Everything You Need to Know Before Buying a Turkey

fresh whole turkey

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Turkey can be a tricky dish that requires careful planning and execution.

You’ve got to thaw it, brine it, cook it perfectly and then serve it hot to avoid upsetting your guests with dry turkey.

While these are all important topics, we don’t spend enough time understanding exactly what type of turkey to buy, and when to buy it.

Doing your research before you buy a turkey will make the whole process so much easier. Read on to learn about the benefits of buying a fresh or frozen turkey, as well as the difference between heritage, free-range and pasture-raised.

What is the best turkey size to buy?

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

You should avoid buying huge turkeys and these are difficult to cook correctly. Any turkey larger than 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.

You should also consider the size of your oven, grill, or smoker, as well as any pans you plan on using.

turkey in an Masterbuilt electric smoker
I needed to remove a rack to make room for this turkey on my electric smoker

Turkey’s can exceed the gap between racks on your smoker, so if you need to remove some racks you may not have as much space for sides as you planned.

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

Should you buy a fresh or frozen turkey?

The National Turkey Federation claims that there is no difference between a fresh or frozen turkey.

Frozen turkeys are flash-frozen immediately after packaging, while fresh turkeys are chilled. By law, a fresh turkey cannot be stored below 26°F so a previously frozen turkey cannot be sold as a fresh turkey.

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

We would question the advice from the National Turkey Federation though.

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

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.

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.

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. See our guide on when to order your Thanksgiving turkey and the best way to thaw a turkey.

Different types of turkey

Self-basting, basted or injected turkeys

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.

These are the most commonly available and affordable turkeys you can buy.

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 turkeys

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 turkeys

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, organic and hertigate turkeys

  • 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. 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. 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.

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 your turkey was humanely raised, it is always worth doing a little research into the distributor first.

See our guide for a list of the best companies to order turkeys online.

Can you brine a self basting turkey?

Most turkey recipes insist on brining the bird. 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.

Before you purchase your 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.

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.

A turkey that ticks all the boxes

While it might seem odd to buy your bird from a company called Crowd Cow, the craft online butcher sells top-quality free-range turkeys sourced from quality farmers.

Crowd Cow Free-Range Turkey

This 10-12 lbs turkey is juicy, tender, and packed with amazing flavor.

Check Latest Price

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.

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