Thanksgiving is only a couple of weeks away. Are you ready to tackle the biggest meal of the year? There’s a lot to consider before you even get out the baking pan and stuffing recipe - from choosing the right kind of turkey, to prepping, seasoning, cooking, and carving your bird.
While the Thanksgiving meal of today has evolved from what was originally enjoyed by the Natives and Pilgrims, turkey has been the centerpiece since the holiday was established by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Its prominence at Thanksgiving can be attributed to a few different factors.
During the mid-1800s, turkeys weren’t of much utility to farmers. They didn’t lay eggs like chickens or produce milk like cows. Pork was a common protein choice at the time but wasn’t deemed fit to serve on special occasions. Turkeys were large enough to feed a family and were cheaper than geese or chickens, making them the perfect choice to grace a Thanksgiving table.
Literature also played a role in establishing turkey as the bird of Thanksgiving. American author Sarah Josepha Hale spent 17 years advocating to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, even writing books and magazines filled with recipes to celebrate the day. The popularity of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol also helped Americans view turkeys as a fit choice for their holiday tables. At the end of the book, Scrooge gives the Cratchit family a Christmas turkey, creating a timeless icon of food as a celebratory and nurturing gift.
Choosing your Thanksgiving Turkey
Nowadays, home cooks have several choices when selecting a turkey to serve on Thanksgiving. As the focus shifts back to cooking with local and seasonal ingredients, there are now more options than the frozen, commercially processed turkey found at your large grocery store.
When choosing a turkey, size is one of the most important factors. You should plan for 1 - 1.5 pounds of bone-in meat per person. If you want to guarantee leftovers, plan for the higher amount. Often times, smaller birds are going to be more tender than larger ones. So if you are looking to feed a big crowd, and have the oven space, opt for roasting two smaller turkeys. You also have the option of supplementing with a bone-in breast or roasting extra turkey legs and thighs, depending on if your crowd prefers dark or white meat.
Frozen vs. Fresh
According to the National Turkey Federation, “there is no quality difference between a fresh and frozen turkey.” But it is hard to ignore the effect that freezing has on meat. Ice crystals form around the the meat’s cell structure, soaking up fluids and causing meat to be drier.
In order to combat the potential for dry meat, many large turkey manufacturers inject their turkeys with a basting solution prior to freezing. This liquid may contain water, broth, oil, butter, seasoning, and salt. It works to impart flavor into the meat and keep it from drying out. These types of turkeys are labeled as “self-basting.”
If you choose to purchase a frozen “self-basting” turkey from a large grocer, be sure to plan for enough time to thaw the meat - 24 hours for every 5 pounds of meat. It is also important to remember that this frozen turkey is essentially already brined, thanks to the sodium in the liquid injected before freezing. Therefore, these turkeys do not need any additional brining at home, in order to not over salt the meat. Warning: read the label carefully. Besides a salt solution, the additives may contain sugar, phosphates and other chemicals. Percentages of additives also vary.
Frozen, self-basting turkeys are most likely factory-farmed, meaning they don’t have room to walk around or be outside and are often raised in crowded and stressful conditions They are generally the least expensive option. However, if you are interested in purchasing a turkey that is humanely raised and arguably healthier, consider one of the options below.
We recommend using a fresh (never frozen) turkey that has been minimally processed and not “enhanced” in any way.
Most large commercially farmed turkeys are Broad-Breasted Whites. They are bred to have large breasts, meaning more white meat. Standard Bronze and White Hollands are other turkey breeds commonly farmed for meat production.
If you choose to purchase a fresh turkey, you will have more options in regards to the breed, processing and overall quality of the meat.
If cost is a less important factor to you, consider trying a heritage breed of turkey. These would come from small farms, are most likely free-range and humanely raised. Common heritage breeds are Bourbon Reds, Narragansetts, Midget Whites, Beltsville Small White, and Royal Palms.
High End Fresh Turkey Buying Options
Other fresh turkey options that you can purchase fresh from a small butcher shop or specialty grocers are Natural, Kosher, Free-Range and Organic.
Natural turkeys are minimally processed, have no artificial ingredients, preservatives or coloring added to them. They are raised with no-animal by-product feed, no growth promotants or antibiotics. Read the label carefully or talk with the butcher or farmer to confirm all of this.
Kosher turkeys are butchered and processed according to rabbinic laws. They are usually raised on grain feed, without antibiotics, and are allowed to roam free. Kosher birds are also brined in salt, so there is no need to brine again at home.
Free Range Turkey
The “free-range” label on turkeys refers to them having continuous access to the outdoors for more than half of their lives. While it means they have access to a doorway outside, it doesn’t guarantee that they actually take advantage of the outdoors. If purchasing a turkey that can roam free at all times is important to you, look for “pasture-raised” on the label, or purchase from a farm that you are familiar with their raising standards.
The most stringent label a turkey can have is “organic.” This means that the turkey was only fed organic feed, was raised without GMOs or antibiotics, and was free-range. While there isn’t set regulations on how organic turkeys are processed, they are commonly processed in a humanley way. These turkeys tend to be the most expensive, but are known to have great flavor and texture.
Order Fresh Turkeys Early
If you are looking to purchase a fresh turkey, visit your local butcher shop soon and pre-order your bird. Farms already know how many turkeys they will have for the holiday, so be sure to reserve yours before it is too late.
Be sure to stay tuned to SpitJack for more tips on preparing, cooking and serving your Thanksgiving turkey.