Thanksgiving Cooking Tips: Turkey Buying 101

SmallTurkeyWhen I was growing up, the turkey on our Thanksgiving dinner table always started out frozen and the biggest differences among turkeys in the grocery store were brand and price. My mother would keep an eye out for the best combination of these two attributes, and often our turkey would be free with a grocery purchase of some pre-defined amount. We’d pay cents per pound for turkey and plan for it to spend a couple of days defrosting in our extra fridge. My mother and grandmother were fantastic cooks, so our Thanksgiving turkeys were always tasty, but to be honest, we weren’t worried then about the source of the turkey much less its living arrangements or diet. Based on a totally unscientific poll of my friends, my family was not alone in its approach to turkey procurement.

It’s Not Just About Price-per-Pound Anymore

With the proliferation of organic food, the renewed focus on shopping locally and sustainably, and the rejuvenation of all sorts of heirloom species – from tomatoes to turkeys – buying a turkey isn’t quite as simple as it used to be. Terms like “organic”, “free range”, “all natural”, and “heritage” complicate matters greatly. A massive difference in price across the spectrum from frozen turkey to fresh heirloom doesn’t help matters much either. While it’s really fantastic that we have so many choices, for a family trying to find the perfect bird that fits their priorities and their budget, things can get just a little hairy, or should I say feathery?

In an attempt to figure this all out, I asked Central Market for help and boy did they ever deliver. They connected me with Howard Miller, a man who knows more about turkey and groceries in general that I thought possible. He’s been working in markets for his entire career and can tell you in what order people typically shop for Thanksgiving groceries (canned and boxed goods first, then turkey, then fresh veggies), how the size of a family’s refrigerator and the room a turkey takes up in it drives the entire Thanksgiving plan, which shoppers are ready to move up to the next level in turkey quality, and much more. He’s a veritable font of turkey knowledge. Thanks to his generosity in time and information, I can say that I feel like I can confidently shop for a turkey.

Howard taught me that turkey buying comes down to three key decisions:

  1. Traditional or heritage?
  2. Fresh or frozen?
  3. All natural or organic (or neither)?

Beyond those decision points are some other characteristics to consider as well, including:

  • Free range
  • Pre-cooked
  • Local source

The bottom line is, the turkey you buy is directly related to your personal priorities around (but not limited to):

  • Budget
  • Expectations of friends and family
  • A desire to support local and sustainable farming
  • A desire to avoid artificial ingredients, antibiotics, and hormones
  • A preference for organic products
  • A preference for humanely-raised food

Once you have a good handle on what’s important to you and how turkey characteristics related to your prefences, the rest is easy (I promise).

Traditional Turkey or Heritage Turkey

You probably won’t be surprised to know that the turkey we all think of as “traditional”, isn’t the same turkey the pilgrims would have come across when they first took up residence here in the new world. The turkey we see on glossy magazine covers and expect to carve at our Thanksgiving table has been bread to support our love of white meat. These big-breasted turkeys couldn’t fly if their lives depended on it.

Heritage turkeys are old old old school birds. They can (and do) fly, which means their proportion of dark meat to white meat is much different than a traditional turkey. They also tend to be smaller and have a more distinct, earthy flavor. In some ways, heritage turkeys are to traditional turkeys as ducks are to chicken. Heritage turkeys exist because a group of dedicated farmers are committed to bringing back these nearly extinct breeds so they aren’t lost forever. As you might expect, it’s more expensive and time consuming to raise a heritage turkey, and there are fewer sources for these turkeys than traditional turkeys. A heritage turkey is really a completely different type of taste experience, and it’s important to know that before you choose to pick this path. If you want to know more about heritage turkey and the revival of these older breeds, a quick Google search will give you plenty to read.

A traditional turkey is probably right for you if:

  • You want to host a typical Thanksgiving with a crowd that isn’t quite ready to rethink how they see turkey
  • Most of your guests prefer white meat
  • You are trying to be budget conscious
A heritage turkey may be right for you if:

  • You want to create a new taste experience at your Thanksgiving dinner and your guests are ready for it
  • You and your guests are okay with less white meat
  • You want to support local, sustainable farming and a return to heritage breeds
  • You have room in your budge to pay upwards of $5/pound for your turkey

Note: if you elect to go with a heritage turkey you can pretty much skip the rest of this blog post. You’ll want to spend your time looking for a local provider who has available turkeys (Google “heritage turkey” and your city/region). Not all heritage turkeys are organic, so if that’s important to you be sure to look for the label. Even so, the devotion required to raise this type of breed pretty much guarantees they will be all natural and free-range. For my Austin and Central Texas readers, you’ll be happy to know you can get a Mary’s heritage turkey at Central Market or from Alexander Family Farm in Del Valle. Wherever you are, I’d recommend you order your heritage turkey sooner rather than later.

Fresh or Frozen

I’ll say right now that a frozen turkey isn’t a bad thing at all. Many of us grew up on them and had great Thanksgivings. The two biggest benefits to frozen turkey are:

  • Substantial price-per-pound savings as compared to fresh (frozen can be ½ the price of fresh).
  • The ability to secure your turkey a week or two before Thanksgiving and avoid the craziness of stores that week, assuming you have the necessary freezer space.

However, if you choose a frozen turkey, it’s very important that you thaw your turkey the right way to not only ensure that it tastes good, but that it’s safe. A big frozen bird takes a while to defrost, and ideally you should slowly thaw the turkey in the refrigerator because it has the most consistent temperature of any place in your house. You’ll keep the bacteria at bay, but it can take up to 6 days for 20 lb. turkey to thaw, so you’ll have to be ready to give up fridge space for a while. You can also thaw it in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes or so, for a faster thaw, but it will still take 10-12 hours for a 20 lb. turkey to thaw this way.

As the name implies, a fresh turkey has never been frozen. The USDA regulates fresh turkeys and requires that a turkey labeled as such has never been stored below 26 degrees. Because this is technically below freezing, ice crystals may form on your turkey. While a fresh turkey will be more expensive than a frozen one, you can probably expect to pay less than $2 per pound, which is a great deal given the price of other proteins these days. If you’re looking to take your turkey up a notch from frozen, a fresh turkey might be the next step.

A frozen turkey may be right for you if:

  • You have the refrigerator space to properly thaw the turkey for several days
  • You are trying to be budget conscious
A fresh turkey may be right for you if:

  • You have a little more to spend on your turkey (fresh can be up to 2x the cost of frozen)
  • You don’t have the refrigerator space or time to thaw a frozen turkey properly
  • You can pick up the turkey a day or so before cooking
  • You are ready to make the move to all natural or organic turkey (these may only be available as fresh turkey)

Because your refrigerator can’t maintain the same low-but-not-freezing temperature that a grocery store’s can, you should wait to pick up your fresh turkey as close to cooking as possible to keep it in good condition. If you are planning on a fresh turkey, I’d recommend ordering it from your local market and setting a pick-up time on Tuesday or Wednesday so you’re guaranteed a turkey. You don’t want to show up at your market on Wednesday afternoon to discover that your only option is a frozen turkey you’ll have to babysit in cold water all night to be ready to cook the next day.

All Natural or Organic

We’re rightly concerned these days about the environment in which our food is raised and how it impacts us as consumers of the food. The labels all natural and organic can help you select a turkey that fits well with your family’s food priorities. Both of these designations are regulated by the government, which makes it a bit easier to select a turkey without knowing the intimate details of its upbringing. An all natural turkey should have the following characteristics, as per the USDA:

“A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural. The label must explain the use of the term natural (such as – no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed.)”

Howard’s take on all natural is that it’s all about the turkey’s diet and what doesn’t happen to the turkey. It’s sort of funny that turkey that costs more has had less done to it (this is even more true with organic), but that’s a subject for another post.

While all natural turkey may have been frozen, and the package must say so if it has been, many all natural turkeys are fresh. It is possible to get a fresh turkey that isn’t labeled as all natural but that is free of hormones (required by US law) and antibiotics. In that case, the turkey may have flavor enhancers injected into them for additional flavoring. In general, I’d look for the “all natural” label to be on the safe side.

For many of us, going all natural is an important step in putting turkey we feel good about on our family’s table. However, if you want to go one step further, you can purchase a USDA Certified Organic turkey. For a turkey to have this label, its entire environment from feed to yard to processing must adhere to government standards. Organic turkeys bring with them all of the goodness that other organic foods do. By the very nature of organic farming, organic turkeys are going to be all natural, and then some. As with the all natural turkeys, most organic turkeys are fresh but you may be able to find a frozen one if you look around.

An all natural turkey may be right for you if:

  • Avoiding antibiotics, hormones, and other artificial elements is important to you.
  • You have a little more to spend on your turkey
  • You can manage a fresh turkey or have the time to locate a frozen all natural turkey
An organic turkey may be right for you if:

  • Buying organic food is a priority for your family
  • You have the budget for an organic turkey (organic can be up to 2x the cost of fresh, non-organic turkey)
  • You can manage a fresh turkey or have the time to locate a frozen organic turkey

Other Considerations

After you get through making your three big decisions, there are some other turkey characteristics you might want to consider:

  • Is the turkey free range? Free range turkey is turkey that doesn’t spend its life in a pen so it’s done more than just eat and get fat. This is a more natural environment for the turkey and more humane. A quick Google search revealed that there is much debate over the health benefits of free range farming, and because I’m not at all equipped to contribute to the debate, this post won’t begin to tackle it. This is another characteristic of your turkey that, from my perspective, is completely related to your priorities for yourself and your family. If it’s important to you that your turkey be raised with access to open ground, then look for a turkey with a free range label. Many organic and all natural turkeys are also free range because raising birds in this way is consistent with the farming practices that lead to those designations. Do remember though, that free range doesn’t mean all natural or organic, so look for those labels in addition to the phrase free range.
  • Is the turkey pre-cooked? You can buy your turkey already cooked and ready to re-heat. If you want to skip cooking the turkey yourself you can buy an already cooked turkey that you either warm up or serve at room temperature. For example, Central Market has Greenberg Smoked Turkeys and Butterball makes a frozen, fully cooked turkey. If you choose to go down this path, remember that this is an additional consideration beyond the turkey’s starting state of all natural or organic.
  • Buying from local and sustainable sources. If it is important to you to shop locally, you’ll want to spend some time researching turkey farms in your area that raise birds that are consistent with your priorities. As you talk to these farmers or read their web sites, you’ll still be answering the same important questions about traditional or heritage, fresh or frozen, and all natural or organic. You may have to pay a little more to one of these farmers than you would your local grocery store, but if you can afford it, it’s a great investment in our future as well as a tasty turkey.

How Much Turkey Should I Buy?

Really the answer to this is based entirely on how much leftover turkey you want to have. Some of us love eating turkey for days, other of us, not so much. A good rule of thumb when you calculate turkey per person is to plan for 1 lb. per person. Some other words of advice from Howard on the subject are:

  • If you are going to be feeding a huge crowd, you might buy two 12 pound turkeys instead of one 24 pound turkey to make cooking easier (if you have the oven space). You could also roast one yourself and purchase a smoked turkey for a different flavor profile and to save on oven space.
  • If your guests really like white meat, buy a smaller whole turkey and supplement that with a turkey breast.
  • Skip the whole turkey entirely and buy turkey parts (breasts, legs, etc) and roast them separately to avoid having to deal with the entire bird.

Buying the Turkey Is Just the Beginning

At the end of my conversation with Howard, he reminded me that buying the turkey is just one piece of the Thanksgiving puzzle. More often than not, people can mess up a perfectly good turkey by handling and cooking it improperly. The Epicurious Turkey Primer is a great place to start if you want to be sure you can do your carefully selected turkey justice.

My Family’s Thanksgiving Turkey

After all of this, you may be wondering what kind of turkey will be on my Thanksgiving table this year. We’ve chosen a 14lb. fresh all natural, free range traditional turkey. While we aren’t going organic, all natural and free range farming are important to us. I’ll also be feeding a group of people who aren’t ready to see their traditional turkey replaced with a heritage bird (just yet) – they revolted when I suggested swapping out mashed potatoes for another potato preparation. We’ve ordered the turkey from the butcher and are picking it up on Wednesday morning. I’m not sure how we’re cooking it yet – I’m figuring that out once this post goes live.

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6 Comments

  1. What a great post, so much invaluable info! For the past three years I have purchased my turkey, fresh from our local farmer. He’s actually a friend of mine and I get turkey, my beef, and sometimes chicken from him too. The turkeys are butchered on Tuesday morning and are ready for pick up on Tuesday afternoon. This is a small rural community, but his orders grow every year. The pick is first come, first served, and since I need a biggie (25-28 lbs, last year mine was 26) I try to get their right at 4:00 on Tuesday. While there is nothing wrong with frozen turkey, as you mentioned, after all I spent the first 39 years of my life eating them, I will never buy frozen again (if I can help it). Fresh turkey is just so much better, the flavor just wins. The farmer here charges $2/lb so I think that’s pretty good deal :)

  2. Oops, I said i get there at 4:00 on Thursday, I meant Tuesday :-p

  3. Turkey buying, like any meat buying, can be so complicated nowadays. Your post is an exhaustive breath of fresh air that can not only guide people in to choosing the turkey that best fits their families food priorities (I LOVE this distinction) but can also be used as a guide when trying to navigate the other meat buying waters. This post should win an award.

    I bought a non-heritage turkey from Alexander Family Farms for our Thanksgiving this year (actually two: 1 – roast; 1 – fry) and I’m so looking forward to it. I tried getting a heritage breed but they had sold out.

  4. cindy cullen /

    Can you tell me if my organic fresh turkey is still fresh and safe if it’s been in the store’s refrigerator for 8 days before cooking.

    • I would ask the store about their storage conditions, but remember that “fresh” technically means it’s been stored at 26 degrees or higher, so I expect it’s been well preserved. If you have any doubts though, inquire about the storage situation and talk to the butcher about safe handling. My turkey expert said that the store is the best place for a turkey to be because they are best equipped to keep it fresh.

  5. Holy cow! I now know where to go for all my Thanksgiving turkey questions. So thorough!

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