What Kind of Turkey Should You Buy?
Fresh or frozen, and how big? That's pretty much all anyone needed to know when they strolled into the store to purchase their Thanksgiving turkey back in the day. Not anymore. Now, shoppers are confronted with a bewildering array of choices, such as free-range, organic, free-range and organic, pastured, antibiotic-free, wild, and heritage turkeys, just to name a few of the options. But what do all of these terms mean, and are they worth the price premium they often command?
That's why The Daily Meal teamed up with Ariane Daguin, owner and founder of D'Artagnan, a purveyor of meat, game, truffles, mushrooms, and, yes, turkeys, to fine restaurants, retailers, and home cooks, to help guide cooks through their turkey shopping experience. D'Artagnan was selected as the exclusive purveyor of turkeys for the White House Thanksgiving celebration this year, host to diplomats from around the world, on Nov. 15, so we thought, hey, if it's good enough for the president, it's definitely good enough for folks at home.
So let's start with the basics. Our first question: Fresh or frozen?
It turns out that even this basic distinction is muddy. For poultry, the USDA's definition of fresh includes frozen. What? Yes, that's right. The USDA states that poultry labeled "fresh" has always had an internal temperature somewhere between 26 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. So, if you ever see a "fresh frozen" label, that's why.
What do cage-free and free-range actually mean?
The USDA officially defines "cage-free" in the following manner: "This label indicates that the flock was able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle." Their definition of "free-range" is similar, but includes a stipulation that they have "continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle." It's worth noting, though, that this definition is fairly open-ended and producers who stuff thousands of birds into a shed with a door at the end leading out to a dirt patch can call their birds free-range.
That's why it may be better to go with a smaller purveyor who places more emphasis on animal welfare than on the bottom line, and who may be able to exercise greater care in their choice of producers and subject them to more careful scrutiny. Daguin, for example, sources all of her turkeys from Amish and Mennonite farmers who go beyond free-range, she says. Their philosophy is to leave the land in better shape than it started, and that philosophy results in better living conditions for their birds, which actually have access to green pasture and roam around, weather-permitting, getting plenty of exercise, and as a result, are less fatty than factory-farmed birds. Daguin's birds are basically pastured, a term which has no official USDA definition, but gets closer to the perceived meaning of "free-range" that most consumers have.
What about organic?
Organic turkeys are raised without antibiotics or growth hormones, and are fed organic feed produced without synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetic modification, irradiation, or most conventional pesticides.
How to buy the best turkey for Thanksgiving 2019
Feeling lost when it comes to shopping for the best Thanksgiving turkey? You're not alone.
Every year, the search for the ultimate Thanksgiving bird continues. I've tried fresh, organic turkeys one year, I reserved a free-range bird directly from a local farm, and, of course, I've enjoyed plenty of frozen turkeys.
But in 2019, the shopping options seem endless and the choices are sometimes tricky to navigate. Some swear by heritage birds, while others are big fans of much larger, conventionally raised turkeys.
Cherry wood provides a nice touch of sweetness to your bird, while not overpowering it. When cooked over cherry for several hours, a nice deep color will develop on your turkey, making your bird stand out from the crowd!
If you want to add a little bit of complexity to your smoke flavor, then consider adding a touch (and I mean just a touch) of hickory too. This will help add a little bit extra smoke to it, and complements the cherry well.
Recommended cherry wood: Traeger Cherry Wood Chips
These cherry infused chips provide clean burning wood infused with a beautifully rich cherry flavor.
Made from 100% natural hardwood, without any artificial additives or binding agents. This stuff is the real deal.
Fresh or Frozen Turkey?
Choosing a fresh or frozen turkey depends largely on preference, but also on how soon you plan on cooking your turkey. Make the right decision for you by considering these general tips.
- Fresh turkeys are ready to prepare. Fresh turkeys are best if held in the refrigerator for 24 hours before final preparation.
- Frozen turkeys can be purchased weeks in advance, but need several days to thaw and require adequate space in your freezer and refrigerator.
- Allow 1 day of thawing for every 4 pounds of turkey. NOTE: Turkeys need to be thawed in the refrigerator or by cold water thawing. Check out How To Thaw a turkey for more information.
Fresh and frozen Butterball turkeys are all natural, gluten free and raised without hormones.
Fresh and Frozen Butterball turkeys are deep basted for juiciness and flavor.
All natural means minimally processed and no artificial ingredients. All turkeys are raised hormone- and steroid-free in accordance with USDA requirements.
Turkey Roasting Guidelines & Tips
This is what my local favorite butcher told me. The so-called “fresh” turkeys have been sitting around for many, many days. From the processing, trucking to the grocery store, and then in the grocery store. These are not fresh turkeys!
His advice to to purchase a frozen turkey, as they are flash frozen immediately after being butchered. Frozen turkey are fresher turkeys!
The frozen turkey have been frozen immediately upon preparation. The so called fresh turkeys can sit in your store for days. I always buy a frozen turkey because of this.
Turkey Roasting Hints and Tips – Cooking a Turkey is Easy!
Use a shallow turkey roasting pans. If you use a deep roasting pan, you wind up steaming the meat. If you do not have a good roasting pan, you should purchase one a good sturdy one with handles.
BEWARE of the aluminum foil disposable roasting pans as they are not sturdy enough to hold a large turkey and can buckle up when trying to remove the hot turkey from the oven. Most of these pans are not sturdy enough to carry a 12 pound or more turkey. They can buckle and cave in, and have been known to cause injuries by collapsing under the weight. Make sure your pan is sturdy enough to handle your large turkey safely.
Stuffing the Turkey:
Do NOT stuff your turkey ahead of time as harmful bacteria growth could spoil the uncooked turkey. Just before roasting, stuff the body and the neck of the turkey.
Do not pack the stuffing/dressing in the turkey, as the stuffing will expand during cooking. If packed in too tightly, it will be very dense instead of light. Check out my articles Linda’s Favorite Turkey Stuffing and Advice on Stuffing a Turkey Safely.
Truss or Not to Truss:
You do not need to bother with complicated trussing. Instead, secure the legs by tucking the ankle joints into the pocket of skin at the tail end. Tuck wing tips back under the shoulders of bird (called “akimbo”).
Using kitchen twine or skewers, tie or truss the abdomen closed and the legs together close to the body so that the stuffing cooks evenly.
Roasting the Turkey:
Roast your turkey breast-side down on a v-shaped rack until the last hour or so in the oven, then turn turn the turkey to brown the breast, if desired. The result is a moister white meat. Usually my turkey is too big to turn over – so I don’t do this step!
- This is optional, but I like to rub some butter over the skin of the turkey before beginning the roasting. Vegetable oil may also be used, but I like the taste of real butter. This helps the skin brown.
- I also like to add 1 cup chicken broth/stock to the bottom of the turkey pan before beginning the cooking. This will create a steam room-type environment in the oven, which help keep the breast moist but will not prevent browning of the skin.
Basting the Turkey:
Basting during the roasting process is an unnecessary extra step. Basing in the last hour of roasting can actually turn a beautiful crisp turkey skin soft. Baste the turkey with accumulated juices from the bottom of the pan. If your turkey is browning too quickly, make a tent out of aluminum foil and place over the top of the turkey.
Three easy ways to baste a turkey:
- Use a Turkey Baster (bulb turkey baster)
- Use a basting brush
- Use a large spoon to scoop up the juices and drizzle over the turkey
Never rely on the little plastic thermometer in some turkeys to pop out. If you wait for it, the turkey will overcook. Instead stick an instant read thermometer several inches down through the skin between the thigh and the breast so the tip ends up about an inch above the joint. The turkey is ready when the thermometer reads 165 degrees F. Check out my web page on Using A Thermometer – Take The Guesswork Out Of Cooking.
This is the type of cooking and meat thermometer that I prefer and use in my cooking. I get many readers asking what cooking/meat thermometer that I prefer and use in my cooking and baking. I, personally, use the Thermapen Thermometer shown in the photo on the right. To learn more about this excellent thermometer and to also purchase one (if you desire), just click on the underlined: Thermapen Thermometer.
Let the cooked turkey “rest” after it have been removed from the oven.
While the turkey cooks, the juices are forced away from the heat to the middle of the turkey. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and let rest for 20 to 30 minutes after it is removed from the oven. This allows the juices to redistribute throughout the turkey. A moist turkey is easier to carve and very delicious.
After the turkey has rested, remove the stuffing/dressing and place in a serving dish.
Prepare your turkey gravy while the turkey is resting: Perfect Turkey Gravy.
Carve your turkey and serve. If you need your oven to reheat or cook side dishes, it is better to serve the turkey at room temperature with hot gravy than to reheat it. Reheating dries out the meat. The interior of a large turkey will stay quite hot for at least an hour.
Watch a video to learn how to carve a turkey
Using A Cooking Bag:
This is an easy way to cook your turkey. It keeps all the juices and flavors in the bag and the turkey is automatically basted while it cooks. You end up with more juices than the conventional way because they do not evaporate during roasting. The juices also do not burn and stick to the pan.
Check out Linda hints and tips on preparing your holiday turkey dinner:
Turkey Terminology – Types of Turkeys
How To Roast A Turkey – Roasting Your Thanksgiving Turkey
Guidelines for Brining Poultry
Linda’s Favorite Turkey Stuffing
Advice on Stuffing a Turkey Safely
Using a Cooking or Meat Thermometer
Perfect Turkey Gravy
Gravy Making Tips
Make Ahead Mashed Potatoes
Advice on Handling Leftovers Safely
Let’s Make Turkey Stock
Cajun Fried Turkey
Oven Roasted Turkey
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Living Well: 7 Secrets For a Juicy Thanksgiving Turkey
It can seem like a daunting task to roast a turkey! I know I was a little panicked when I hosted my first Thanksgiving dinner. I put a lot of pressure on myself because I wanted the turkey to steal the show. (I knew the sides would take care of themselves.)
After consulting my gigantic stack of cookbooks and foodie magazines, I felt prepared. As I slid the roasting pan into the oven, I wiped my hands on my apron and said, “Well, that was easier than I thought it would be!”
Follow these tips for your own juicy Thanksgiving turkey and you’ll be saying the same thing!
Plus, you and your guests will be enjoying the juiciest Thanksgiving turkey ever.
HOW TO GET A JUICY THANKSGIVING TURKEY – THAWING
Before we start, there are several different kinds of turkeys available — self-basting, kosher, and natural. You’ll find these fresh or frozen. (Note: some turkeys are partially frozen and still labeled “fresh.”) In this tutorial, I’m using a fresh, all-natural, free range turkey. While I don’t mind using the turkeys treated with salt solutions, I do prefer seasoning them myself for greater control. But that is just a preference.
The first step is to thaw your turkey. If you have a fresh turkey, you can skip this step. Make sure to thaw your turkey at the proper temperature to avoid bacteria growth. Thawing can be done in the refrigerator or in cold water, which takes about 3/4 the time. Be sure to thaw the turkey over a rimmed baking dish so the juices don’t run all over and contaminate other foods and surfaces.
Secret #1: If you’ve never cooked a turkey before, you may be shocked to find out how long it takes to thaw a turkey. Use this handy reference and plan ahead!
Once the turkey has been thawed, remove the giblets — if you like, you can save them to make homemade turkey stock. (In fact, I recommend thawing the turkey a day or two before you roast it and make the stock so it’s ready to go for gravy.) Rinse the turkey inside and out in cool water and pat dry with paper towels.
HOW TO GET A JUICY THANKSGIVING TURKEY – BRINING
When I buy a fresh, natural turkey, like the one pictured, I like to brine it to help make it as juicy as possible. If your turkey has been pre-salted (check the label), go ahead and skip this part.
Think of brining like marinating. It helps season and draw moisture into the meat to keep it flavorful and juicy. A good rule of thumb is to use 1 cup of table salt (2 cups kosher salt) and 1/2 cup sugar (white or brown) for every gallon of water. Brining recipes vary greatly on how long the turkey should brine. I allow plenty of time, at least 8-12 hours.
Secret #2: Brining means you can skip the basting later on.
Dissolve the salt and sugar in the water and add any seasonings you want to use. I like to use a combination of herbs and spices — rosemary, thyme, bay leaves, peppercorns, whole cloves and allspice, plus I put in some leek tops and halved garlic cloves for extra flavor.
Place the turkey and the brining solution into a sterilized plastic or non-reactive metal container. You can also use brining bags and place it in a plastic tub in case it leaks. You want to keep the turkey at 40 degrees F, so you’ll either want to refrigerate the turkey in the brine, or leave it someplace cool and add ice or gel ice packs. If it’s cold enough outside, you can even put the turkey in a safe place and let it brine there.
I had a tough time finding a container that was tall enough, so I ended up using a much larger plastic tub than I wanted. If you have the same problem, just be sure to follow the ratio of salt and sugar to water and you’ll be fine.
Secret #3: To keep the turkey totally submerged, top it with a heavy metal lid or plate.
One the turkey has brined long enough, remove it from the brine and rinse it well with cold water. Discard the brine.
HOW TO GET A JUICY THANKSGIVING TURKEY – PREPPING THE OVEN AND PAN
Let the turkey continue to air dry (you can do this overnight in the fridge too) and allow it to come to room temperature for a few hours before you roast it.
Preheat the oven to the temperature in your recipe. I prefer to start out with very high heat, such as 450 degrees for a half hour, then lower the heat to 350 degrees for the remaining time.
If your turkey comes with a plastic pop-up timer/thermometer, you should leave it where it is, but ignore it! If you gauge done-ness by the pop-up timer, the white meat will be bone-dry and overcooked. Instead, use an instant-read thermometer. If you have a fancy digital one, even better. Just insert it into the thickest part of the breast and set the temperature for between 161-165 degrees F.
A roasting pan is one of the most important tools for the perfect turkey. You can certainly get away with using a disposable aluminum pan if you are on a tight budget or don’t have storage space to accommodate a large pan. However, I recommend using either the roasting/broiling pan that comes standard with most ovens, or investing in a good-quality roasting pan that comes with a flat or V-rack. If you don’t have a rack, you can make your own using aluminum foil.
Here’s why that is important: You want the turkey to be elevated a bit to allow for air circulation, which leads to more even cooking, and also because as the juices drip down, they will get nice and brown on the bottom of the pan. (That’s one of the keys to really great gravy.)
I also like to dice carrots, onions, and celery to put on the bottom of the pan for extra flavor, but that is totally optional.
Secret #4: I never cook the stuffing inside the turkey. I prefer to bake it separately in another dish. A turkey with stuffing takes longer to cook and can be a huge pain.
While I prefer not to stuff the turkey, I do like to place some aromatics inside the cavity — carrots, onions, garlic, celery, and fresh herbs are great. I’ve also used apples and lemons before as well.
Before placing the turkey on the roasting rack, rub the skin liberally with butter or canola oil. And if you didn’t brine it, sprinkle the whole bird inside and out with salt and pepper, or a spice rub. The butter will help give you crispy, golden brown skin.
I also like to truss the legs together if the turkey doesn’t come with it already done for me. But don’t stress! Most turkeys come with a plastic or wire trussing. So you can just leave it be.
If your turkey has a big flap of neck skin, you can secure it using toothpicks or just tuck it in.
Secret #5: If you are using a v-rack, be sure to tuck the wings back underneath the turkey so they don’t flap around.
You might notice that the turkey is breast-side down in the roasting pan. That’s on purpose! I like to start roasting that way and rotate the turkey periodically so the breast doesn’t get overcooked.
Secret #6: Finishing with the breast side up will also give you that crispy, brown skin everyone loves to fight over.
If you have a turkey larger than 14-15 lbs., then it will be too difficult to turn it over. Just roast it breast-side up for the whole time, covering just the turkey breast (legs uncovered) with aluminum foil. (I’ll give more detail on the foil later.)
Then it’s time to place it in the oven!
HOW TO GET A JUICY THANKSGIVING TURKEY – ROASTING
A lot of people baste their turkeys continually throughout the roasting process. If you rub butter over the skin, that will be a good start and you can baste it a few times if you want to. If I brine my turkey, I don’t usually baste it. Otherwise, I baste mine when I turn it over.
Secret #7: Don’t baste the turkey during the last hour or the skin could turn out flabby instead of golden and crispy.
It’s a good idea to pull the pan completely out of the oven to turn the turkey over. That way the precious heat you’ve built up won’t escape and it will be much easier to maneuver while you turn it over. I use either clean oven mitts or wads of paper towels to protect my hands when I turn the turkey over. If you want, you can also partially turn the turkey over, allowing each leg to brown nicely (about 15 minutes per leg) before finishing with the breast-side up.
Before sliding the turkey back into the oven, I make a foil diamond or triangle and fit it down against the turkey breast, leaving the legs uncovered because they can tolerate more heat.
A lot of people rely on the leg wiggling easily to tell them when the turkey is finished cooking. I still like to rely on my thermometer. I like to take a reading in both the breast and thigh. The breast should be at 160-165 degrees F. and the thigh should be at least 170-175 degrees F, some say little as 165 degrees, but I let it get a little higher just to be safe.
If it’s not up to the proper temperature, put it back in the oven for 15-30 minutes more and take another reading.
See? Nice and brown. Just like you want.
When the turkey is finished cooking, you need to let it rest for 30 minutes before slicing it. This can be done on a cutting board with a well around it to catch any escaping juices, or on a serving platter.
This resting step is super important. During the cooking process, a lot of liquid is released. Not all of that will drip down into the roasting pan. A lot of it is sitting just under the skin. Letting the turkey rest for a bit will allow those juices to be reabsorbed and you guessed it, the turkey will be juicier.
While the turkey rests, be sure to tent it with foil or a large metal bowl to retain the heat.
Uncover the turkey, place it on the platter (and garnish if you like!), and take it to the table to show off. Then give yourself a pat on the back, sit back and enjoy the compliments you’ll get on the juiciest turkey ever.
Your Turkey-in-a-Bag Game Plan
- Coat the roasting bag. Your turkey will brown best if your bag is coated with flour. Some folks say you can flour the bag without any adhesive, but I found better coating (and browning) if I spray the bag with cooking spray, add the flour, and then shake the bag to coat.
- Make a seasoning blend. At minimum, your turkey needs some salt, but why not up the ante with some dried herbs, garlic, and onion powder? You can coat the turkey in both before bagging.
- Bag, seal, and vent. Move your seasoned turkey to the roasting bag and seal it with the ties included in the bag kit. If, for instance, your mom lost the tie from the box of bags she lost last year, no problem. Tie a knot in the bag to seal. Lastly, before roasting, make about six (one-inch) vents in the bag with scissors or a knife.
- Roast and rest. Move the bagged turkey to the roasting pan and be sure to tuck the bag into the pan we don’t want the bag to come in contact with the oven walls or racks. Roast the turkey for two to two-and-a-half hours, or until it temps at least 165°F in the breast. Rest the turkey in the bag before carving.
A good rule of thumb when determining how much turkey you’ll need is 1-1/2 pounds of poultry per person. Definitely go for two pounds per person if you want plenty of leftovers for some yummy sandwiches or a comforting turkey potpie the next day!
What’s The Difference between a Tom and a Hen?
Hens are female and Toms are male. On average, Toms are larger, so if you’re looking for a turkey over 18 pounds, you will most likely end up with a Tom.
A second item to consider is when choosing between a Hen or Tom is the bone to meat ratio. Toms have larger bones and less edible portions. Hens mature in 16 weeks and range from 8-16lbs on average, but if a hen reaches the 24lb range, a hen will develop a fat layer, which flavors the bird while roasting. Toms mature at 19 weeks and generally range from 18-24lbs. Most supermarket birds are Toms. If you are looking for a little more meat and less bone waste, look for a Hen. Expert opinion varies as to the more favorable it is probably just personal preference of size. Age not gender seems to the determining factor for tenderness and a tasty bird for your table.
Whether it’s a Tom or a Hen, Farm to Table Is Best
Locally-raised turkeys that are fed a vegetarian diet without hormones or antibiotics will not only make your Thanksgiving dinner healthier, they’re tastier and fresher than factory-farmed birds. So before you choose your Thanksgiving turkey, check out our family-raised, farm-fresh turkeys at DiPaola Turkey Farm in NJ or pick one up from GrowNYC. Your dinner guests will thank you!
Types of Turkey
The wild turkeys of yesteryear have largely been replaced on our tables by domestic turkeys, which are farm-raised birds bred for their broad breasts and juicy, flavorful flesh.
Domestic turkeys weigh 6 to 24 pounds and have large breasts in relation to their legs and wings. They are so out of proportion, in fact, that domestic turkeys cannot fly more than a few feet at a time.
Most of the turkeys found on the market are young and will have tender meat. The most common types of turkey are:
Fryer/roasters: The youngest and most tender turkeys available, fryer/roasters are under 16 weeks old at slaughter. Their small size&mdash5 to 9 pounds&mdashmakes them good choices for small families. They can be roasted, broiled, or grilled.
Hens: These female turkeys, 5 to 7 months old, weigh between 8 and 18 pounds. Some cooks believe that hens have a larger proportion of white to dark meat. Hens can be roasted, broiled, or grilled.
Toms: There are those cooks who believe that the only relevant difference between a male tom turkey and a hen is size. Young tom turkeys weigh up to 24 pounds. Others, however, insist that toms have tastier meat. Like hens, toms can be roasted, broiled, or grilled.
Mature hens or toms: These are older turkeys and are not often found on the market. They are best stewed or poached.
Turkey parts: All-white-meat breasts come in whole or half form, with the bone in or boneless. Breast steaks are crosswise cuts 1/2 to 1 inch thick. Breast steaks that are 1/4 to 3/8 inch thick are called turkey cutlets. Tenderloins are the whole muscles on the inside of the turkey breast. Tenderloins are also sliced lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick steaks, called tenderloin steaks. Thighs and drumsticks are all-dark-meat sections sold separately or together as hindquarters. Wings are white-meat sections sold with the bone in.
Ground turkey: Provided that it&rsquos made from mostly breast meat, ground turkey can be a leaner substitute for ground beef. Packaged ground turkey often contains skin and dark meat, however, and may derive 54 percent of its calories from fat. Some processors do sell turkey ground from breast meat only, but be sure to check the ingredient label. You can be sure of very lean ground meat if you buy fresh turkey parts&mdashbreast cutlets or tenderloins, for example&mdashand have the butcher grind them for you. Or grind them yourself if you have a meat grinder.
Turkey Talk: Is Free Range Or Organic Worth It?
The appeal of free-range turkeys is that they are raised with access to outdoor space so they can roam -- many folks believe that this makes for better tasting meat. Farmers also raise these turkeys in a more human environment (no messy, cooped-up quarters), which wins extra points with food advocates. Add to that list the fact these turkeys get fed higher quality food and farmers don't use hormones or antibiotics on them.
As for organic turkeys, they are certified as being raised following strict parameters (though they may not be free range) and are only fed organic food. Usually free-range birds are also organic, but make sure you ask your meat provider or read the store packaging carefully.
Local poultry ranches are usually smaller operations and take more care in raising their animals. Many use free-range and organic practices (even if they aren’t certified organic). If you're interested in keeping your feast local, call up the farmer to ask for details ahead of time.
Poultry also often has other labels such as “natural,” “grass-fed” or “no added hormones” -- check out our eco-friendly label decoder to help make sense of these tags.
Yes, these more specialized turkeys cost more -- in many cases, A LOT more. We priced out options from various online grocery stores and the costs varied. Some turkeys were more than $10 per pound. Here’s what we found on average:
If getting a free-range or organic bird is important to you, you can save some money by picking a smaller size. Yes, this does mean fewer leftovers, but most people buy way more turkey than they need anyway. In this case, you'd be splurging on quality, not quantity.
Pay attention to the labels on fresh or frozen birds or ask your butcher or local farmer for more details. Free-range and organic turkeys are often in high demand so if you choose to get one, you should order it now (if you haven't already).