If you just grab the nearest Butterball from the freezer case, you have a plan. It’s a fine plan: We actually chose the Butterball in a blind tasting of heirloom, heritage and organic turkeys.
But with more and more people interested in the fresh turkey experience, there are other options to consider.
Whole Foods sent us this turkey advisory from master butcher Theo Weening, Whole Foods Market’s global meat buyer. He suggests that you ask these questions when searching for your perfect bird.
1. How Fresh Is Fresh?
The fresher the turkey, the faster it cooks. If you’re paying for a fresh turkey, the question to ask is: Exactly how fresh is this “fresh” turkey?
Fresh turkeys are processed and stored just above the freezing point to keep them juicy and tender…but for how long? Many conventional grocers advertise “fresh” turkeys that are actually harvested nine months or more before Thanksgiving!
Whole Foods and other quality vendors sell turkeys are processed just before the holiday season, to give you the freshest and best-tasting turkey possible.
2. Antibiotic-Free & Organic Turkeys
The question here is: Where and how was this turkey raised?
The best birds are raised with the highest standards, and a great butcher will steer you to a turkey that meets the highest quality breeding stock and practices: no antibiotics, no animal by-products in the feed, no added growth hormones, animal welfare standards, and audits by third-parties like the Global Animal Partnership.
While you can find all these qualities in non-organic birds, organic-certified* turkeys continue to grow in popularity each year, and WFM butchers agree that they are some of the most flavorful birds around. They’re raised on organic pastures with outdoor access and fed non-GMO, organic feed. They are available from 10 to 20 pounds, sometimes a bit larger.
3. Heritage and Heirloom Birds
Most Thanksgiving turkeys are bred to have huge breasts with lots of white meat. In fact, large commercial producers have bred the breast so large that the top-heavy turkeys can no longer fly†. More and more people we know are choosing to make Thanksgiving more “authentic” with an old-style bird.
Heritage turkeys are bred for flavor. Raised slowly and traditionally, they are rich and succulent birds with a more robust turkey flavor.
Unlike supermarket birds, they are not bred to have a huge double breast that delivers a preponderance of white meat. Rather, these breeds are the closest you’ll get to what the Pilgrims ate, which makes them a new experience for most people.
Heirloom turkeys are breeds that date back to the early 1920s-1930s, heirloom turkeys strike a balance between the wild turkey of the heritage breeds and the milder flavor of Butterball and other modern breeds adjusted to the preferences of many Americans. Heirlooms have offer more white meat than heritage turkeys. They can be up to 28 pounds.
4. Brined Birds
Fans of brining will tell you that the technique produces a more tender and flavorful turkey. The technique requires soaking the bird in a saltwater solution for 4 to 24 hours before roasting. You can buy them pre-brined.
Note: Kosher turkeys have already been salted, so brining will create an overly salty bird.
If you want to try it but not for the first time on the most important turkey day of the year, mark a date on your calendar; New Year’s Day, perhaps? A roast turkey is great football food.
1. Order Ahead.
Some of in-demand turkeys can sell out before Thanksgiving. Now’s the time to call or visit the butcher to reserve exactly the type and size you want.
2. Consider A Fully Cooked Turkey.
If you don’t have time to cook your turkey, don’t have space in the oven, want to minimize stress, etc., let someone else do the work for you. You can order a cooked turkey prepared for reheating.
You’ll know the turkey has been professionally cooked—no mistakes—and can focus your time on the more memorable sides.
†These big-breasted turkeys are also too top-heavy to mate. The females must be artificially inseminated.
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