All About Buying Turkey
Don’t panic. Our turkey guide is here to help.
It’s that time. Farmers’ markets and butcher shops have started taking orders for Thanksgiving turkeys and soon enough—like next week—you’ll start seeing fresh turkeys at the supermarket.
If you’ve been tapped for turkey duty this year, the chatter in your brain might start to sound something like this: Fresh, frozen, or fancy heritage bird? How big should I go? And when should I buy this thing?
Stop the madness and the Googling. We’re here to help you through the biggest food purchase for the biggest food holiday of the year
There is no difference in quality between a fresh and frozen turkey. The difference is in the way the birds leave the processing plant, according to the National Turkey Federation.
Frozen turkeys are flash-frozen right after packaging to 0 degrees (or colder). More perishable fresh turkeys are “deep-chilled”—but never below 26 degrees.
The “fresh” label can by law only be used on a turkey that’s never dipped below that 26-degree threshold. In other words, previously frozen birds can’t be thawed and sold as fresh.
SUPER BIRDS FROM THE SUPERMARKET
A lot of supermarket birds come with a “self-basting” or “basted” label. This means they’ve been injected with a solution of broth, stock or water, melted butter, spices, and other flavorings like wine, juice or maple syrup. The label will list the ingredients and the amount of added solution, which the USDA says can be no more than 3 percent of the total weight of the turkey.
“Some think it adds to the flavor,” said Dr. Jesse Grimes, a professor and extension turkey specialist at North Carolina State University’s Department of Poultry Science.
It’s also a moisture factor: it boosts the “succulence” of the meat and results in a darker, crispier bird because the solution is directed right under the skin, the Turkey Federation says.
Birds labeled “kosher” have been slaughtered and processed under rabbinical supervision—and they come pre-brined, which lessens the chance of a dried-out bird.
USDA certified organic turkeys were raised on organic, pesticide-free feed, with access to the outdoors (though how much time they spend outside isn’t clearly defined).
“Free range” means the birds were “allowed access to the outside,” but that’s as far as the USDA defines it, so again, there’s no telling how much time the turkeys actually got to spend out there.
“Natural,” according to the USDA, just means turkeys were minimally processed with no artificial ingredients or colors added. It’s basically a meaningless term.
One more thing Grimes points out that applies to all turkeys: It’s illegal to give them hormones. If you’re concerned about antibiotics, keep an eye out for “antibiotic-free” or “raised without antibiotics” on the label. DOWN ON THE FARM
If you buy your turkey at the farmers’ market or directly from a farmer, there’s a good chance it’s a pastured or heritage bird—or both. It also was probably raised according to organic principles, though it may not have the USDA organic seal.
A heritage turkey signifies specific breeds of turkey dating back generations—the heirloom tomatoes of the turkey world, if you will, said Epicurious’ Mindy Fox.
A pastured, or pasture-raised, turkey was raised primarily outside on open pasture. (Still, there’s no legal definition for “pastured,” which differs from “free range.”)
So pastured birds and heritage birds aren’t one and same, but they’re similar in some ways. Both heritage and pastured turkeys tend to be slower growing, smaller, older, and leaner that conventional birds, Grimes said.
Heritage turkeys have larger legs and thighs and smaller breasts than commercial birds, and richer, gamier-tasting meat, Fox said.
Some say pastured birds are more flavorful, too. “Flavor can come from what the birds are eating,” Grimes said.
With either type of leaner bird, Mindy suggests adjusting your cooking approach. Amp up the fat around the breast meat to retain moisture, for example, by slathering softened butter under the skin or placing a layer of bacon strips over the breasts (this technique is called barding) before roasting. You could also pull the bird from the oven at 160°F—before it hits the USDA-recommended 165°F—and tent the turkey with foil, which will allow for carry-over cooking without drying it out. Or, she said, consider braising instead of roasting.
Some commercial turkeys come with a built-in pop-up timer, a spring-like little contraption made of food-grade metal or wax that pops up—or is supposed to—when the temperature of the meat reaches the target 165°F.
“Once in a while, those pop-up timers can get stuck,” Grimes said.
His advice, as well as that of the USDA, the National Turkey Federation, the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line folks, this very website, and pretty much everyone else? Don’t rely on the pop-up timer. Use a meat thermometer to double-check. HOW BIG SHOULD YOU GO?
Small turkeys weigh less than 12 pounds. Large ones are in the 15 to 20 pound range, and can go even bigger.
Figure one (uncooked) pound of turkey per person—11/2 pounds for generous leftovers, said Nicole Johnson, co-director of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line.
Also, consider whether your oven and your roasting pan can fit a bigger bird, which is trickier to handle and takes longer to cook than a smaller bird.
WHEN TO BUY
If you’re buying from a farmer, order it now. These turkeys often come frozen but also are delivered fresh, with pickup very close to Thanksgiving Day. Specialty butcher shops typically take orders for fresh turkeys, with a similar pickup window.
If you’re buying fresh from the supermarket, check with your store about its supply. Ideally, you’ll want to buy it as close to Thanksgiving as possible. If you buy earlier than that and you’re not certain your fridge is cold enough (time for a thermometer check—it should be no warmer than 40 degrees in there), store the turkey in the freezer.
And if you’re buying frozen, buy it now or soon. Just give yourself enough time for thawing—24 hours for every four pounds of meat, Johnson said—and for stressing, er, planning the rest of Thanksgiving dinner.