How to Buy Your First Thanksgiving Turkey

When it comes to buying your first Thanksgiving turkey, questions abound.

Andrew Haynes

When it comes to buying your first Thanksgiving turkey, questions abound: How big should it be? It is okay if it’s pre-frozen? What’s the difference between organic and heritage? For America as a whole, there are no perfect answers. “Everyone has a different relationship to food,” says Harry Rosenblum, co-founder of The Brooklyn Kitchen. “There are people who are out there wondering whether or not they can even afford to spend a hundred dollars at the grocery store to get one free that was frozen eighteen months ago.” His all-purpose advice: “Buy the best turkey you can afford.” For many of us, that means knowing the differences in turkey types, and, of course, just how much bird you’re going to need.

Size Matters

The general rule of thumb is to factor one pound of turkey per person; one and a half if you want leftovers. “I think most people want leftovers,” Rosenblum says. “Who wants to go shopping for food that weekend?” As you scale up or down, it’s also important to remember that the average oven cooks a pound of turkey in about 14 minutes. Therefore, a 14-pound turkey takes about 3 hours, 20 minutes — give or take according to the consistency of your oven. Your raw turkey should be weighted to about 1 to 1.5 pounds per guest. The bird lightens during cooking as moisture escapes.

Fresh or Frozen?

“It’s impossible to deliver a fresh turkey, one that’s never been frozen, to every household in America on the same day,” Rosenblum says. “It’s just doesn’t make any sense.

“A lot of people view freezing as evil. I think that freezing in the modern age is just another preservation technique, as long as its done right,” he adds. “You don’t want a bird that was frozen, then sat in a warm truck and half defrosted and then got put in a freezer again. That causes meat to be spongey and weird because there’s water screwing up the cell structure. But if a bird is slaughtered, frozen and chilled properly, I don’t know if the average person could tell a difference.”

Turkey Types

When most people think of Thanksgiving turkey, they’re thinking of a Broad Breasted White. This includes turkeys labeled as self-basting, kosher or natural. “It has white feathers,” Rosenblum says. “It doesn’t look anything like the turkeys we all learned to draw in grade school when we talk about the pilgrims and Native Americans.”

What you really want to pay attention to is whether or not the turkey is labeled as organic or pastured. “All organic means in the meat world is that the animal has been fed organic grain,” Rosenblum says. “It doesn’t mean that the animal has ever been outside; it could even be raised in the same buildings an the non-organic animals.” Pastured, or free-range turkeys, on the other hand, must have access to the outdoors over 51 percent of their lives to be labeled as such. “The cost of a pastured and organic broad-breasted white turkey are pretty close,” he says.

Then there are heritage turkeys. “A heritage turkey is going to have more dark meat,” Rosenblum says. “Meat gets darker the more it gets used. The reason the legs and thighs are darker than the breast is because turkeys don’t fly, so the legs are doing a lot more. It’s a buildup of a substance called myoglobin.” As such, heritage birds have more flavor than a Broad Breasted White. For those with the budget to buy one, the decision can also be ethically-driven. “You also have different breeds of heritage turkeys, and, when you buy one, you’re supporting farmers that are keeping biodiversity alive.”

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Jack Seemer is the deputy editor at Gear Patrol.
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