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Choosing a Holiday Turkey for Freshness & Taste

Fine Cooking Issue 35
Illustration: Dave Klug
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With so many kinds of turkeys in the market, choosing your holiday bird can be mind-­boggling. First you have to choose between a fresh and a frozen turkey, and then you have to-decipher all those other labels like “all-natural,” “free-range,” and “organic” that are so freely bandied about. This year, I set out to untangle the web of terms used to label turkeys, and then I did my own tests to learn which turkey really tastes best.

Fresh vs. frozen

The first thing I learned is that there are new labeling laws for fresh turkeys. The new laws allow a turkey to be labeled “fresh” only if it has never been chilled below 26°F. Before December 1997, poultry producers were allowed to use the “fresh” designation on birds that had been chilled as low as 0°F. The new law is designed to assure consumers that the fresh turkey they buy has never been frozen. (Turkey meat, according to the National Turkey Federation, doesn’t freeze at 32°F, but at a temperature closer to 26°F.)

Turkeys chilled below 0°F must be labeled “frozen.” Or, if they’re sold already defrosted, you may see “previously frozen” on the label. Most turkey producers agree that freezing affects the texture and taste of the meat. When the water in the cells freezes, it disrupts the cellular structure of the meat, causing it to lose moisture (and therefore flavor) as it thaws. Many large-scale turkey producers compensate for this loss by injecting a solution of water, oil, and seasoning into the meat before freezing. These turkeys may be labeled “self-basting.”

Some turkeys are neither “fresh” nor “frozen.” With the change in laws, there is a turkey category left hanging out there—birds that have been chilled below 26°F, but not below 0°F. They can’t be labeled fresh, but they don’t have to be labeled frozen, leaving the turkey industry unsure of what to call them. So if you see a bird that isn’t labeled either fresh or frozen, it’s most likely in this category, although sometimes this type of bird will also be identified as “hard-chilled” or “not previously frozen.” But to save confusion, some producers (Butterball, for example) no longer produce birds in this category, offering their customers a simpler choice between fresh and frozen.

Beyond fresh— specialty turkeys

Once you’ve determined if a turkey is fresh or frozen, you’ll have other qualities to consider. Many turkeys carry labels like “all-­natural,” “freerange,” and “organic.” Still other specialty turkeys don’t fall into neat categories but are distinguished by brand. (Most specialty turkeys are sold fresh  during the holidays, but some may be sold frozen. At other times of the year, it’s pretty hard to find a fresh turkey.)

Organic turkeys—After much debate and public activism, the USDA issued a policy in January 1999 that allows a turkey farmer to apply to any one of a number of regional or federal certifying entities. If the farmer meets all the criteria of one of the certifying agencies (such as Organic Growers & Buyers Association, California Certified Organic Farmers, or Oregon Tilth), the birds may be labeled organic. Because the certification process is a long one, there are currently only a few certified organic turkeys in the market-­place, although many farmers are working towards this goal.

Free-range turkeys—This term seems to stir up a bit of debate since, by USDA definition, “free-range” simply means that the birds have access to the outside. What really affects the quality of the meat, however, is how crowded the birds are, not whether they can go outdoors. For instance, some of the best-quality turkeys are not technically free-range simply because the uncaged birds do not roam outdoors. In order to be certified organic, however, a turkey must be free-range.

“Natural” turkeys—The term “natural” has very little meaning when it comes to a raw ingredient such as turkey. It simply means “no artificial ingredient or color added, and minimally processed.” The term makes no reference to the way the turkey was raised.

Kosher turkeys—A kosher label may only be used on poultry that has been processed under rabbinical supervision. The turkeys are grain-fed with no antibiotics and are allowed to roam freely. In addition to being individually processed and inspected, kosher turkeys are soaked in a salt brine before being packaged which gives them their distinctive savory character.

Brand-name turkeys—Brand-name turkeys are an increasingly important market for holiday birds. Companies like Murray’s, Bell & Evans, Maple Lawn Farms, Koch’s, Willie Bird, Eberly’s, Empire Kosher, Diestel, and many more all sell turkeys based on their reputation. When interviewed, most of the folks who produce and sell these turkeys explained that the major difference between their turkeys and others lies in the quality of the feed their birds get. Most often, there are no animal byproducts in the feed and usually no antibiotics.

Next, I learned that most of these birds are raised without being caged. The lack of animal fat in their diet and the fact that the birds can move around freely translates into a turkey that grows more slowly than a factory raised bird. This means that the meat has a chance to develop a richer flavor and denser texture.

A matter of taste

With so many choices available, the real question remains: which turkey tastes best? To answer this, I roasted a variety of birds—everything from a frozen mass-produced turkey to a fresh certified organic one—to see for myself.

The most dramatic difference that I noticed was between the commercially raised birds and the specialty birds. I tasted several brand-name specialty birds (free-range, no antibiotics, and all-vegetable feed) and was altogether impressed. They had a good, rich turkey flavor, and the texture was meaty and not at all dry. As a fan of dark meat, I loved the way the thigh and drumstick meat was moist and succulent yet not oily or ropy.

Obviously there are differences in the quality of specialty turkeys, and I found that the best assurance is to talk to a knowledgeable butcher or distributor (some of the producers even have web sites). I found that the best turkeys come from small producers who are exigent about the feeding and care of their flocks. While one of the best turkeys that I tasted was certified organic, there were others that I liked just as much that had simply not undergone the certifying process. The extra time and effort of becoming certified translates into a higher price tag on a certified organic turkey (as much as $3.99 per pound).

Next I tried to determine if there was a grave difference between fresh and frozen turkeys, and the results were less conclusive. In general, I found that fresh turkeys were moister with a deeper turkey flavor than birds that had been frozen, but if they had not been side by side, I might not have been as discerning. The most important factor is the quality of the turkey before it heads to the freezer. Also, the freezer storage time and thawing can have an effect on the quality of a frozen turkey.

And finally, I tasted some  of the self-basting turkeys. I’m not a big fan of additives, but I also found that the basting solution makes the meat taste too much like processed turkey deli meat. I don’t recommend them.

I do have a few important words of advice for cooking a specialty turkey: Use a meat thermometer, and start checking the thigh before the estimated time is up (the turkey is done when the thigh meat registers 165°F). I’ve found that these turkeys tend to roast a bit faster than others do. (One estimate is that they cook ten minutes per pound less than average.)


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