Ah, the poor, beleaguered turkey. Ever since a huddle of Pilgrims shot off a few musket rounds at Plymouth Plantation in 1621 to celebrate their first harvest in the New World, the hapless bird became an unwitting—and erroneous—symbol of the holiday legend: Historians say that the original Thanksgiving table was laden with far more ducks and geese than turkey. To add insult to injury, when the turkey assumed the mantle of the holiday’s culinary mascot—after Thanksgiving became an official celebration in 1867—it became terribly misunderstood, a product of persuasive advertising and clever marketing speak. The result? Today, countless Americans head to their local supermarkets, butchers, and farmers with enough conflicting information to make choosing a bird an affair that ranges from merely haphazard to downright hand-wringing.
The following are guidelines set out by the United States Department of Agriculture—along with point-counterpoint commentary from some of the nation’s top experts in all things turkey—that will help you pick the perfect Meleagris specimen this season.
Fresh vs. frozen
A frozen turkey is just that: frozen. Its internal temperature has been kept at 0°F or below since being processed. Simple enough. Where confusion reigns is in the fresh category.
“According to the government,” says Todd Wickstrom, co-founder of Heritage Foods USA, an organization dedicated to promoting small family farms and a fully traceable, genetically diverse food supply, “a turkey’s freshness has more to do with the temperature it’s kept at rather than how near it is to the kill date.” For a turkey to be called fresh, the USDA requires that it must never reach a temperature lower than 26°F—that’s six degree below freezing. According to Wickstrom, most Thanksgiving birds are processed in September and October but are still labeled “fresh” in November. You do the math.
If a fresh bird—in the true sense of the word—is what you’re after, Dave Zier, owner of Zier’s Prime Meat & Poultry, in Wilmette, Illinois, suggests buying one that has been happily living among its brethren only several days earlier. Grill your butcher as to where he gets his turkeys from and how often. Armed with that information, you’ll know if you’re getting the freshest fresh bird possible.
“Hard-chilled,” or not previously frozen
“Hard-chilled is the gray area between fresh and frozen,” says Wickstrom. The category developed because grocers couldn’t keep a turkey fresh in their stores’ open coolers for very long, so they increased shelf life by lowering the temperature to between 26°F and 0°F.
A bird that’s been labeled kosher has been processed by hand, following kosher laws, all while under rabbinical supervision. Many people confuse koshered turkeys with brined ones, and understandably so, because both use plenty of salt. But because of the required heavy salting and rinsing involved in koshering, it can dry out a turkey, while brining creates a juicy bird with great flavor and a perfectly crisp skin. How? Without a pedantic lecture on the denaturing of animal proteins, suffice it to say that by soaking the turkey in a salty solution, the liquid is absorbed deep into the tissue, causing it to get trapped there. This excess liquid seasons the meat as well as allows the bird to roast at a higher temperature without drying out, resulting in a crackly skin. So all this begs the question: Does a kosher turkey need brining? Absolutely not. It would only result in a salty bird.
An organic turkey is a bird that has been certified by a USDA-accredited agency. The term organic assures that the bird wasn’t treated with any growth hormones or antibiotics. But when it comes to taste, says Wickstrom, the conditions under which a turkey is raised and processed can cancel out many benefits of its being organic. An overcrowded, stressful environment impacts the quality of the meat. And the USDA remains frustratingly noncommittal on the issue: It makes no claim that organic turkeys are healthier or safer than traditional birds. In the end, each organic turkey farmer stands by a personal philosophy. If you’re partial to a brand, visit its Web site or call its hotline to find out what else constitutes its organic certification.
A much easier term to define. A free-range turkey is one that has access to the outside. But both Zier and Wickstrom again stress that it’s the conditions under which turkeys are raised that affect the quality of the birds. Plus, adds Wickstrom, having access to the outside doesn’t mean a bird will choose to take it. Turkeys tend to stay inside, if given a choice, so even an accurately labeled free-range turkey may have rarely ventured forth. A more descriptive and reliable term is pasture-raised, which means the turkeys were reared in their natural environment full-time.
Basted turkeys are those that have been injected — before processing — with up to three percent of its weight (eight percent if boneless) of a solution containing butter or other edible fats, broth, water, spices, flavor enhancers, and/or the vaguely described “other approved substances.” But these birds are the bane of most butchers. Says Zier, “I think it’s such a crime that customers are hooked into buying [basted] turkeys. They’re injected with sodium phosphate, and when they reach a certain temperature, about 140 to 150 degrees, the sodium phosphate releases out of the body. You’re paying extra for that turkey because a lot of its weight is nothing more than chemically treated water.”
Hen vs. tom
Setting aside size, even Zier admits he’d be hard pressed to detect a difference in the texture and taste of a turkey based upon its gender.
Sizing up a bird
Most cookbooks suggest about a pound of turkey per person. (Zier believes in a whopping two pounds, “if you want leftovers, that is.”) But that’s not an exact mathematical theorem. With hens, which run in size from about ten to sixteen pounds, the customary rule applies. But for toms, which start at seventeen pounds and can top the scale at almost twice that, calculate about three-quarters of a pound per person, since there’s a greater meat-to-bone ratio.
Storing and thawing
Think cold. To store a fresh turkey, keep it in the refrigerator in its plastic wrapper until ready to cook it. (If brining, follow your recipe’s instructions.) Tucking a lipped baking sheet underneath is helpful to catch any drips. To store a frozen turkey, place it in the freezer immediately upon arriving home. Thawing it takes a bit of planning, though. Working backwards from Thanksgiving, use the rule of one day of thaw time in the refrigerator for every four or five pounds of turkey. So a sixteen-pound turkey requires four days to thaw completely.
The USDA also suggests the water-bath method for thawing a frozen turkey. For this, make sure the bird is wrapped tightly before fully submerging it in cold tap water, then allow 30 minutes per pound. So a 16-pound turkey thawed this way would be ready for the oven in only eight hours. In either case, never refreeze a thawed turkey.
Surprisingly, the department even offers suggestions for defrosting in a microwave. But unless you have a one the size of a Mini Cooper, stick with the above methods.
WIN, PLACE, AND SHOW
Farmers, producers, and butchers are so insistent on buying a fresh bird, it led the way in our triumvirate of top turkey choices for this holiday.
First place — fresh heritage turkey
At up to $10 a pound, fresh heritage turkeys are the Rolls Royce of gobblers, and our pick for best bird. Once teetering on the edge of extinction, “these birds are descendants of the first domesticated turkeys in this country and have excellent genes,” says Wickstrom. Since 2001, he has worked with prominent poultry experts and farmers to help assure the survival and proliferation of these pedigreed birds. Besides being pastured-raised, heritage turkeys are never treated with antibiotics, growth hormones, or additives. But perhaps most important, they’re allowed 26 to 28 weeks to develop to full weight, which is twice as long as industrially raised birds are given to reach the same size.
What all this genetic preservation and careful raising assures is a deeper, more intense flavor and a pleasant firmer texture, which is why heritage turkeys trump the Broad-Breasted White variety, the bird most commonly found in grocers’ freezers. “Heritage turkeys are delicious,” says Zier. “They’re like wild turkey, but not gamey or dry. We have more and more people asking for them every year.”
During the past several years, small-farm producers and independent distributors and butchers have joined forces, making farm-fresh heritage birds available to anyone with a car, phone, or computer. All turkeys ordered from Heritage Foods USA’s alliances of farms ship the Monday before Thanksgiving and are butchered no more than seven days before you get them, guaranteeing a fresh bird just in time for stuffing and roasting.
Second place — fresh crossbreed turkey
Because heritage turkeys come from superior stock, are raised naturally, and take longer to grow, all of which contribute to better flavor and a firmer texture, our second choice for top bird is a crossbreed turkey, such as the modern Broad-Breasted Bronze. A cross between the heritage Standard Bronze, also known — oxymoronically — as the Unimproved Bronze, and the standard Broad-Breasted White, the Broad-Breasted Bronze has the heft and enormous breast we’ve grown accustomed to, but it also has a deeper taste. Because it doesn’t mate naturally, however, it can’t be classified as a heritage turkey. Nonetheless, it’s far superior to the birds we’ve been eating for years.
Third place — fresh pasture-raised turkey
Our third pick would be any turkey that was pasture-raised and freshly killed. “Even a Broad-Breasted White raised on a farm where it can eat grass and enjoy its time while out there is better than an industrially raised turkey,” says Wickstrom. “It may have a shorter life compared to a heritage turkey, but that’s okay. At least it’d be a good one.”
This considerably less expensive bird is the type of turkey Zier and his wife, Denise, affectionately know as “the butcher’s wife,” sell most often, especially during the holidays. One of the local farmers they’ve chosen to do business with, because of his exacting standards, is particularly careful in raising his Broad-Breasted Whites. He even goes so far as to walk them slowly a mile and a half to slaughter, a process that’s less stressful on the bird and can be seen and tasted at the dinner table. Explains Denise, “When the bird is stressed, blood vessels rupture, and there’ll be blood in the joints. You don’t see that in a well-cared-for turkey.”
Of course, all this talk about fresh turkeys brings up the question: What about frozen? Both Zier and Wickstrom agree that a frozen top-quality bird beats any fresh industrially raised turkey. But with easy access through mail order and over the Internet, Zier strongly recommends a freshly processed turkey. “You simply can’t beat it.”
All of the following resources provide freshly butchered and processed turkeys.
Fresh heritage turkey
Heritage Foods USA
P.O. Box 827
New York, NY 10150
Tele/fax: (212) 980-6603
Slow Food USA
6567 N. Tamera Ave.
Fresno, CA 93711-0924
Tele: (888) 666-8244
Fresh pasture-raised turkey
2021 Isaacs Ave.
Walla Walla, WA 99362
Tele: (509) 522-9400
Fax: (509) 522-9444
Toll-free: (866) 350-9400
Dan Barber’s Pastured Turkeys
Tele: (914) 366-6200
Illustration © 2007 Amanda Duffy. All rights reserved.