Turkey Buying & Thawing Guide

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Did you know it can take seven whole days for a turkey to defrost properly? 

The vast majority of the turkey cooking horror stories you hear are due to the bird not being properly defrosted when it came to cooking time, resulting in a totally overcooked and dry exterior or cold and uncooked meat in the middle.

To make sure you never have to live through one of these turkey disasters, we’ve put together this guide to help you pick the best turkey to be the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving feast and advice on how to properly thaw it.

Buying a turkey: things to consider

When buying a turkey, the size and type of bird you purchase, as well as whether it is fresh or frozen, are key considerations. 

To give you the information you need to pick the right turkey for your table, we’ve broken down what size bird you should buy, what the different types of turkey actually mean, and why it’s ok to buy a frozen turkey for convenience. 

Choosing the right size turkey

Obviously, the size of the turkey you plan to buy is relative to how many mouths you have to feed. You should plan on around one pound of turkey per adult, which, without the bones and giblets, turns into about half a pound of turkey meat.

There is, however, an upper limit to the size you should buy. Huge turkeys (those over 15 pounds in weight) are prone to drying out because of the sheer amount of cooking time it takes to cook a bird of that size. 

The perfect weight for a turkey is around 10 to 12 pounds. If you’ve got more than 10 to 12 guests, it’s better to cook two smaller birds than one huge one.

Or maybe book a restaurant. 

Different types of turkey

  • Self-basting – Self basted turkeys like the famous Butterall have a liquid salt solution injected under the skin of the bird in order to improve its taste and keep it moist. Common ingredients in the basting liquid are broth, stock, butter, wine, maple syrup, and a range of spices. According to the Turkey Federation (which is totally a thing), self-basting turkeys have more succulent meat, and the liquid under the skin results in a darker bird with crispier skin.
  • Natural – According to the USDA, turkeys marked as “natural” have been “minimally processed with no artificial ingredients or colors added.” This means no animal by-product feed, no growth enhancers, and no antibiotics unless it is for parasite control.
  • Kosher – Kosher turkeys have been slaughtered under the supervision of a Rabbi, in order to comply with Jewish religious practice, and come pre-brined in Kosher salt. While this does lessen the chance of the bird drying out, some people do report that it gives the meat an odd chemical aftertaste.
  • Free-range – A free-range turkey has been raised in a more humane manner and must have had access to outdoor space. However, what counts as outdoor space is very liberally defined by the USDA, so don’t buy free-range thinking your turkey spent every day of its life running over green fields.
  • Organic – Since it is already illegal to give turkeys in the US growth hormones, organic turkeys are raised without the use of antibiotics and are often labeled as “antibiotic-free.” They are also only fed on organic feed.
  • Heritage – Heritage birds are generally from a specific breed of turkey that has been kept relatively genetically pure. Because of this, they have a reputation for being more flavourful, if a little smaller than regular turkeys. Because they are often reared in smaller amounts and better conditions than ordinary turkeys, they also tend to be more expensive. They are basically the Wagyu beef of the turkey world.

Need a good turkey recipe? Check out our spatchcock smoked turkey

Can you brine a self basting turkey?

Most recipes for turkey all but insist on brining the bird yourself. Doing it yourself lets you control the exact flavors being added to the meat.

But what if you can only buy a self basting turkey?

Opinion seems to be fairly mixed here.

Some warn that brining a pre-basted, injected or kosher bird will result in a “salt lick with gravy”.

On the other hand, we’ve found many people have had success with their own brine.

You can brine a self basting turkey so long as you are extra careful not to brine it for too long, or use too much salt.

Should you buy turkey fresh or frozen?

Ideally, you would buy a fresh turkey for Thanksgiving and keep it in your refrigerator for less than two days, as they do tend to taste a little better than one that has been frozen.

Ice crystals that form when water molecules in the turkey freeze are sharp, and can puncture holes in muscle fibres which can cause the bird to dry out.

However, the reality for most people is that finding the perfect fresh turkey two days before Thanksgiving, alongside all their other last-minute holiday season chores, is going to be a nightmare.

You might also be surprised to learn that some grocery stores thaw frozen turkeys a little so that they feel fresh.

This makes it surprisingly hard to get your hand on authentic, fresh turkey.

“To get a truly fresh turkey, usually you have to order it and the butcher or farmer will give you a pickup date.”

Meathead Goldwyn – amazingribs.com

So, for the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that you’ve chosen a frozen turkey that you don’t have to buy last-minute.

Where to buy a turkey

Where you source your turkey from can have a massive impact on the quality of the meat. A storebought turkey raised in a crowded battery farm is never going to be as tasty as a genuinely pasture-raised organic bird.

To make finding the right turkey for you as easy as possible, we’ve listed some important considerations for you to keep in mind.

Turkey buying considerations 

1. Living conditions 

Most turkeys that make their way to supermarkets have been raised in the cramped conditions of a huge turkey farm and then sent to a processing plant to be washed in chlorine and other disinfectants to remove any bacteria.

Poor raising conditions and chemical-heavy processing techniques can affect negatively the quality of your turkey meat, so how your bird was raised is something to consider when buying one.

2. Farm Certification  

For those looking for genuine organic turkey meat, it is essential to look for that official USDA certification mark.

The USDA monitors how organic turkeys are raised, and for a farm to be certified as organic, the turkeys can only eat feed that does not contain genetically modified grains, pesticides, herbicides, chemical residues, or animal by-products.  They also have to be raised without growth additives or antibiotics.

3. Free-range vs. Pasture-Raised

According to the USDA, in order to qualify as free-range, “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” The size and type of access are not well defined.

There is currently no legal definition for “Pasture-Raised” in the United States, although more and more farms are now offering turkeys that have been allowed to roam freely in large green spaces.

If you are planning on buying free-range or pasture-raised to make sure you turkey was humanely raised, it is always worth doing a little research into the distributor first.

Order turkey online from Crowd Cow

While it might seem odd to buy your bird from a company called Crowd Cow, the craft online butcher have partnered with Greg Gunthorp, owner of the Gunthorp Family turkey farm in Indiana and they know precisely how to raise the perfect turkey. 

All the turkeys raised by Greg are genuinely pasture-raised, are able to roam free, and their diet is a combination of natural foraging and “free choice” non-GMO turkey feed. They live in a certified organic pasture and receive no hormone or antibiotic treatments. 

So, if you are looking for a turkey that you can be assured isn’t pumped full of additives and didn’t live a miserable life in a giant industrial farm, then the CrowdCow is an excellent place to source this year’s Thanksgiving bird from.

Step by step guide to thawing a turkey

With the big day on the horizon, you’ll want to make sure your turkey is properly defrosted, ready to be cooked. To help out, we’ve put together several different ways you can defrost your turkey, with timescales ranging from a few days to around 90 minutes.

Refrigerator thawing

According to the USDA, refrigerator thawing is the safest way to thaw your turkey at a consistently low temperature, helping to prevent bacterial growth. It’s also the easiest of the turkey thawing methods.

  1. Once you’ve got your frozen turkey home, check the weight. You’re going to need around 24 hours for every 4-5lbs (1.8-2.2kg) of turkey to make sure it is properly defrosted.
  2. Give you refrigerator a good wash with soapy water to cut down on possible contact contamination and move the shelves around to make room for your bird.
  3. An entirely deforested turkey can then sit in your refrigerator for two days before it needs to be cooked.
  4. To check if your turkey is fully defrosted, make sure the body is soft, the legs can be moved, and that there are no ice crystals in the body cavity. 

If your refrigerator is too full (which is quite likely right before Thanksgiving) you can use a cooler or any large food safe container.

Just make sure you thoroughly clean the container before use and add enough ice to maintain a temperature below 40°F.

The turkey should also be completely submerged.

Cold water thawing

Cold water thawing cuts down on your thawing time by about half, but it is a little more labor-intensive.

  1. Leave your turkey in the wrapping it came in and fully submerge it in cold water in a large container. You can use your sink for this, but make sure to give it a thorough wash beforehand, just to be safe.
  2. Make sure the water is cold, not at room temperature, to keep the turkey below 40 °F and outside of the “Danger Zone.” 
  3. You’ll need to change the water every 30 minutes or so and add in fresh cold water to make sure the turkey doesn’t rise above 40 °F.
  4. If you are using cold water thawing, allow about 30 minutes of defrosting time per pound. This means you can get a sizeable 15-pound turkey defrosted in about 8 hours.
  5. Once thawed, cook your turkey immediately. 

Microwave thawing

Usually, as a last resort, you can thaw your turkey in the microwave. If you do plan to do this, always check the manufacturer’s guidelines for what size of bird you microwave can accommodate.

  1. Remove all the wrapping from your turkey and place it on a microwave-safe dish in your microwave.
  2. Using the “defrost by weight” function, which should result in a defrosting time of around   6 minutes per pound.
  3. Rotate your turkey several times while it is cooking and flip it over at least once.
  4. If you turkey starts to actually cook during the defrosting process, remove it from the microwave and let it rest for 5 minutes before putting it back in.
  5. Once thawed, cook your turkey immediately. 

Safety tips for thawing a turkey

Now that we’ve covered the best ways to thaw out a turkey, here are a few things to avoid. Unless food poisoning and a ruined dishwasher is your idea of a great Thanksgiving gift.

What NOT to do

  • Do not defrost your turkey at room temperature – This will put your turkey squarely in the middle of the “Danger Zone” of 40 °F to 140 °F.  At this temperature, colonies of bacteria like Salmonella or Campylobacter will multiply every 20 minutes.
  • Do not wash your turkey – Washing your turkey will not remove any surface bacteria, all it will do is spread it all over your sink, work surfaces, and you.
  • Do not defrost your turkey in your dishwasher – Not only will this not defrost your turkey correctly, but it will also spray bacteria all over your dishwasher. 
    • If you place the bird in the wrong place, it could also give you a dishwasher full of scraps of partially frozen turkey. 

Always observe the correct thawing times

If you are defrosting your turkey in the refrigerator, allow 24 hours for every 4-5lbs. If you are using the cold water method, it’s 30 minutes of defrosting time per pound. Timings for microwaves vary, but it’s usually 6 minutes per pound.

If you aren’t sticking to these timings, there is a good chance that your turkey is going to go in the oven only partially defrosted.

How to store in the fridge

A defrosted turkey can be stored in a refrigerator for about two days before it needs to be cooked. Prep your fridge beforehand by washing it out with soapy water and making sure there is enough room.

Bear in mind that if you are using the cold water method or microwave to defrost your turkey, you will need to cook it straight away. It cannot be stored safely in the refrigerator.  

Wrapping it all up

Getting the perfect Thanksgiving centerpiece turkey is all about preparation, and properly thawing out your bird is a massive part of that. After all, no-one wants dry overcooked meat or raw sections in their dinner.

By sticking to the correct defrosting timings and using some of the methods and tips we’ve outlined above, your turkey will be thoroughly defrosted and ready to go when the big day rolls around!

If you’ve got any tips for thawing, storing, or cooking the perfect turkey, we’d love to hear about them in the comments below.

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