A Guide to Buying Turkeys

Commercial Turkeys
Commercial turkeys in cramped conditions

Saveur offers a short guide to buying turkeys. Though it's not online at this time, I'm posting it for you. They look at three types of birds:

Conventional: This perennial favorite–typically a Broad-Breasted White variety–boasts an ultraplump breast that has usually (but not always) been injected with butter, water, and salt; it will be labeled "self-basted" if it contains these ingredients. Though the flesh tastes appealing when spruced up with gravy and cranberry sauce, it can be bland on its own. The price is the real selling point: conventional turkeys go for about $1 to $2 per pound.

Natural: Our favorite turkeys (often described as "minimally processed") are those that haven't been treated with artificial colors or flavor-enhancing ingredients. (Higher priced "organic" turkeys are bred according to strict rules established by the USDA.) Like their conventional counterparts, natural turkeys are usually a Broad-Breasted White variety. Though you'll pay more (they run around $2.50 per pound), most have a clean, pure turkey flavor and moist flesh.

Heritage: This category of turkeys comprises a host of old-time varieties, like Narragansett and Bourbon Red, which were staples of the pre-World War II American turkey industry. These breeds mature slowly; thus, their flesh can be pleasantly flavorful and moist–or unpleasantly gamey and chewy. It's worth doing your research before buying: at an average price of $6 to $10 per pound, they're by far the most costly turkeys available.

A pretty disappointing guide, but a start I guess. I'm not sure why there's no mention of free range, humanely raised birds. Or why they don't talk about fresh vs. frozen turkeys. And I really can't believe they'd mention a "self-basted" turkey at all (especially when they don't discourage readers from buying it), that thing's an abomination! The best birds I've had are free range birds from local farmers. They tend to be fattier and more flavorful, and I feel better knowing the turkeys lived happy lives.

For more information about your Thanksgiving options, see What to Have for Thanksgiving: Fresh or Frozen? Wild, Organic, Free Range or Conventional? And check out your local farmer's market. Mine's been taking orders all fall for turkeys. You might still be able to order something.

What kind of turkey do you prepare?

6 thoughts on “A Guide to Buying Turkeys

  1. not sure if the Times is respectable enough for you to link, but i saw this one last week:
    As Six Turkeys Tussle for a Title, Degrees Challenge Pedigrees

  2. I find it hard to get excited about turkey but I am usually a sucker for whatever the store has on sale and try to avoid any that have added solutions or brines. I like to spend more money on quality steaks, duck, and seafood so I am not going to shell out a lot of money for a heritage turkey, but if I can find a local brand or a decent price on an organic one, I’ll spend a little extra.
    I think that 90 percent of Americans cook turkey poorly. They follow the FDA recommondations for temperature and pull it out of the oven at 165 to 175 and then don’t let it rest for a long enough time. The temp then rises up to 185-190 and then they cut into it early, releasing the juices, and then serve dry, overcooked turkey.
    The best turkeys I have had have been brined (by the cook, not by Butterball). Grilling and smoking also produces excellent results.

  3. i cook mine in a paper bag, breast side down, and it’s perfect every time. it browns nicely and is always tender. the only hard thing is if the paper dissolves into the liquid too much, it takes some time to pick out when making the gravy.
    btw, meg – i found your beef info very inspiring. we have since tried out quite a few from the selection trader joe’s carries and we’ve found almost all the most expensive, free range and organic beef to be too gamey for our taste. i’m still looking for a high-quality beef that tastes great. (to me)

  4. Meg,
    Have you seen Local Harvest? You can find heritage turkeys there, along with every other stripe of bird, including the conventional, top-heavy, impregnated-with-a-turkey-baster (ahem) Broad-Breasted White.
    It’s also my favorite website in my eighteen years online. Just plug in your zip code to find farms, farmers markets, restaurants, and more, supporting local food.
    As for my turkey, every year since 1994, I have made the Roast Turkey with Herb Rub and Shiitake Mushroom Gravy. No brine, ever. (Well, once, and I hated it.) I’m with Harold McGee on that one: brining removes natural flavors and replaces them with salt water. And I have never had a bird come out dry, either.
    Hope that helps.

  5. I’m planning to have pig this year — specifically a free-range pork loin from a local supplier that I plan to stuff.

  6. I’m buying a 10-12 pound “Heidi’s Hen” by Diestel. It’s their certified organic, range grown bird. Abundant in California, might be available in some Whole Foods on the East Coast. 2.99/pound.
    More details at my 10 Steps To A Frugal Thanksgiving post.

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