Turkey Time

Turkey Time

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and it is my favorite time of year!  I love having family all around, no matter how crazy the house can feel with kids running around underfoot and adults getting into heated debates about sports or politics.  The fireplace lit, the smell of fall in the air,  and the palpable energy, nothing compares to the feeling.

The Thanksgiving meal of course is also extremely important, and the turkey is obviously the center piece of the meal, and one of my favorite things to prepare- even though I don't eat it :)  The smiling faces of everyone that gathers around the kitchen when you open up the oven door. The exhilaration of having not dropped the hot, super heavy pan while pulling it out of the oven, while 10 sets of eyes stare at you in anticipation, and then being hit by the wonderful aroma that makes your mouth water just thinking about it.

Turkey preparation is very personal, and everyone thinks that they (or their mom) makes the most sumptuous, moist, delcisous turkey.  We aren't going to engage in the debate on to stuff or not to stuff, or to brine instead of rubbing butter under the skin here- because no matter what, everyone is right, it's all good.  What matters most though, is the turkey itself.  To make the most delicious thanksgiving meal, you need to select the best bird- and the options and decisions necessary seem to grow each year making it more difficult.

Hopefully this will make things a bit simpler for you and help inform your decisions.

Selecting the Right Turkey for You


A good rule of thumb is  that you should count on 1 to 1 ½ pounds per person, depending on if you want leftovers.  If you have a big crowd and are limited by oven or roasting pan size, it might make sense to buy 2 smaller turkeys rather than 1 huge one.  Turkeys in the 20-24lb range tend to be the juiciest.

Fresh vs. Frozen

Fresh turkeys are usually only available around Thanksgiving, and tend to be a bit more expensive.  But, you get what you pay for- if you have the opportunity, fresh is the way to go.  There are lots of places to get farm fresh turkeys now (Whole Foods, butchers, delis, farmer's markets, online...), but they are not all the same.  The goal is to find farm fresh, cage free turkeys that have been treated humanely, not treated by antibiotics or hormones and fed a vegetarian diet.  This seems complicated, but actually all those things tend to go hand-in-hand.  Just note that these turkeys often need to be purchased in advance (like now..,) and be picked up (or delivered) a day or so before Thanksgiving. More on where to buy fresh turkeys below. 

Here's what you should know about the deciding whether fresh or frozen is best for you.


A fresh turkey has never been chilled below 26 degrees. Sometimes, these can be held for quite a while before they make it to the store, so they might not be as fresh as you think; to get a genuinely fresh turkey, make sure you know where you are ordering from, don't just buy something called a fresh turkey. These should be purchased or pick up no longer than 1 or 2 days before Thanksgiving.


This is the most common turkey sold in the US and has been flash-frozen below 0 degrees. If they are sold defrosted, they are labeled as "previously frozen." If you buy a frozen turkey, you should plan for 24 hours refrigerator thawing time for every 5 pounds of turkey or submerge it in cold water that you change every 30 minutes, which takes about 30 minutes per pound.  Do not thaw on your counter top- this is a direct route to salmonella because the exterior portion warms up long before the center of the turkey is defrosted.  The benefit of a frozen turkey is that it can be bought further in advance to help you prep for the big day, and it is the least expensive option.

Which one you buy depends largely on your schedule. If you want to shop well before the holiday and have the time to thaw a bird, then frozen is just fine. But, you can definitely taste the difference.

Types of Turkeys

The most complicated turkey decision is which type of turkey to buy. The various kinds of turkey are raised and processed differently, resulting in varying flavors and textures as well as additives.  The cost of these birds varies greatly; therefore they are organized below from very inexpensive to expensive in order to better inform your purchasing decision.

Self-Basting, Basted or Injected Turkeys 

Least expensive option

  • How they're raised: These birds are the least expensive because they are most likely factory-farmed, and you know our feeling on factory farming. I wouldn't serve one to my family.

  • Processing: They're injected with a saline solution and vegetable oils to tenderize their Pamela Anderson breasts. The ingredient list can contain unknowns like emulsifiers and artificial flavors. No thanks.

  • Flavor and texture: These birds can taste buttery and spongy (no wonder since one of the most common emulsifiers is also use to make yoga mats...). Since these birds have already been salted, they are not suitable for further brining.

Natural Turkeys

  • How they're raised: The USDA defines natural turkeys as having been raised with no animal by-product feed, no administered growth promotants, and no use of antibiotics except for parasite control. There is no indication however, if these birds have been caged or not,

  • Processing: The USDA also mandates that turkeys labeled all-natural are minimally processed and have no artificial ingredients, preservatives, or coloring added.

  • Flavor and texture: Since there are no additives, these turkeys have a good flavor and texture and are an inexpensive alternative. These turkeys can be brined since there is no added salt.

Free-Range or Free-Roaming Turkeys

  • How they're raised: These turkeys must have continuous, free access to the outdoors over 51% of their lives, which makes the meat taste better. While the idea of a range where turkeys can roam free is nice, a free-range label doesn't necessarily mean that the turkey roamed freely, just that it had access to a door outside if it so chose to roam... and there's no guarantee he wasn't a lazy or unmotivated turkey. (If it's important that your turkey actually roamed outside, look for the word "pastured" on the label.) Free-range also does not indicate if the bird was raised without antibiotics or hormones- so if that is important to you, as I hope it is, you want this label in combination with natural or organic.

  • Processing: There are no set regulations for processing, although they are usually humanely processed and contain no additives.

  • Flavor and texture: Good flavor and texture, and depending on how much exercise the bird received, the meat may be leaner.

Organic Turkeys

  • How they're raised: To be labeled organic, the turkeys eat only organic feed, which by law contains no genetically modified grains, pesticides or herbicides, chemical residues, or animal by-products. They are also raised without the use of antibiotics or growth-hormones and are free range.

  • Processing: There are no set regulations for processing, although they are usually humanely processed and contain no additives.

  • Flavor and texture: Their taste varies, although they are usually considered to have very good flavor. At least you know that the flavor you get is all turkey, and not any additives.

Heritage Turkeys

Most expensive

  • How they're raised: Heritage turkeys have more to do with breeds than how they are raised. These are breeds that were originally raised on farms before large commercial meat processing plants began to dominate the turkey industry. They are most likely free-range and very conscientiously and humanely raised. This is the classic New England turkey.

  • Processing: There are no set regulations for processing, although they are usually humanely processed and contain no additives.

  • Flavor and texture: The flavor is superior, and the meat is leaner- so simple preparation is best to let the flavor of the bird shine. Because they have lower fat content, they don't have to cook as long. If your budget allows it since these are the most expensive turkeys, these are the birds to try. Keep in mind, though, that these might not taste like the Thanksgiving turkey you grew up with.

Places to Order Farm Fresh Turkeys

There are local places to order farm fresh, organic turkeys in most neighborhoods, or you can order one online.  Here are some great options to consider.

Whole Foods

Available in all stores.  You can order through the store or online by going to shop.wfm.com, if you order by November 22, you even get a $10 coupon to use on a future purpose.


Out Post Farm

Located in Holliston, MA.  Great quality birds, place your order early.  Must pick up at the farm.


Williams Sonoma

National distribution and shipped to your home.  More expensive, but a great option if you don't have a local farm near by.  Must order by November 18th for Thanksgiving delivery.





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