Tips for Choosing a Turkey this Thanksgiving

Choosing a Turkey for Thanksgiving can be overwhelming with all the labels. Here are some tips for choosing the best turkey this year. 

Choosing a Type of Turkey: What Do the LABELS mean? 

The Labels on Turkeys can be confusing. Sometimes manufacturers will label their turkeys as "hormone-free and free-range" which sounds great and worth the $5/lb more until you find out that by Law and regulated by the USDA, ALL turkeys are free-range and hormone-free! Here are what the labels REALLY mean:

  • Hard- or Deep-Chilled: These turkeys have been chilled below 26 degrees so they can’t be called “fresh,” but they’re not frozen, either.
  • Natural: Natural turkeys haven’t undergone too much processing (such as self -basting), but unlike organic varieties, they have been fed regular feed rather than organic, may have had antibiotics.
  • Kosher: The processing of these birds has been supervised such that they meet kosher standards of not mixing meat and dairy, avoiding shellfish, etc. They are sold previously brined, so it’s best not to brine these turkeys, or the result will be overly salty.
  • Basted or Self-Basting: Turkeys advertising “enhanced flavor” are self-basting, meaning they’ve been injected and bloated with solutions. These birds are usually highly processed.
  • Organic: These turkeys meet the requirements to be labeled “organic” because of they are fed organic food (food free of pesticides and GMO products), but may still have had antibiotics. They have a milder flavor than heritage or pastured turkeys. 
  • Free-Range: By Law and regulated by the USDA, all turkeys are free range. 
  • Hormone Free: By Law and regulated by the USDA, all turkeys are hormone free.
  • Heritage: Heritage turkeys are direct descendants of America’s first turkeys; they’re also  foraging, organically-raised and antibiotic-free. They may lack the fat content of other varieties, but their flavor is more intense.
  • Pastured: Pastured turkeys are also allowed to forage, and they’re free of antibiotics. They have a rich flavor and firm texture similar to that of heritage birds.
  • Wild: Turkeys labeled “wild” are raised on farms and small in size, with a slightly gamey flavor and lean, dry texture.
  • Antibiotic free: Turkeys that have never had antibiotics whether in feed, intramuscular, or in water. All birds that have had antibiotics (such as those that became sick) are not allowed on the market until all traces of medicine have left their system. Organic and natural turkeys can still have had antibiotics. 

Size + Fresh vs. Frozen

To choose the right size, you want 1 lb of meat per adult, or 1.5 lbs if you want significant leftovers.

For frozen turkeys, defrosting takes 24 hours in the refrigerator per 5 lbs; so a 15 lb turkey would take 3 days. For faster defrosting, Submerge frozen turkey (in original packaging) in cold water, and replace water ever 20 minutes. When turkey is 40-45 degrees, it's ready for roasting.

Fresh turkeys must be cooked within 72 hours of purchase. Because fresh turkeys expire much quicker than frozen, they tend to be more expensive.

We hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving and Holiday season! 

Click here for EatingWell.com's healthy Thanksgiving Turkey recipes.

Dana Omari is our inhouse registered dietitian who is interested in wellness through whole foods

Sources: USDA.gov, TIME.com