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How to Choose a Turkey

Finding the perfect turkey for your needs is the first step to a memorable traditional Thanksgiving meal

Fine Cooking Issue 47
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Finding the perfect turkey for your needs is the first step to a memorable Thanksgiving dinner Here’s help on determining the size and type of bird to purchase.

What kind?

With so many turkeys on the market, trying to choose your holiday bird can be mind-boggling. To help you cut through all the jargon and find the perfect turkey, here’s a glossary of the terms you’re likely to see.

Fresh vs. frozen

  • Fresh: A turkey may be labeled “fresh” only if it has never been chilled below 26°F. (Turkey meat, according to the National Turkey Federation, doesn’t freeze at 32°F, but at a temperature closer to 26°F.)
  • Frozen: 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 adversely affects the texture and taste of the meat.
  • Hard-chilled or not previously frozen: Turkeys that have been chilled below 26°F, but not below 0°F can’t be labeled fresh, but they don’t have to be labeled frozen either. If a turkey isn’t labeled as either fresh or frozen, it’s most likely in this category. This type of bird may also be identified as “hard-chilled” or “not previously frozen.”


So which to choose?

We recommend choosing a fresh turkey without any added ingredients, and organic, kosher or premium-brand turkeys are all great options. If the turkey is not kosher,  you can brine it yourself for extra-moist, flavorful meat.

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,” “free-range,” and “organic.” Still other specialty turkeys don’t fall into neat categories but are distinguished by brand.

  • Organic: The USDA’s  National Organic Program requires that turkeys labeled as “organic” be certified by a USDA-accredited certifying agency. A certified organic turkey will have been raised on 100% organic feed, given access to the outdoors, and will never have received antibiotics. The use of hormones in the raising of all poultry is prohibited, certified organic or not.
  • Kosher: 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, which gives them their distinctive savory character. (If you buy a turkey that isn’t kosher, brine it for extra-moist, flavorful meat.)
  • Self-basting: A self-basting turkey has been injected with or marinated in a solution of fat and broth or water, plus spices, flavor enhancers, and other “approved substances.”
  • Free-range: By USDA definition, “free-range” simply means that the birds have access to the outdoors. But what really affects the quality of the meat is how crowded the birds are, not whether they can go outdoors. Some of the best turkeys are therefore not technically free-range, simply because the uncaged birds don’t roam outdoors. 
  • Premium brands: Premium-brand turkeys are an increasingly important market for holiday birds. Companies like Murray’s, Bell & Evans, Jaindl, Maple Lawn Farms, Koch’s, Willie Bird, Eberly’s, Empire Kosher, Diestel, and others sell turkeys based on their reputation. Most of these producers claim that the 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. 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 mean that the turkeys grow more slowly than factory-raised birds, so the meat has a chance to develop a richer flavor and denser texture. 
  • Natural: The term “natural” simply means “no artificial ingredient or color added, and minimally processed.” The term makes no reference to the way the turkey was raised.
  • Heritage breed: Over 99% of the turkeys sold in supermarkets are a single breed: the Broad-Breasted White. But some small farmers focus on raising other breeds that have otherwise been edged out of the market. Some of the more common heritage breeds include the Narragansett, the Bourbon Red, and the Jersey Buff. Heritage breed turkeys tend to have darker, more flavorful meat and less breast meat than supermarket turkeys, and are generally available directly from the farmer or through other local sources. For more information, see the Heritage Turkey Foundation.


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