Thanksgiving turkeys taste better on an Arizona farm. this is the reason

Thanksgiving turkeys taste better on an Arizona farm.  this is the reason

Turkeys are the symbol of the Thanksgiving table. The National Turkey Federation estimates that 46 million frozen turkeys are consumed each year. Although mass-produced frozen birds are the most efficient option for distributing that staggering number of birds each November, they are not the only option.

When turkeys are frozen in grocery stores, the moisture freezes within the muscles. Ice crystals expand and change their texture. After thawing, moisture seeps out of the meat, making it drier than if it were freshly cooked. This causes deterioration of both texture and flavour. That’s one of the reasons why former chef Michael Mothart decided to start his own poultry farm, Top Knot Farms, in southern Arizona, near Tucson.

“They are free to feed on insects and grass and that makes them taste better,” Muthart said.

Like most Arizona farmers, he raises his turkeys from poultry or chickens imported from other states, and finishes them off with grain feeding in preparation for Thanksgiving. He does this rather than keeping larger birds all year round because it is too expensive to do so and the demand is too seasonal.

But that didn’t stop one Arizona rancher.

Heritage turkey farm in Arizona

Even after a three-hour drive from Phoenix, it takes another 25 miles on a pitted dirt road to reach the oasis called Moon River Beef Ranch. The dogs chase the few cars that appear, wagging their tails in greeting. The lush green hills surrounding the ranch make it hard to believe it’s in the same state known for its saguaros, red rocks, and sandstone towers. It’s quiet, rural and gorgeous, which is what drew Lisa Khan there in the first place.

Khan is a divorce attorney working on her final cases. Although she does not come from a cattle ranching family, owning one was a childhood dream. She purchased the Perkinsville property in 2013 and began raising cattle and selling them at auction. During the drought in Yavapai County, which coincided with the pandemic, beef prices dropped and they focused on selling directly to restaurants like Tarbell’s and Persepshen. It also began selling chickens, eggs and turkeys.

Every fall, the breeds of turkeys you raise from eggs take center stage. Khan said she crossbreeds larger birds “to get the perfect flavor and tenderness.”

Moon River Beef is located at farmers markets in Uptown, Downtown and McDowell Mountain where Khan typically sells 60 to 70 turkeys between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Their stock toms weigh 18 to 20 pounds and their chickens weigh 15 to 18 pounds. It sells out every year. But they’re hardly payday.

“It’s really expensive to feed these guys,” she said. “We just do it because it’s fun. Turks are fun and they’re beautiful. It’s just a hobby.”

Heritage turkeys are not the same as wild turkeys

While wild turkeys may be a heritage breed, heritage turkeys raised for the Thanksgiving table are not wild and often are not even the same subspecies.

According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Arizona is home to three subspecies of wild turkeys. Gould’s is larger and has longer legs. Its blue-green plumage contrasts with the white tail and rump feathers. The Rio Grande, which was “recently introduced at Black Rock Mountain,” has pink-tinged breast and tail feathers. Merriam’s turkeys, which are native to the western United States, especially northern Arizona, New Mexico and the ponderosa pine forests of Colorado, are known for having white feathers on their lower backs and tails and black-covered bodies with purple, blue and bronze feathers.

Although wild turkeys are unlikely to end up on the holiday table, anthropologist Amber Sampson, Indigenous foodways coordinator at the Pueblo Grande Museum in Phoenix, said they have significance to Indigenous people. They traditionally roasted, stuffed, and cooked large birds and used their feathers to make cloaks, headdresses, and arrows. For the O’odham people, turkeys represent the spirit of rain and are believed to predict the weather, in just one of many appearances of turkeys in the tradition.

Domestic turkeys, which typically have white feathers, are originally from southern Mexico and are a completely different subspecies, according to the Smithsonian Biology Institute.

When it comes to eating wild turkeys, they are much more muscular, as many of them can fly, which means denser, stronger meat. Game birds also enjoy a haphazard diet of natural nuts, berries and insects as do heritage breeds. Additionally, farm-raised turkeys are fed grains to help them develop specific flavors.

Whether heritage or wild, turkeys are one of America’s oldest culinary traditions. “Large domestic animals, such as horses and cattle, were not native to the Americas,” Sampson said. “Therefore, an accessible food supply, such as the turkey, which provides seasonal winter game, and supplies of its feathers and bones, was a useful resource, deserving of respect.”

Raising turkeys in Arizona

Mothart’s rancher raises local broad-breasted turkeys because he feels fresh poultry tastes better. Khan focuses on her heritage breeds because of their dark meat and rich flavour.

“These turkeys have a lot of intramuscular fat, which makes the meat taste nice,” she said.

Whether raised from chickens or eggs, raising turkeys in Arizona is a unique endeavor.

At Moon River Beef Farm, toms strut across the ground, tail feathers unfurl, and blue faces give way to red wattles. In their pens, they leap and devour to establish dominance.

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Arizona farm raising heritage breed turkeys for Thanksgiving

At Moon River Beef in Perkinsville, heritage turkeys, raised from eggs by owner Lisa Kahn, take center stage during the holidays.

Inside the coop, hens emit an intermittent crowing, known as a rally call, that is audible amid the males’ noisy gnaws, punctuated by clucking, purring, and thumping.

Each year, Khan selects the flies and chickens to raise next year’s flock, and marks them accordingly.

The heritage breed turkeys she was raising were considered teenagers at four months old, so the indoor hatchery is empty in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, when the turkeys are old enough to be outside. Come early spring, they will begin a new breeding cycle and prepare the area with bedding for the chicks.

Their process is very different from raising turkeys found in most grocery stores. Commercial birds are genetically engineered to mature in just 14 to 16 weeks, and are fed a diet of corn and soybeans mixed with vitamins. According to the Humane Society, most are limited to 2.5 cubic feet per space per bird.

She added that Khan’s turkeys graze on 50 acres of irrigated pasture where they eat “insects, grass, eggs and vegetables from the garden.” At a certain point, they begin to restrict their activity somewhat to avoid developing tough meat.

She said it takes about 48 days from breeding to hatching, followed by six months of feeding before they are ready for the table.

According to Khan, the biggest challenge facing turkey farming in Arizona is obtaining the right food for its birds. “Arizona does not produce proper feed for poultry,” she said.

How to cook a heritage turkey, according to the farm owner who raises it

When it comes to cooking heritage breed turkeys, Khan recommends skipping traditional cooking methods that require 15-20 minutes of cooking time per pound, because they can dry out the meat.

She provided the following advice:

  • Rinse and dry the turkey, then leave it under aluminum foil for 1 1/2 to 2 hours before cooking to bring it to room temperature.
  • Place pieces of soft, unsalted butter under the skin of the turkey between the skin and the meat. This will make the skin golden and crispy and keep the turkey meat moist.
  • Keep seasoning simple. Rub the cavity generously with salt and pepper, inside and out.
  • Place breast side down in a roasting pan fitted with a broiler, so the turkey doesn’t sit in its juices.)
  • No stuff. Cook the filling or sauce separately.
  • Do not cover with aluminum foil as this will make the meat simmer or cook.
  • Cook in a preheated oven at 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • To prevent heat loss, baste the turkey only once, about the halfway point of cooking. Rubbing the butter under the skin should provide enough moisture to prevent dryness.
  • Turn the bird over after an hour and a half of cooking and use a thermometer to check the temperature regularly to avoid overcooking.
  • Once the internal temperature in the thickest part of the thigh reaches 140°F, remove the turkey from the oven and let it rest for 30 minutes. During this rest period, the internal temperature will rise to a safe and ideal 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

Stay away from the oven. Order your holiday dessert from these metro Phoenix pie shops

Contact the reporter at Follow @banooshahr on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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