A Complete Guide to Buying Turkey for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Guides from The Kitchn

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Unlike some of the side dishes on the Thanksgiving table, turkeys are one of our original local foods and native to the Americas. Sadly, most of the turkeys we eat today have little resemblance to those wild ones from the Colonial days since now they're bred for their large white breasts.

But there are diverse choices that are more readily available for the Thanksgiving dinner main course. Here's are some things to consider when thinking about buying turkeys and a primer to help you select the right one at the store or butcher shop!

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How to Choose the Right-Sized Turkey

If this is the first time you're buying the Thanksgiving turkey, here are things to keep in mind when thinking about what size turkey to buy:

  • Amount Per Person: Generally, you will need 1 pound of bone-in turkey per person, or 1 1/2 pounds if you want enough for leftovers. You can even buy two smaller turkeys and serve one at Thanksgiving dinner and roast the second one for leftovers instead! Read more Choosing a Thanksgiving Turkey: How to Plan for the Right Amount of Leftovers and Why You Should Buy a Second Turkey, Not a Bigger Turkey
  • Light Meat or Dark Meat? If your family just likes eating dark meat and doesn't care about carving into a whole bird at the table, just roast turkey legs to make everyone happy. On the other hand, if you only like white meat, order a bone-in turkey breast instead.
  • Oven Size: If your oven is not a standard size and runs small, make sure there's enough room in there for your turkey and roasting pan!
  • Roasting Pan Size: Again, if you want to buy a large turkey, make sure you have a pan large enough to fit it in or make plans to buy one.

Fresh Versus Frozen Turkeys

  • Fresh: A fresh turkey has never been chilled below 26 degrees. These can be held for quite a while before they make it to the store, so they might not be as fresh as you think! Always check the sell by or use by date, and try to purchase these within 1 or 2 days of Thanksgiving.
  • Frozen: Flash-frozen below 0 degrees. If they are sold defrosted, they are labeled as "previously frozen." If you buy a frozen turkey, you should plan for 24 hours refrigerator thawing time for every 5 pounds of turkey or submerge it in cold water that you change every 30 minutes, which takes about 30 minutes per pound.
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Types of Turkeys

Last of all, and probably the most complicated, is which type of turkey to buy. The various kinds of turkey are raised and processed differently, resulting in varying flavors and textures. The costs of these turkeys also ranges from very inexpensive to expensive, so here's a guide to help you out, arranged in order from the least to most expensive:

1. Self-Basting, Basted or Injected Turkeys

  • How they're raised: These birds are the least expensive because they are most likely factory-farmed, so you should not buy them if how they were raised is important to you.
  • Processing: They're injected with a saline solution and vegetable oils to tenderize their Pamela Anderson breasts. We all know there's no such thing as a free lunch; the ingredient list can contain unknowns like emulsifiers and artificial flavors.
  • Flavor and texture: These birds can taste buttery and spongy. Since these birds have already been salted, they are not suitable for further brining.

2. Natural Turkeys

  • How they're raised: The USDA defines natural turkeys as having been raised with no animal by-product feed, no administered growth promotants, and no use of antibiotics except for parasite control.
  • Processing: The USDA also mandates that turkeys labeled all-natural are minimally processed and have no artificial ingredients, preservatives, or coloring added.
  • Flavor and texture: Since there are no additives, these turkeys have a good flavor and texture and are an inexpensive alternative to self-basting turkeys. These turkeys can be brined since there is no added salt.

3. Kosher Turkeys

  • How they're raised: While there is not set process of how these turkeys must be raised, they are usually grain fed with no antibiotics and are allowed to roam freely.
  • Processing: Kosher turkeys are slaughtered and processed according to rabbinic laws and are brined in salt.
  • Flavor and texture: Aside from the obvious religious aspect, these birds usually taste very good without any further preparation, although some find the flavor a bit chemical-y. If you want brine your own bird, however, you’re better off brining a natural bird yourself to guarantee an even juicier texture.

4. Free-Range or Free-Roaming Turkeys

  • How they're raised: These turkeys must have continuous, free access to the outdoors over 51% of their lives, which some believe makes the meat taste better. While the idea of a range where turkeys can roam free is nice, a free-range label may just mean that the turkey has access to a door outside and there’s no guarantee he actually trotted out for a jaunt. (If it’s important that your turkey actually roamed outside, look for the word “pastured” on the label.) Free-range also does not indicate if the bird was raised without antibiotics or hormones.
  • Processing: There are no set regulations for processing, although they are usually humanely processed and contain no additives.
  • Flavor and texture: Good flavor and texture, and depending on how much exercise the bird received, the meat may be leaner.

5. Organic Turkeys

  • How they're raised: To be labeled organic, the turkeys eat only organic feed, which by law contains no genetically modified grains, pesticides or herbicides, chemical residues, or animal by-products. They are also raised without the use of antibiotics or growth-hormones and are free range.
  • Processing: There are no set regulations for processing, although they are usually humanely processed and contain no additives.
  • Flavor and texture: Their taste varies, although they are usually considered to have very good flavor.

6. Heritage Turkeys

  • How they're raised: Heritage turkeys have more to do with breeds than how they are raised. These are breeds that were originally raised on farms before large commercial meat processing plants began to dominate the turkey industry. They are most likely free-range and very conscientiously and humanely raised.
  • Processing: There are no set regulations for processing, although they are usually humanely processed and contain no additives.
  • Flavor and texture: The flavor is said to be superior, and the meat is leaner. Because they have lower fat content, they don’t have to cook as long. If your budget allows it since these are the most expensive turkeys, these are the birds to try. Keep in mind, though, that these might not taste like the Thanksgiving turkey you grew up with.

Got the right turkey now? Here are a few ways to cook it!

Updated from a post originally published in December 2006.

More posts in this series

Meat Basics

(Image credits: Paul Cowan/Shutterstock; Emma Christensen; Leela Cyd)