The first thing you should know about the Diestel Family Turkey Ranch is that you can’t throw a locally grown organic sweet potato without hitting someone named Diestel.
While some families might take the opportunity to relax that is offered to owners of a large and thriving business, the Diestels are the epitome of hard-working family farmers.
Jason Diestel took time out from developing the new pasture-raised turkey program (and the compost plans, and the environmentally friendly cleaning plans and probably some other things he didn’t have time to tell us about) to have lunch and show us the home farm.
Joan Diestel was away at the time of our tour, but she stopped by my office a week later to make sure we had all the information we need. I’ve yet to meet Heidi, but I get regular Facebook posts from her.
The second thing you should know about the Diestel Family Turkey Ranch is that it smells right. If you’ve spent any time around farms, ranches or food processing, you know that the first tip-off to a shady operation is, literally, a bad smell.
The Diestel home ranch smells like good earth, fresh grass and, of course, turkey. This extends even to the processing plant, where turkeys are killed, cleaned and packaged, and where you might reasonably expect things to be a little smelly: not so much. While there are definitely strong smells there, every inch is clearly cleaned to an enviable standard.
A group of Davis Food Co-op employees had the chance to visit the ranch in October. The Co-op sells about 600 Diestel turkeys each November, and it made sense to us to take the opportunity to meet both our farmers and our food.
(Taking a three-hour drive to Sonora may seem a little excessive as far as market research goes, but we find it time well spent. A solid knowledge of our food supply chain gives us the opportunity to make the best possible buying decisions for our members.)
Diestel raises a variety of different birds, including the “petite,” which matures at a much smaller size, and heritage breeds like American bronze and Spanish black. The ones we sell at the Co-op are Diestel’s own variety of the traditional broad-breasted white.
While heritage breeds have a more interesting flavor; the mild taste and generous amount of white meat of the traditional bird make this turkey a hands-down favorite for most families.
The proprietary Diestel varieties take about two months longer to come to maturity than the more common commercial varieties, which they believe leads to a better turkey.
Since many Co-op shoppers care deeply about the conditions in which animals are raised, and their treatment in butchering, I was happy to have to the chance to view both operations. Diestel birds live outside, and receive a carefully crafted, custom feed blend. The birds have everything a turkey could desire — big, roomy fields full of bugs, branches and other turkeys, regular meals and plenty of water, and even “turkey toys” hanging from the trees.
In the end, turkeys ride in individual crates (which are roomy enough for comfort but not so large that they will panic and thrash around) to the processing plant. The time from being taken out of their crate to the time they’re slaughtered is 90 seconds.
Within minutes after that, the turkeys have been plucked (the feathers are sent off for composting), and the birds cleaned and dropped in an ice bath to be quickly chilled to 28 degrees. This “ice crust” is required for all fresh turkeys sold commercially in California.
Are Diestel birds better? If you grew up eating commercial birds from the deep freeze, the answer is a resounding “yes!” Hard-frozen birds generally are brine-injected and “butter” soaked to make up for the loss of moisture caused by freezing and the loss of flavor that results from breeds selected for their ability to put on weight fast on a cheap diet.
We find both original and Heidi birds to be much more tender and flavorful than commercial varieties.
No matter what kind of turkey you get, the success of your dinner depends on how you handle your bird. If you get a deep-frozen one, allow one day for every 4 pounds of turkey for thawing time in the home refrigerator — that means a nice 12-pound turkey will need three days to thaw. Please don’t ever thaw your turkey on the counter — thawing at room temperature dramatically increases the chances of food-borne illness.
If you’re getting fresh turkey, you’ll still need to allow some time in the home fridge for the ice crust to melt. If you’re brining your turkey, you can pop a fresh turkey straight in, ice crust and all.
You don’t need to wash your turkey — in fact, doing so can actually spread contamination around your kitchen. Do pat your bird dry with paper towels before roasting.
By the way, a chicken usually has the neck and giblets tucked into the main cavity. A turkey usually has the neck stuck in the main cavity, and the bag of giblets tucked under the flap of skin at the other end.
Diestel turkeys have a nylon loop wedged into the main cavity that serves as a truss for the legs — pretty nifty! It’s oven-safe up to 450 degrees F. If your turkey doesn’t come that way, you can use kitchen twine to tie the legs together. (Your turkey will cook just fine if you don’t, but it won’t look quite as pretty.)
Here’s how I’m cooking my organic Heidi turkey from Diestel this year. The brine recipe is loosely based on one that appeared in Saveur magazine.
12- to 14-pound fresh turkey
¾ cup kosher salt
10 tablespoons brown sugar
6 quarts (24 cups) water
3 bay leaves
1 bunch fresh sage (40 sprigs)
½ bunch fresh thyme (20 sprigs)
Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil. Add sugar, salt and bay leaves, and stir until dissolved. Pour into a very clean 5-gallon container. Add remaining water and fresh herbs and stir well. Remove neck and giblets from turkey and place in brine. Refrigerate 8-12 hours. You do not need to rinse the turkey before cooking, but be sure to empty brine from cavity and pat dry.
Preheat oven to 425º. Place the bird in a deep roasting pan. Use a wire rack to lift the bird off the bottom of the pan, or fill the pan with big chunks of chopped vegetables. Roast the bird until the thigh temperature reaches 140º-150º, about three hours. Let the bird rest at least 30 minutes before carving to let the juices settle.