Choosing a Thanksgiving Turkey
Originally written for All Things Barbecue blog
Everyone knows that turkey is the star of the Thanksgiving table. Whether you’re selecting fresh or frozen, here everything you need to know about buying your Thanksgiving turkey.
While the original settlers feasted on turkey because it was plentiful and native to the Americas, the turkey you’ll get at the store has little resemblance to those on the pilgrim’s platter. Now, turkeys are bred to provide larger white meat breasts. That being said, you’ll want to look beyond the wrapper when you hit the store.
Types of Turkeys
Natural turkeys, whether frozen or fresh, have had no animal by-products in their feed. They are not given growth hormones or antibiotics beyond those necessary for veterinary health. The USDA requires that they are minimally processed and have no artificial ingredients, preservatives or coloring. Because of this, they have a really good flavor and texture. These turkeys can be brined for additional flavor.
Kosher turkeys, in case you’re curious, are usually grain fed, no antibiotics and roam freely. Because of kosher requirements, they are processed according to the rabbinic laws and are brined in salt. These birds usually taste pretty good without any further prep work. But if you want to brine your own turkey, you’ll want to opt for turkeys that are labeled “natural.”
Natural is not to be confused with organic. To be labeled as organic, these turkeys are fed only organic feed (no genetically modified grains, no chemicals and no animal by-products). They are free range birds that do not get antibiotics. They are humanely processed and they are packaged without additives. They generally have a very good flavor.
The most expensive of the store bought turkeys is labeled “heritage.” These are turkey breeds that were originally raised on farms, they are most likely free range. They are raised thoughtfully and humanely. When processed, they contain no additives. These are superior birds. They are the most delicious and contain lean meat.
The least expensive turkeys are most likely factory-farmed and will have the most solution injection. The taste can be buttery and spongy. And because they have a high salt content, you don’t want to put these in brine solution.
Fresh or Frozen
Frozen turkeys are flash frozen below 0 degrees. The flash freezing process minimizes the damage done during the freezing process by reducing the size of ice crystals. But many turkey manufacturers still inject a liquid “basting” solution to help retain moisture.
The solution is usually a combination of brine, water, oil and seasoning. It’s also high in sodium. The idea is that you might overcook your turkey and by injecting the solution they make sure you have a nice moist turkey. But, if you follow our recipes, you won’t need to have a lot of extras. So look carefully at the label and look for the amount of solution added. You’ll want that to be as low as possible. In addition, key words like “all-natural” and “organic” will assure that the bird has had little, if any, enhancing chemicals.
You can also choose to go with a fresh turkey. You can get fresh turkeys at specialty markets like Whole Foods. They may or may not be frozen when you buy them but fresh turkeys have never been stored at less than 26 degrees. They may have been held for a bit of time at that temperature before reaching the store so consider “fresh” to be a relative term. Always check the “sell by” or “use by” dates to assure you’ve chosen a really fresh turkey.
The benefit of a fresh turkey is that it hasn’t been injected with any solutions so if you can provide your own seasonings or brining and it won’t be competing with any injections.
If you are shopping very close to Thanksgiving, a fresh turkey will not require the same amount of thawing that a frozen turkey requires.
How much to buy
Plan to purchase 1 lb per person or 1.5 lbs per person if you want leftovers. Tom Jackson, staff chef at All Things Barbecue says, “I like to buy them in the 12 – 16 lb range.” Which is enough for a smaller family gathering. But if you need more, Tom advises, “I would rather cook 2 smaller birds than one huge bird. Smaller birds cook faster, which makes it easier to keep the meat juicy,” and who doesn’t love that!
Ready to cook?
We’ve got three different ways you can prepare your turkey: traditional, spatchcock or piece by piece. Check out all three methods in our All Things Turkey blog post.
Some say the second day is the best turkey. We’ve got you covered with a variety of leftover recipes that will make your taste buds dance with delight. Read our recipes on “The Sauce.”