.

The heritage breed, by contrast, is as close as you’ll get to eating a wild turkey, Prentice said. The turkey, reportedly named for Bourbon County in Kentucky’s Bluegrass region, is a cross of several pure breeds. Their meat is leaner and darker with a strong, almost “gamey” flavor.

As a butcher who is well aware of the many options out there, Prentice already has his name down for a 10-pound heritage turkey (which he plans to marinate in a Peruvian spice mixture for two days before spatchcocking and roasting it.)

Dede Boies feeding the pigs and big birds of Root Down Farm. (Photo by Federica Armstrong)

Root Down Farm

Dede Boies is also raising heritage turkeys at Root Down Farm in Pescadero. She defines heritage as “taking humane standards to a new level” — starting with the bird’s actual genetics.

“Most chickens, turkeys and ducks that are raised in this country are bred to grow really fat, to basically convert feed to meat really fast,” she said “It doesn’t leave the animal behaving in the way it was originally intended.”

Raising heritage breeds means turkeys can be turkeys, as they were intended. They grow in a seven-month span rather than the four months for commercial breeds, Boies said, which creates more flavorful meat.

This year, Boies raised a breed called Standard Bronze. Despite the fact that heritage breeds tend to be leaner, this turkey has “the perfect amount of fat,” she said.

Root Down Farm’s turkeys are $10.75 per pound, a price that reflects not only the quality of the bird but the labor that goes into raising them humanely. They’re fed non-GMO, organic food and are rotated outside on a daily basis over a longer period of time, Boies said.

And while free range is good, pasture raised is better, she said — there’s a “wide margin” for what’s labeled as free range.

Boies said she’s not convinced there’s a significant difference in quality between fresh and frozen turkeys, as long as the birds are sealed appropriately and frozen for the right amount of time.

Mark Dittmer, owner of Dittmer’s Gourmet Meats & Wurst-Haus in Los Altos. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Dittmer’s

Mark Dittmer, owner of longtime meat shop Dittmer’s Gourmet Meats & Wurst-Haus in Los Altos, has been eating birds from Diestel Family Turkey Ranch for Thanksgiving for as long as he can remember. His father started selling Diestel turkeys at the family butchery in the early 1980s. They’re juicy rather than dry, with no hormones, steroids or add-ins, he said.

“When there’s something injected in there, it bugs me,” Dittmer said. “You usually wind up with a really dry bird.”

Custom smoked turkeys at Dittmers ready for the holiday. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Diestel turkeys are raised on a farm in Sonora “with plenty of fresh air and room to roam whether indoors or outdoors” and fed a 100-percent vegetarian grain diet, according to a brochure from the ranch.

In 2015, however, an animal liberation advocacy group released a report describing poor conditions at a separate ranch owned by Diestel in Jamestown, Calif. And just this week, Direct Action Everywhere SF Bay Area filed an updated class action suit against Diestel, alleging the residue of a FDA-prohibited antibiotic appeared in Diestel turkeys in USDA-conducted tests.

Dittmer’s sells Diestel turkeys at $3.59 per pound and a frozen organic heirloom breed at $5.19 per pound.

The shop also smokes Diestel turkeys in house at $6.99 per pound. Using a seasoning recipe Dittmer’s father developed in the 1960s, the turkeys are brined, cured and then smoked until their internal temperature reaches about 160 degrees, Dittmer said. They’re fully cooked, so all you have to do is heat the bird up when it’s time to eat. Dittmer adds a thin layer of apricot or peach juice to the bottom of a pan with cinnamon, places a foil tent over the turkey and lets it heat up. He adds green onion or parsley at the end for color.

Dittmer argued that the lower quality turkey you get, the more you’ll have to do to make it taste good.

“If you start with good ingredients, you don’t have to work hard,” he said.

Belcampo Meat Co., 855 El Camino Real #161; 650–561–3492

Dittmers Gourmet Meats & Wurst-Haus Inc., 4540 El Camino Real; 650–941–3800

Root Down Farm, 2601 Cloverdale Road, Pescadero; 650–879–9921

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THE SIX FIFTY staff

Sometimes our work is a collaborative effort, hence the "staff" byline. The best of what to eat, see and do on the SF Peninsula.

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