By mid-October, the supermarket checkout aisle is full of magazine covers, each boasting a glorious, burnished brown Thanksgiving turkey — so juicy and tempting, you can almost smell the savory aroma while you dig out your debit card.
And indeed, it’s not too soon to start thinking about stuffing (should it have bacon this year? Probably!), your other side dishes — and of course, the holiday centerpiece: a beautifully roasted turkey.
Before you choose a bird, check out these five tips to keep in mind as you plan your holiday meal, whether you’re serving 25 assorted aunts, uncles, and cousins or a simple Thanksgiving turkey feast for two.
1. Know What You’re Getting: Master This Basic Turkey Terminology
Turkey seems straightforward enough — but the wealth of options available today can confuse shoppers who aren’t sure what they want or what certain labels mean. Here’s a quick glossary to cover the main points*:
Free-range. As Americans become more aware of the often harsh conditions in which commercial poultry are raised, many are choosing free-range turkeys over better-known name brands. Under USDA standards, free-range birds must have access to the outdoors while they are raised (instead of being crammed into overcrowded farm facilities). Along with other advocates of free-range turkeys, the regional farmers who raise them say the birds are of higher quality than their commercially processed counterparts, because free-range turkeys’ diets are more varied (improving the flavor of their meat) and they get more exercise (improving their texture).
Heritage. What are heritage turkeys? These unusual breeds were once common in America, but fell out of favor as growers concentrated on the specially bred, big-breasted birds preferred by consumers (typically the Broad Breasted White turkey). Heritage varieties include Narragansett, American Bronze, Jersey Buff, and Bourbon Red.
Per the Splendid Table, heritage turkeys generally offer less breast meat and a stronger flavor than a conventional Thanksgiving turkey. As a result of the latter point, some expert cooks recommend not brining heritage turkeys, as doing so just wipes out their unique flavor.
Natural. By federal regulation, a turkey labeled “natural” may not contain artificial flavorings, coloring, or chemical preservatives. The natural label also means the bird hasn’t been fed animal byproducts or given growth promotants or antibiotics (except for parasite control). Forbes writer Beth Hoffman says the last point alone makes natural turkeys worth it: “If we can stop the run away use of antibiotics in raising livestock and poultry, it is worth a few extra cents a pound to do it.”
Natural turkeys must also be minimally processed, meaning they have only been handled as necessary to slaughter, clean, and make them ready for human consumption. Note that a natural turkey doesn’t have to be free-range, and that “natural” isn’t the same as…
Organic. Organic turkeys are free-range birds that have not been treated with hormones or antibiotics, and were given pesticide-free feed. Consumer Reports agrees with Hoffman that the lack of antibiotics is in itself a good reason to go organic. Whether organic turkey tastes noticeably better is up for debate and presumably highly subjective; in 2011, a representative from the World Society for the Protection of Animals said that “While some studies have been conducted on the taste of meat from organically-raised turkeys versus meat from intensively raised animals, to my knowledge they have not been conclusive.” And Mic in 2017 pointed out that the “organic” label is not a guarantee that meat is healthier or was raised and processed under more humane conditions.
Kosher. Quite simply, kosher turkeys are prepared under rabbinical supervision according to Jewish dietary law. While alive, these turkeys are given no antibiotics and fed a vegetarian diet, Epicurious says. Then they’re covered with kosher salt and rinsed repeatedly in cold water. This can make for a juicier, tastier turkey, but, as Tablet notes, the process also means kosher turkeys are usually not entirely plucked before they’re sold, which can be a pain. The general sentiment is that you shouldn’t brine a kosher turkey, because they’re already salty enough, but Joan Nathan pushes back on that here, noting that she and her friends agree the kosher turkeys of today are less salty than they used to be.
Self-basting. A self-basting turkey is injected with a solution to improve the flavor and juiciness of the meat. Some manufacturers treat only the breast meat, while others inject the entire bird. The label must say “basted” or “self-basted” and must list the amount and names of the ingredients used in the basting solution. (Remember, the net weight of the turkey includes the weight added by the solution — so you could be paying more for less meat. Cook’s Info says: “The solution injected will constitute 6 to 9 % of the weight that you are paying for.”) Generally speaking, you do not need to brine a self-basting turkey yourself before cooking (which saves time). If you prefer to use your own brine solution, read the packaging closely to ensure your Thanksgiving turkey isn’t already basted.
Fully cooked. As stated, a fully cooked whole turkey has been precooked and frozen by the processor. After thawing, it can be reheated (or served cold), which takes much less time than cooking a raw bird. Note, though: You can’t stuff a fully cooked turkey, as the dish isn’t in the oven long enough.
Young. A “young” turkey is a turkey of either sex that is less than 8 months old at the time of slaughter. Most turkeys reach market maturity at 4-5 months of age. As Berkeley Wellness says, “Most of the turkeys found on the market are young and will have tender meat.”
Hen vs. tom. Turkeys weighing 8-16 pounds are usually female (hens), while larger birds are male (toms). Since supermarket turkeys are normally slaughtered young, both hens and toms should be about the same in terms of taste, juiciness, and tenderness — so don’t fret too much over the sex of your bird. (That said, Berkeley Wellness notes that some cooks claim toms are tastier, and some say you’ll get more white meat on a hen.)
As you might guess, the further you get from name-brand commercial turkeys, the more you’re likely to pay. Heritage and organic turkeys can be pricey. If you’re searching for something less expensive, consider Amish turkeys (which are generally natural and hormone-free) or free-range birds. (For a real deep dive on turkey prices, the USDA has information for you.)
*As this NPR article from 2015 makes clear, a number of these labels are not quite as clear-cut as we wish they were!
2. To Get the Right Size, Buy a Pound Per Person (or More)
Here’s a simple formula: Get 1 pound of Thanksgiving turkey for each adult you’re serving, and half a pound per child. So if you’ve got 10 adults coming and four kids, you’ll want at least a 12-pound bird. If you’re inviting big eaters or counting on plenty of leftovers, make it 1.5 pounds per adult. (For creative recipes for your excess meat, check out “Thanksgiving Leftovers: Five Fresh Ideas.”)
Once you hit the 16-pound mark, you can be less strict, as birds that big have a better ratio of meat to bone — e.g., a 20-pound turkey will serve 14 people just fine and yield plenty of leftovers.
3. For Many People, Frozen Beats Fresh
As a rule, fresh food sounds better than frozen. But turkey is different. The term “fresh” applies to raw poultry that has never been stored below 26°F. Poultry held at 0°F or below must be labeled “frozen.” (Turkeys stored between 1°F and 25°F don’t have an official name, but are often labeled “refrigerated,” “hard-chilled,” or “previously frozen.”)
In other words, “fresh” only describes a turkey’s temperature from the time it was processed. It has nothing to do with how long it’s been sitting at the store. And while some cooks rave about a fresh Thanksgiving turkey straight from the farm, in a Cook’s Illustrated taste test, frozen turkeys were rated more moist and tender than fresh birds.
So we recommend buying a frozen Thanksgiving turkey, as long you have the time and the fridge space to thaw it safely — a 15-pound turkey will take about three full days to thaw.
4. Decide on Your Recipe Before Shopping
Your recipe’s success can depend on the type of Thanksgiving turkey you choose. For instance, if you’re experimenting with an unusual brine or exotic seasonings, you probably don’t want a self-basting bird. Or if you’re planning to grill your turkey, you’ll want to be sure it’s not too big. (You also might want to consider asking your butcher to spatchcock it — remove the backbone — for you. This is an excellent method for roasting, too.) So go in to your turkey purchase with an idea of what you’d like to do.
5. Lock Down Special Turkeys ASAP
If you want a free-range, organic, or heritage bird as your Thanksgiving turkey, it’s not a bad idea to start planning in mid-October. (If you use a digital calendar, go set an annual reminder right now!) Local co-ops and groceries often begin reserving turkeys a few weeks in advance, and family farms like to know even sooner. You’re better off checking in early than missing the rush. And even if you’re just getting a regular frozen commercial bird, make sure you buy it far enough in advance (usually 3-5 days before Thanksgiving) that it has time to thaw.
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