Most of us purchase a turkey once or twice a year, usually for friends and loved ones on a special occasion, so it’s important to get it right. I’ve spent a lot of time reading and experimenting with these birds and have gotten results that range from a bird with the texture of chalk, all the way to really darn good.
With all the failures along the way, I have figured a few things out and would like to share what I have learned and continue to learn (this post will be updated and reposted annually). In the spirit of ongoing education, I invite you to share your tips and tricks in the comments below.
WHAT KIND OF BIRD TO BUY?
I’ve tried several types of turkeys and have classified them below. Statements are true for whole turkeys and breast a like.
Before we begin, a sidebar: I know there is a movement regarding ethically raised food that I do tend to prescribe to. However, I’m not a scientific researcher, so I have deemed that this forum is not the place for that discussion. Also, hunting — which I partake in — is mentioned in the post. I know many have huge opinions about hunting pros and cons. We could talk for days on the ethics regarding to-hunt or not-to-hunt, but again, I’m not a professor of ethics, so...not the place. My blog, so I get to delete comments that are not respectful or on topic.
Here we go! First thing that needs to be said is, you should buy the best quality bird YOUR money can buy. Everybody has a budget and I don't think anyone should be putting a feast on credit. Also, it's been my experience that the most expensive birds aren't necessarily the best birds.
First up are what I call "Supermarket Turkeys” and are what is most commonly available. The pros of these Toms is the price per pound, and I have had good results with them. They are a great choice for many families. The cons are that these birds are usually very lean as they are bred to be broad-breasted, which means they are dryer than other turkeys and are sometimes “pre-basted.” Personally, I have found that pre-basting causes the meat to be soggy, and washed out, so I typically skip the pre-basted guys.
If you choose this type of turkey be sure to check out our salting & brining method, in How to Salt & Brine Poultry, if it ISN'T pre-basted. If it's pre-basted, skip the salt or brine, but be sure to air dry the bird as outlined at the end of the blog post.
Supermarket Turkeys come with a lot of labels.
Below are some of the most common explanations, curtesy of the USDA.
Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.
Key words here are "demonstrate" and "allowed access." Basically it means that the birds are allowed to roam around a warehouse and can go outside if wanted. It does not mean that they get to be natural birds foraging around for insects and such.
"Fresh" means whole poultry and cuts have never been below 26 °F (the temperature at which poultry freezes). This is consistent with consumer expectations of "fresh" poultry, i.e., not hard to the touch or frozen solid.
A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.
Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as "no artificial ingredients; minimally processed").
Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry.
The terms "no antibiotics added" may be used on labels for meat or poultry products if sufficient documentation is provided by the producer to the Agency demonstrating that the animals were raised without antibiotics.
Turkeys of either sex that are less than 8 months of age according to present regulations.
"Kosher" may be used only on the labels of meat and poultry products prepared under rabbinical supervision. I won't expand on Kosher, because I'm not Jewish, would get it wrong, and possibly offend some people with my ignorance. For my purposes, Kosher means it's pre salted. Kosher birds are a good compromise between natural and self-basting birds.
I couldn't find an explanation on this from the USDA, but my research tells me it basically means they weren't fed slaughter house byproducts, or in other words...other chickens. This sounds horrifying, but in truth, chickens are omnivores, readily eating bugs and small animals when available, so I'm not sure a forced vegetarian diet is a good thing or even possible.
However, what I was able to find was vegetarian feed is becoming popular in industrial chicken farming because it reduces the risk of animal diseases being spread through poultry feed. This is a particular concern to industrial chicken farmers because the conditions in which animals are raised makes them more susceptible to disease. Thus, it's definitely bad for birds to eat sick birds that were used in the feed.
USDA CERTIFIED ORGANIC
To sell organic poultry meat, birds must be fed and managed organically from the second day after hatching. All agricultural components of the feed ration, including kelp and carriers in feed supplements, must be 100% organic. All poultry must have access to the outdoors. (There's that key word: ACCESS.)
Organic poultry producers must establish preventative livestock health management practices. Medical treatment cannot be withheld from sick animals or flocks to maintain the birds' organic status. The use of growth hormones, antibiotics, genetic engineering, and animal cloning is prohibited, as is the feeding of slaughter byproducts. All organic poultry production and processing operations must be done by USDA-accredited certification agencies. Detailed records of all feeds, medications, and transactions must be maintained. Organic integrity must be protected by preventing organic birds and poultry products from coming in contact with prohibited substances or being commingled with non-organic products.
This means the turkey is dunked in a clorine bath during processing causing it to retian moisture, this washes out the flavor of the turkey. Most turkey's in the supermarket are water chilled, so try to find an "Air-Chilled" Turkey.
This pretty much means the bird was injected with a solution of one or more of salt, oils, broths, spices, sugars, preservatives. I have always found these birds to be spongey and washed of true turkey flavor.
Beyond the adjectives that they can throw on the label of any bird, regardless of the variety, there are also some distinct types of turkey:
Most groceries offer two types:
Regular / True Cut Breast will include the breast with ribs, a portion of the wing, and a portion of the back, and neck skin.
Hotel / Country Style Breast is the same as the True Cut, but also include the wings, neck, & giblets, all of which is essential to making gravy or sauce for the turkey.
Wild Turkeys are exactly that: you go out and hunt and harvest them yourself. You never know what you’ll get with these guys. Some are the best you’ll ever have; some are stringy & awful. Wild Turkeys are are nomadic animals, so you just never know where and what they’ve been eating. Due to the unpredictable flavor of wild turkeys, I don’t recommend them for dinner parties.
Heritage Turkeys are direct descendants from wild turkeys, and bred to be...not wild, meaning farmers got tired of chasing them all over the woods, so they bred the nomadic characteristics out of them. They are typically treated like royalty; pampered, fed a very high quality all vegetarian diet, and are free to roam. While, I have certainly found some very tasty heritage birds...them birds are expensive and I mean expensive, and I’m not convinced they are worth the price.
Local Turkeys are probably the best turkey you can buy. This is the type of turkey where you meet the people that raised the bird and they give you personal guarantees. These people make it or break it on their honesty, so they have an incentive to be straight forward about what they are raising. Not to mention the positives of spending money in your local community, etc.
FRESH OR FROZEN?
Unless you are buying a turkey from a local farmer, fresh isn't best. As mentioned above, a "fresh" turkey can be chilled all the way to 27 degrees fahrenheit & still be considered fresh. Turkey's freezing point is 26 degrees, but the moisture, from processing, can still crystalize and damaged the meat. Then during transport the bird may be introduced to a higher temperature thawing the crystals, then be reintroduced to extreme cold and form again, and further damage the meat, resulting in the proteins not being able to retain moisture during cooking. When serving, the result will be tough, chalky meat.
Frozen turkeys on the other hand, are blast chilled, which eliminates crystals from forming, and is not introduced to temperature fluctuations. The least amount of damage to the poultry is done by blast freezing.
SIZE OF TURKEYS
I don't recommend buying a turkey over 14 pounds, as I have had better results with smaller birds. Rule of thumb is you'll need 1 pound per person. If you're feeding more than 14 people, I would recommend getting or borrowing a portable roaster oven and cooking 2 smaller birds rather than 1 giant one. If this doesn't work for you, just go as small as you can.
Now that I have bored you to tears with all the nuances, here's the quick and dirty of my experiences:
• I don't purchase pre-based / seasoned birds.
• If a knew someone who raised local Turkeys I'd go that route, but like most folks, I don't.
• First Pick for my budget is Organic, Frozen, Young birds.
• If my budget is a bit tighter, and sometimes it is, I go with All Natural, VegEtarian Feed, No Hormone, No Antibiotic, Frozen, Young birds.
• Finally, AS a compromise, I'd pick a Kosher bird.
I hope this helps clear the muddy waters when it comes to selecting a Turkey! Please let us know if you have something we missed — best way to learn is from each other. Be on the lookout for our upcoming posts on how to cook up that perfectly selected bird!