How to Buy a Thanksgiving Turkey

Turkey Labels

This month, millions of us will find ourselves standing, dazed and confused, at butcher shops, supermarkets, hoity-toity gourmet stores, and farmers markets, once again confronted, as we are each November, with every conceivable type of turkey, each whispering its name: fresh, frozen, free-range, organic, kosher, natural, heritage, self-basting, wild. With such a cacophony of ill-defined information bombarding us, the task of choosing a bird for that holiest of holy food days can range from haphazard to hand-wringing. So I decided to find out once and for all what these dagnabbit terms mean—and which will cause spontaneous choruses of “We’re having Thanksgiving at your house again next year, [insert your name here]!” from your guests.

Natural

“Natural” is a very loosely regulated term for a bird that, technically, contains no “artificial ingredients” or “added color.” This doesn’t mean, however, that the turkey hasn’t been treated with antibiotics or growth hormones. In reality, this term doesn’t mean much of anything. (Sigh.) Buyer beware.

Organic

A turkey that’s labeled ‘organic’ has been certified by a USDA-accredited certifying agency. Very official sounding, right? The term assures that the bird wasn’t treated with antibiotics, given growth hormones, or raised on a diet containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It also assures that the price will be several dollars more a pound than that of most processed birds, though usually worth it.

Frozen

A frozen bird is, by law, one that’s stored below 0°F. That’s right. Not the temperature empirically associated with freezing, but well below that. (You’ll find more harrumphing about this below, under “Fresh.”) Bear in mind that thawing a “frozen” bird takes some planning. Working backward from Thanksgiving, allow one day in the refrigerator for every four to five pounds of turkey. That means a 16-pound turkey will require four days or so to thaw completely. If you find that you still have a bird-cicle come Thanksgiving morn, no need to call for takeout. Just rely on the fast-working water bath trick. The USDA also offers suggestions for microwave defrosting, but unless you have a nuke box the size of a Fiat 500L, stick with the fridge method. And never, ever refreeze a thawed turkey.

Not Previously Frozen

Technically, any turkey that’s been held between 26°F and 0°F can be labeled “not previously frozen.” I don’t know about you, but my Portuguese ass would be more than frozen at 0°F. What do the folks over at the USDA think these turkeys have running through their not-previously-frozen veins? Plutonium?

Fresh

The simple word “fresh” takes on a complex definition in terms of turkeys. According to the USDA, a fresh turkey is one that’s never been kept below 26°F. I’m not the only one to find this definition evasive. So does Todd Wickstrom, who cofounded Heritage Foods USA as a way of preserving and promoting heirloom foods in America. “Most [Broad-Breasted White, the bird most commonly found in grocers’ freezers] Thanksgiving birds are processed in September and October but are still labeled ‘fresh’ in November, which means they’ve been kept just above 26 degrees for months,” says Wickstrom. Hmmm. Makes you wonder how “fresh” the turkeys at your local supermarket truly are. Conversely, when most heritage or free-range turkey purveyors use the term “fresh,” they’re referring to a bird that’s been processed within days of your buying it.

Basted or Self-Basting Turkeys

These birds—many whose labels you’d recognize, though we’re not going to name names (okay, Butterball)—have been injected with a solution containing butter or other edible fats, broth, water, spices, flavor enhancers, and/or the vaguely described “other approved substances.” (Do you know that medical marijuana is a governmentally “approved substance” in Washington, DC? Perhaps that’s what the guys who write these laws have been toking.) The resulting texture can often be mushy. And the taste? Well…

Kosher

A kosher bird is one that’s been processed according to kosher laws under rabbinical supervision. The turkey is first soaked in water for half an hour, then packed in kosher salt and set aside to allow the blood to drain, then rinsed and rinsed and rinsed to remove all trace of salt. Okay, almost all trace of salt.

Wild

If pulling buckshot from your dinner is your style, then sure, go for a wild turkey. Just be warned that it’s going to be gamier and drier than what you’re accustomed to eating.

Free-Range

A turkey labeled “free-range” has had access to the outdoors. That doesn’t mean its living conditions weren’t deplorable. It simply means the bird had an egress. And just because a bird has access to the outside doesn’t mean it will take it. According to Wickstrom, turkeys tend to stay inside if given a choice, regardless of the conditions. To put this in context, many industrial facilities jam tens of thousands of birds together, which is detrimental not only to the birds’ health, often requiring the need for antibiotics, but also to the quality of their shapely legs and luscious breasts. You’d never guess that from the term “free-range,” though, would you?

Pasture-Raised

A pasture-raised turkey is reared in pastures full-time, which gives it free reign to amble as it pleases and to rummage for grubs and bugs and other other real nourishment, as opposed to GMO-tainted grains. Turkeys allowed to roam freely and forage for food are healthier and happier (okay, so I’m playing turkey whisperer here) and, as a result, better-tasting. Period.

This is the type of turkey Dave Zier, owner of Zier’s Prime Meats & Poultry in Wilmette, Illinois, sells most often during the holidays. One of the local farmers they’ve chosen to do business with is particularly careful in how he treats his pasture-raised birds—so careful he even goes so far as to slowly walk them a mile and a half to slaughter, a process that’s less stressful on the bird than typical practices and, consequently, turns out a far more tender, tastier turkey.

Heritage

Heritage turkeys are the Rolls-Royce of gobblers and my pick for best bird. Once teetering on the edge of extinction, these birds are descendants of the first domesticated turkeys in this country, says Wickstrom. While he notes they have excellent genes, he’s emphatic in his belief that the conditions under which a turkey is raised are as important as pedigree. That’s why heritage birds tend to be pastured-raised. Perhaps just as important is the fact that they’re allowed 26 to 28 weeks to mature, twice as long as it takes factory-farmed birds to reach the same size.

All this genetic preservation and catering-to assures a deeper, more intense, more distinctive flavor and a firmer texture compared to industrial-grown, chemical-tasting, self-basting birds. “Heritage turkeys are delicious,” says Zier. “They’re like a wild turkey, but not gamey or dry. We have more and more people asking for them every Thanksgiving.”

At up to $10 a pound, heritage turkeys trump the industrially raised Broad-Breasted White variety not just in taste but in price. If you’re a turkey connoisseur and can swing the cost, it’s worth it. White-meat lovers take note: Heritage birds don’t have the generously endowed breasts that supermarkets turkeys do (which, by the way, is waaaay out of proportion to reality—yet another example of our culture’s obsession with big breasts). Granted, you’ll have less white meat, but it’ll be better-tasting white meat. Just eat more mashed potatoes.

A Few More Words On The Bird

Most cookbooks suggest allowing about a pound of turkey per person, although Zier advises a whopping two pounds. “If you want leftovers, that is,” he adds. Should that mathematical turn of events mean you’d end up cramming a 24-pounder into your oven, first consider what we have to say on the topic before doing anything so drastic. No matter the size of your bird, bear in mind that those pop-up timers often found on industrially processed turkeys are notoriously unreliable. Not only do they pierce the skin and let flavorful juices escape, but they can malfunction, leaving you to carve an under- or overcooked bird.

Got other questions? Relax. We’ve got answers in our Thanksgiving Disasters Averted slideshow.

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Sources For The Bird

All of these resources provide freshly butchered turkeys.

Fresh Heritage Turkeys
Heritage Foods USA
402 Graham Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 389-0985
info@heritagefoodsusa.com
www.heritagefoodsusa.com

Mary’s Free-Range Turkey
6567 N. Tamera Ave.
Fresno, CA 93711-0924
(888)-666-8244
mary@marysturkeys.com
www.marysturkeys.com

Fresh Pasture-Raised Turkey
Diestel Turkey Ranch
22200 Lyons Bald Mountain Rd.
Sonora, CA 95370
(888) 666-8244
www.diestelturkey.com/pasture-raised

Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm
227 Ekonk Hill Rd.
Moosup, CT 06354-2215
(860) 564-0248
info@ekonkhillturkeyfarm.com
ekonkhillturkeyfarm.com/

Hungry for more? Chow down on these:

Comments
Comments
  1. Betty Campbell says:

    Has anyone cooked a turkey in a wood stove. I am planing on doing this.

  2. Martha in KS says:

    Good to know about the technicality of “fresh” if not frozen below 26 degrees. Not The One (my ex) delivered food to grocery stores, and he would go to a locally owned store that advertised their “fresh” turkeys. In the back room there were turkeys thawing in tanks of water & they were using an air hose to puff the birds up. How deceptive.

    This fabulous Kansas farmer raises heritage birds & he was featured in the NY Times last year and on Martha Stewart’s show.

    • David Leite says:

      Dorothy, clearly, you and Not The One know from whence I come. And shame on those supermarket flunkies. They should know better. And thank you for adding another reputable source to our article.

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