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What You Need to Know to Buy the Right Turkey for You

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Next to actually cooking your turkey (the timing! the basting! the oh-no-I-don't-have-any-more-room-in-my-oven!), buying your turkey is equally, if not more, daunting. Should you buy an organic bird? What about a heritage one? And what does "self-basted" mean?

We know, we know: Whoa. Thankfully, though, there are people out there who know the answers to all this (and much more), like Meathead Goldwyn, the author of Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling and editor and writer of AmazingRibs.com. We asked Meathead for his turkey buying advice and he directed us towards an article he wrote that does, in fact, answer all of questions—and then some. (We also consulted Whole Foods' global meat buyer, Theo Weening, for his turkey thoughts.)

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With help like this, choosing the right turkey just might be the easiest part of Thanksgiving.

What age is my turkey, really?

Barbara Kafka's Simple Roast Turkey
Barbara Kafka's Simple Roast Turkey

Most major turkey distributors (like Butterball and Perdue) raise one breed of domesticated turkey, the Broad Breasted White, and this accounts for about 99% of all turkey on the market. The Broad Breasted White has, as Meathead describes it, been “bred smaller to fit modern family sizes, with larger breasts to satisfy the demand for white meat, with a metabolism that lets them grow to market rapidly, and with all white feathers because dark feathers make black spots on the skin.”

And how rapidly long are these birds' lives? Well, you can discern that information by looking at the label.

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  • “Young Turkey": less than 8 months old.
  • “Fryer/Roaster Turkey”: less than 12 weeks old (and, yes, this is an immature bird).

Why is my turkey already salted?

Russ Parsons' Dry-Brined Turkey (a.k.a. The Judy Bird)
Russ Parsons' Dry-Brined Turkey (a.k.a. The Judy Bird)

Another thing to pay attention to on the labels is whether or not the manufacturers have injected a liquid brine. If the turkey says “basted,” “self-basted,” or “enhanced,” then it has been injected with a salt solution “and possibly flavor enhancers and tenderizers,” Meathead says. (Birds labeled "kosher," on the other hand, were salted on both the outside and the inside, a carryover from ancient times, when this was thought to get rid of any unclean blood.)

Why do some manufacturers inject brine? It helps keep the bird moist, confers antimicrobial properties, and makes them money. Here’s what Meathead has to say:

Because processors are allowed to inject up to 8% of the weight of the bird, this also adds to their profit. Let’s do the math: If 8% of the weight of a 20-pound bird in injected brine, that’s 1.6 pounds. If the bird sells for $1.25 per pound on sale, that’s $2 for that salt water, or even more when it’s full price!

But wait, you ask, does my organic, all-natural turkey still have stuff added to it?

The short answer is yes, they can—just look at the label. If a bird is injected with salt and water, the law still allows it to be labeled “natural” or “organic” because, well, salt and water are natural. Nowadays, the odds of finding an unsalted bird, whether that's injected with brine or koshered, is very slim. For a non-brined turkey, Meathead suggests special-ordering it, trying a store like Whole Foods, or buying it directly from a farmer. “Some butchers develop relationships with local farmers and will take orders for fresh birds,” Meathead says.

If your bird hasn’t been salted, at the factory, then absolutely brine it. You can wet brine your bird (read more about it here, but basically, you’re submerging it in salt water), or dry brine, like Meathead does.

Natural, organic & free-range turkeys

What Does "Natural" Mean—and What Should It Mean?
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What Does "Natural" Mean—and What Should It Mean?

If you’re a tad confused by the true meaning of all these adjectives that are supposed to denote some sort of healthful, good-for-you-and-the-earth choice, that’s only... natural? The labels can be misleading. Here’s a quick, non-exhaustive rundown of what natural, organic, free-range, and more, mean:

  • Natural: A turkey that supposedly doesn’t contain artificial flavoring, colors, chemical preservatives, or synthetic ingredients. Know, though, that, as Meathead says, “natural has no legal meaning and it is widely misused.” Essentially, anything can be called “natural,” since it’s based on the manufacturers' word alone.
  • Organic: A turkey produced without most conventional pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and free of antibiotics, growth hormones, genetic engineering, and irradiation (meaning, exposure to ionizing radiation to eliminate disease-causing microorganisms like E. coli). This bird also had to be fed organic feed free of animal byproducts.
  • Free-range: According to the legal definition, this means the turkey was allowed access to the outdoors. However, the law does not specify the how long the the turkey actually has to be allowed outside—or if they go outside at all. “In practice, this means the producer can simply leave a door open to a small penned area,” Meathead says. “But the birds rarely go through the door into that scary sunny open area.”
  • No hormones administered: This label has no added meaning, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) already prohibits the use of hormones in poultry production.
  • No antibiotics administered: No antibiotics administered (not a typo, this is just what it means).
  • Cage-free: Also an iffy label, as most commercial turkeys live in open houses, not cages.
  • Premium: And yet another non-regulated label. Any company can slap a “premium” label on their birds. It says nothing about the quality of meat.

heritage birds

Our 9 Best Turkey Strategies (You Only Have to Pick One)
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Our 9 Best Turkey Strategies (You Only Have to Pick One)

Heritage turkeys are closer to wild turkeys, with smaller breasts and darker, more flavorful meat some describe as gamey. They must have naturally mated, have been productive for a long period (breeding hens for 5 to 7 years and breeding toms for 3 to 5 years), and grow to maturity slowly, giving heritage birds plenty of time to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs.

The American Poultry Association (APA) lists 8 varieties of turkeys heritage turkeys in its Standard of Perfection, the official breeding regulation that takes into account physical appearance, coloring, and temperament. These varieties include Black, Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, Slate, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White, and Royal Palm. There are other turkey varieties that have not yet been accepted into the APA standard, but are still considered heritage birds, like the Jersey Buff and Midget White.

Heritage turkeys can be harder to find and more expensive to buy—and you’ll want to order one right now to make sure get one (there’s a limited quantity available compared to, say, commercial birds) and that it comes on time. For most, it’s probably easiest to find heritage birds online, like from one of the sites below:

  • Heritage Foods: These birds come from Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Kansas. Order very soon, since the turkeys have a tendency to sell out. Your bird will arrive on Tuesday, November 22.
  • D’Artagnan: These small-sized birds come from upstate New York.
  • Fleishers Craft Butchery: If you live near one of the small chain’s five stores (in New York and Connecticut), reserve your bird online and pick it up in person.
  • Whole Foods: Starting November 5, you can pre-order a heritage turkey in store or online.
  • Your local farmers: Not a site, but you can (and should!) ask your local farmer if they have heritage turkeys.

Since the flavor of a heritage bird is a bit different from that of a conventional one, Meathead recommends tasting one before you serve it to all your Thanksgiving guests. He also recommends a dry brine, wet rub (a mixture of herbs, spices, and oil), and gravy, as heritage birds tend to be less moist (there’s no brine being injected by any manufacturer). Also note that “since the breasts are smaller and darker, they will not take as long to cook, and breast meat and thigh meat will cook at the same rate,” Meathead says.

Fresh or frozen: does it really matter?

How to Deal if You Forgot to Thaw the Turkey
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How to Deal if You Forgot to Thaw the Turkey

What does a “fresh” turkey mean? According to the USDA, a fresh bird is one that has not been taken below 26°F by the processor. Which means, as Meathead says:

At that point it is pretty hard (remember, freezing temp of water is 32°F), but not quite a bowling ball because of the proteins and other compounds in the liquids, not to mention the injected salt, prevent it from freezing completely. But ice crystals have formed. USDA inspectors allow up to 2°F tolerance when testing birds in commerce, so a “fresh” turkey can be held as low as 24°F.

In fact, Theo Weening, Whole Foods' global meat buyer, points out, "Turkeys advertised as “fresh” are sometimes processed 9 months or more before Thanksgiving."

When the sharp ice crystals form, they puncture holes in the turkey’s muscle fibers, allowing moisture to escape. That pink liquid in the turkey bag? It’s called “purge” and it’s the result of the protein-rich fluid that keeps the turkey moist escaping. “To make matters worse, some grocers allow turkeys to thaw a bit so they feel fresh,” Meathead says. In summation, a “fresh” turkey is, in most cases, is bogus.

This being said, it is possible to buy a non-bogus fresh turkey that has no ice crystals or purge from a local farmer, butcher, or an Amish-owned family farm. If you’re buying a turkey that has, to put it gently, recently died, you’ll want to wait 24 hours before eating it. This allows enough time for the turkey’s rigor mortis to dissipate. Meathead also notes to only buy a truly fresh if you’re sure it’s been killed with a week of when you plan to eat it because, well, “fresh meat doesn’t stay fresh forever.”

And none of this is to say it's impossible to get a frozen bird without excessive moisture loss. In an efficient slaughterhouse, turkeys are flash-frozen, which forms smaller ice crystals and inhibits purge.

The bottom line: If you can get a fresh turkey, great! If not, know that most commercially-labeled “fresh” turkeys are just deceptive marketing. Go with a flash-frozen bird rather than something fresh-not-fresh.

What turkey questions should you ask your butcher?

How to Get Perfect Skin (On Your Turkey, That Is)
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How to Get Perfect Skin (On Your Turkey, That Is)

If you’re unsure about your bird, that’s what your butcher’s there for. These questions, a recap of the information above, are a good place to start:

  • Where did the turkey come from?
  • How old is the bird?
  • Is the turkey “fresh” or flash-frozen? (See above.)
  • Is the turkey pre-injected/brined/koshered?
  • How would they recommend brining the bird?
  • How big of a bird should you buy?

And, if you know you’re going to have limited time in the oven, don’t be afraid to ask your butcher to butterfly or cut your turkey into pieces so that you can cook it faster. Just be sure to give them time to do it: The holiday season a busy time for everyone!

Have any more turkey questions? Let us know in the comments below!


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