Turkey Buying 101

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Your chance for turkey isn't over yet... In case you missed having a bird on Thanksgiving, or if you just love them so much you're thinking about doing it all over again for Christmas, here's a look at the choices out in the market. Buying a turkey is a great opportunity to support small family farms and natural/organic producers.

Turkeys are one of our original local foods. The are native to the Americas and Pilgrims encountered these wild birds, known for their signature trot and their tasty meat, when they arrived in the new world. The turkeys we eat today have little resemblance to those wild ones of yore. Instead the majority are “Broadbreasted White” birds known for, you guessed it, their large white breasts. But there are still many other choices so when you head to the grocer, here’s a turkey primer to help you find a bird that suits your palette and your pocket.

Self-basting turkeys are a new and rather scary development in the already horrifying factory-farm meat world. These birds are 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 and these birds can taste buttery and spongy.

Price: ~$1/pound
Producer: Butterball

Kosher turkeys are slaughtered and processed according to rabbinic laws and are brined in salt. Aside from the obvious religious aspect, these birds usually taste very good without any further preparation, but Cooks Illustrated says if you want a brined bird, you’re better off salt-preparing a natural bird yourself to guarantee an even juicier texture.

Price: $2 - $4.50/pound
Producer: Empire Kosher

Free-range turkeys are technically allowed to roam outdoors, 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 Tom had a range to roam, look for the word “pastured” on the label. "Free-range" also does not indicate if the bird was raised without antibiotics or hormones.

Prices: $1.50 - $4.00/lb.
Producer: Polyface Farms

Organic turkeys eat only organic feed, which by law contains no genetically modified grains, pesticides or herbicides, or animal by-products. They are also free-range, and raised without the use of antibiotics or growth-hormones. Their taste varies, although Eberly's is said to be one of the best.

Prices: $3.50 - $4.50/pound
Producer: Eberly's

Natural turkeys are minimally processed and have no artificial ingredients, preservatives, or coloring added.

Price: $1 - $2/pound
Producer: Bell & Evans

Heritage turkeys are breeds that were originally raised on farms before large commercial meat processing plants began to dominate the turkey industry. In the last several years, Heritage breeds such as Jersey Buff, Bourbon Red, Black Spanish, and Narragansett have made a comeback due to the efforts of small family farms, and the online organizations that sell the birds (Local Harvest and Heritage Foods USA.) 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, these are the birds to try.

Check out
Slow Foods USA’s
state by state guide to heritage purveyors:

Price: $5 - $9/pound plus shipping
Producers (distributors): Local Harvest, Heritage Foods USA

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Sara Kate is the founding editor of The Kitchn. She co-founded the site in 2005 and has since written three cookbooks. She is most recently the co-author of The Kitchn Cookbook, to be published in October 2014 by Clarkson Potter.