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How to Choose a Turkey

Updated on February 26, 2016
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Caroline is a professional writer with a passion for great cooking & sustainable, humane food sources.

Learn to select the best turkey for your Thanksgiving dinner: size, organic or not, fresh or frozen, and more!
Learn to select the best turkey for your Thanksgiving dinner: size, organic or not, fresh or frozen, and more!

Tips for Purchasing the Right Turkey for Your Meal

Whether you are buying your turkey for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, the High Holidays, or a Sunday dinner with family, this article discusses available options and helps you choose the perfect turkey!

  • Determining How Much Turkey You Need
  • Fresh or Frozen
  • Humanely Raised vs Conventionally Raised vs Pastured Turkeys
  • Heritage Turkeys vs Broad-Breasted Whites
  • Thawing Times

What Size of Turkey Do You Need?

The rule of thumb is: 1-1/2 lbs of turkey per adult-size appetite.

Keep in mind that smaller birds (12 pounds or less) have a higher bone-to-meat ratio than larger birds. If your turkey is just heavier than 12 pounds, you should use 2 lbs of turkey per adult. Our butcher also told me that 16-18 pounds is a "young tom" that doesn't provide as much white-meat as 14-16 pound hens and 18-20 pound toms.

Finally, do you want leftovers? If you want leftover turkey, you should add how many extra pounds you want into your overall total.

Butterball offers a convenient turkey calculator for estimating the size of turkey you may need. The website tool estimates required weight using: how many adults and children will be at dinner, and; whether or not you want leftovers. Check it out at butterball.com/calculators-and-conversions.

Fresh or Frozen?

The next step is determining if you want a fresh or frozen turkey. Both have their own benefits and drawbacks. Fresh turkeys eliminate the hassle of thawing and the concern it may not thaw in time for the big day. Frozen turkeys from big processors often come in pre-basted or pre-buttered, for those who worry they may end up with a dry bird. Some organic, pasture-raised turkeys from small scale farms also come frozen, depending on butchering dates. The below table summarizes the pro's and con's of fresh vs. frozen turkeys.

Fresh Turkey - Pros
Fresh Turkey - Cons
Frozen Turkey - Pros
Frozen Turkey - Cons
Can order ahead
More expensive
Less expensive
Need to estimate thaw time
Only a short time in your fridge
 
Butter/broth-infused option
Takes up lots of room in fridge
More weight options
 
Available as pre-basted
Your preferred size may sell out
No stress about thawing on time
 
 
Can't brine
Only option for brining
 
 
 
Pros and cons of fresh vs frozen turkeys
Pasture-raised turkeys foraging, pecking, and living the life on a small-scale farm. Note the portable enclosure in the background.
Pasture-raised turkeys foraging, pecking, and living the life on a small-scale farm. Note the portable enclosure in the background.

Humanely Raised vs Conventionally Raised?

More than 280 million turkeys are brought to market annually in the U.S. More than 45 million of these turkeys are processed for Thanksgiving. As consumers become more familiar with the realities of conventionally raised turkeys, they are placing orders for more humanely raised birds.

An organic or free-range label does not automatically mean that a turkey's life is much better than a conventionally raised bird. Organic feed is better for the bird, leads to a tastier turkey, and is the easiest way to ensure you are avoiding GMO-grain fed meat. However, an organically fed bird does not necessarily live a better life than the conventionally raised turkey down the road.

The USDA's regulation of the term free-range mandates that access to the outdoors is given to poultry or livestock but does not set a minimum number of hours per day. So, a turkey farmer can call his stock "free-range" even if the birds never take one step outside.

Other labels that may appear on your turkey, include:

  • Certified USDA: Meat has been “evaluated” by the USDA “for class, grade, or other quality characteristics.”
  • Natural: Label is permitted if the product contains “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.”
  • No Hormones: This label applies only to beef. Hormones are not supposed to be given to pigs or chickens, so pork and poultry products cannot legally be labelled without the disclaimer “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.” For pigs and poultry, the term is really just marketing lingo.
  • No Antibiotics: This label can be used if the producer supplies “sufficient documentation … that the animals were raised without antibiotics.”

Since loopholes and meaningless labels exist, how do you find a truly humanely raised, free-range turkey? Consider ordering your turkey from a local farm that offers pastured or pasture-raised turkeys. These lucky turkeys are raised outdoors on smaller-scale farms and are allowed to forage and roam around enclosed areas, which are moved to fresh fields as the turkeys eat up the naturally grown organic pasture greens. Many farms also supplement with organic pea shoots and grains. For the safety of the birds, most are brought into portable, enclosed shelters at night--otherwise, the turkey, especially very young birds, are especially tasty targets for coyotes, weasels, wolves, foxes, and other predators.

You also can turn to third-party audited certification programs.The most widely found is the Certified Humane. Other certification programs include Animal Welfare Approved and American Grassfed. Each certifying organization has specific standards for food, medical care, and humane treatment, including minimum outdoor hours to acceptable levels of ammonia in barns.

Note: Some very reputable, small farms that pasture raise their turkeys do not have the funds available to pay for organic and humane certifications. You can find reputable small-scale pasture-raised, organic turkeys through such sites as local community support agriculture (CSA) programs, farmers' markets, and farmmatch.com or similar farm-to-table directories. Many of these farmers sell eggs and fresh milk at their farms--or at least encourage their customers to visit--offering you a chance to see for yourself how their turkeys are raised.

A Final Consideration: Heritage Turkeys

You may have heard about the resurgence in what are termed Heritage Turkeys. This term refers to 10 distinct turkey breeds that were popular in the United States prior to 1950, before the modern turkey industrial machine started churning out today's standard Broad-Breasted White turkeys. A Heritage bird does not mean the turkey is free range, pasture raised, or organically fed. However, farmers who raise real Heritage turkeys almost always offer their birds these benefits.

According to Lessley Anderson at Chow.com, Heritage birds differ substantially from Broad-Breasted Whites. They are smaller and much prettier and colorful (see above photo). In fact, they are what Americans usually picture when we hear the word turkey: Heritage birds look like Thanksgiving. They mature slower than Broad-Breasted Whites (24-30 weeks compared to a brief 12-18 weeks).

According to Anderson's article, Heritage turkeys can also live much longer--up to 15 years. The Broad-Breasted White turkey was bred to be huge, so it really can't live a normal turkey lifespan. They have been engineered to grow so large that they have problems walking and can't reproduce on their own. The hens must be artificially inseminated. However, Heritage turkeys reproduce the old-fashioned way: turkey sex. They also have strong legs and walk and strut just like a turkey should. Because of their free-range, usually pasture-based lifestyle, a Heritage turkey is gamier with more dark meat than a Broad-Breasted White, which is bred for over-developed breast meat.

More dark meat can be daunting to some cooks, but if you decide to serve an organic, humanely raised turkey for your holiday dinner--and can afford to splurge--you may want to consider a Heritage turkey.

How do you know it's really a Heritage Turkey?

Anderson's Chow.com article helps answer this question. While no certification program exists, producers are required to submit documentation to the USDA that the turkeys they are going to label as Heritage are one of the officially recognized Heritage breeds. Unfortunately, the process isn't regulated enough to be reliable. Some producers call their turkeys Heritage when, in fact, they are raising birds that are only part Heritage. To help ensure that you are purchasing a true Heritage turkey, you should do some research on Heritage farms and read the fine print about their stock and breeding practices on their websites. Find out what the producer's definition of Heritage is and be sure that their turkeys have been bred from 100% Heritage genes, without any Broad-Breasted Whites added in for more meat. One reliable resource for Heritage turkeys is heritagefoodsusa.com, which was founded in 2001 as part of Slow Food USA.

Fresh or Frozen?

Which type of turkey do you prefer to purchase?

See results

Thawing Times for Frozen Turkeys

If you have ordered your fresh turkey, you simply need to pick it up from the butcher. If you have decided on a frozen turkey, you need to estimate the time required to thaw your bird.

Refrigerator thawing is the most highly recommended form of thawing your turkey. According to the website of frozen turkey king Butterball, you should place your turkey breast-side down in your refrigerator and estimate the thawing to take 1 day per 4 pounds (e.g., 5 days for 20 pounds).

The other way to thaw your bird is in the sink (or giant pail), breast-side down, and immersed in cold water. According to Butterball, you should change the water every 30 minutes. Time to thaw is about 30 minutes per pound. This method can also be used alongside the refrigerator method if you are in a panic on Wednesday about whether or not your bird will thaw by Thanksgiving morning.


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    • Carb Diva profile image

      Linda Lum 

      4 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Very good and timely information. Thank you for sharing.

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