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Turkey Buying Guide: Organic, Natural or Heritage Turkey

Turkey Buying Guide: Organic, Natural or Heritage Turkey
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With Thanksgiving right around the corner, it is time to start planning the biggest meal of the year. According to the National Turkey Federation, 95% of Americans will be eating turkey during that meal. Here are some tips, considerations, and helpful guides to help you choose the perfect turkey for your holiday meal.

Turkey Size: Two Main Factors to Consider

1. How Much Turkey Per Person?

The more people you are expecting to be present for your holiday meal, the bigger bird you will need to prepare. It is recommended that you have 1 pound of turkey for each person eating. If you plan on having leftovers, you can factor in 1.5-2 pounds of turkey per person. So, for a family of 5, a 7-10 pound turkey will be more than sufficient for a main meal plus leftovers.

2. Turkey Preparation:

Turkeys are packaged and sold in a variety of forms, such as fresh or frozen, basted or unbasted. Before deciding, make sure you have a pragmatic understanding of time constraints.

  • How Long to Thaw a Turkey
    Thawing a turkey takes time, roughly 5 hours of thawing in a refrigerator per pound of turkey.
  • Turkey Brining
    Brining your own turkey instead of buying a basted one adds to the preparation time. Keep this in mind when selecting your turkey.
  • Turkey Cook Time
    Cook time will vary depending on method of cooking and recipe, Generally, you will want to cook an unstuffed turkey for about 15 minutes per pound, at 325 degrees. For an 18-pounder, about four and a half hours would do the trick. Roasting a stuffed bird will lengthen the cooking time.

Different Types of Turkey

When shopping for a turkey, in addition to looking for the ideal turkey size, another important factor is the type of turkey. There are so many options from natural to heritage and kosher to organic. Here is a guide to help you wade through the array of options:

Average Commercial Turkey

This is the most common type of turkey found in nearly every major grocery store during the holiday season. They are also the cheapest type of turkey, usually selling for around $1.05 per pound and almost always frozen. These can be a great option if you are budget conscious, need a large amount of turkey, or don’t have much time to shop around or visit your local farmer.

Natural Turkey

These turkeys are minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients, chemical preservatives, or added colors. This increases the healthiness of the bird. Additionally, these are often sold fresh, which means they have never been chilled below 26°F and have not been frozen. The downside is that natural turkeys are slightly more expensive than supermarket turkeys, and they can be harder to find.

Organic Turkey

An organic turkey is certified as such by the United States Department of Agriculture. To be certified a turkey must be raised on 100% organic food, given access to the outdoors, and have received no antibiotics or hormones. Additionally, turkey producers must comply with strict national standards on producing and processing the turkey after it is killed, namely that the bird contains at least 95% organic ingredients. However, the price reflects this as organic turkeys range from $2.29-$4.00 a pound. Though for those who eat organically all year round, or worry about artificial processing, this is another great option.

Heritage Turkey

You wouldn't know it, but 99% of the turkeys in stores all belong to the same breed: the Broad-Breasted White. Heritage turkeys are the names given to those other, indigenous breeds of turkey. Examples of such indigenous breeds include the Standard Bronze, Jersey Buff, Narragansett, or Bourbon Red. These tend to be a bit smaller than Broad-Breasted White and have less breast meat. They have a richer, gamier flavor, though, and feature more dark meat than your typical bird. Because of their rarity, these can sell for around $5 a pound, but they are a unique alternative to the run-of-the-mill turkey.

Free Range

This is a label given to turkeys that have access to outdoors while being raised. Though this brings to mind birds wandering wherever they please, the actual requirements are a bit more lax. When looking for a turkey, this can be an indication of quality, but does not dramatically impact the flavor of your turkey.

Kosher Turkey

A kosher turkey is one that is processed under the supervision of a rabbi. Typically these are sought out for religious purposes, but they are a great quality bird that non-believers should consider as well. All kosher turkeys are grain fed, receive no antibiotics, and are free range. They are then individually processed and brined, giving them a very distinctive and savory flavor. Keep an eye out for kosher turkeys at supermarket chains, but also look at small local shops, designated kosher butchers, or kosher farmers.

Basted Turkey

A basted turkey is one that has been injected with a sodium-based solution to increase juiciness. This solution can consist of flavor enhancers, fat, broth, or stock. Typically the labels clearly designate which is used. In contrast, an unbasted turkey lacks any such additive. If the idea of pre-injected turkeys concerns you, you can achieve the same juicy result by brining your own unbasted turkey, though it adds a notable amount of preparation time.


Other Factors to Consider When Buying a Turkey

Turkey Age: Fryer vs Roaster

If you want to move past the label, there are few other factors you may want to consider. The biggest factor is the age of the bird. A "fryer" or "roaster" turkey is less than 4 months old, and considered to have the most tender meat. These are the best for roasting. Turkeys between the ages of 4-7 months are called "young" turkeys, and are also considered excellent for roasting. Birds that are at a year, called "yearlings", begin to show a lesser tenderness, but may still be roasted with great results. The yearlings are also the cheapest age of bird. However, once you move into "mature" birds, or those over 15 months, there is a significant decline in the tenderness of the meat.

Turkey Gender: Hen vs Tom

One factor that is of less importance is the gender of the bird. Gender differences have shown to not significantly affect the flavor, texture, or tenderness of your bird. At most it will affect the size: hens, or female turkeys, are usually less than 15 pounds, while toms (male turkeys) are more than 15 pounds.

It is best to do your research before you hit the stores or your local farm, that way you know exactly what you are looking for – taking the stress out of a generally stressful holiday shopping situation. Happy hunting!

Find Your Locally Raised Turkey
Find Out More About Heritage Turkeys

Laura Holt, for Agrilicious!

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Turkey Nutrition Facts:
  • Turkey is low in fat and high in protein.
  • Turkey has more protein than chicken or beef.
  • Turkey contains iron, zinc, phosphorus, potassium and B vitamins.
  • A 15 pound turkey has about 70% white meat and 30% dark meat.
  • White meat has fewer calories and less fat than dark meat.
Did You Know?
Gobble, gobble: On average Americans now eat 14 lbs of turkey a piece each year, more than double the rate 20 years ago.