Choosing the Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

It used to be that every Thanksgiving table proudly bore a Butterball, fat, browned and juicy. But with a growing interest in sustainable food culture and heritage breeds making a comeback, the choice of a Thanksgiving centerpiece has become a bit more complex.

How to Choose the Perfect Turkey

Here are the basics:

Turkey, plain and simple: Commercial turkeys have been bred for a white-meat market, which means they’re big on size but skimp on flavor. Most common in the grocery store is the Broad-Breasted White, bred to grow fast — they’re ready for sale in just 14 weeks, according to Cook’s Illustrated. (Heritage breeds can take up to eight months to be ready for market.)

While they’re the cheapest option, “commercial birds grow so fast, they don’t have time to accumulate much flavor,” Cook’s Illustrated writes. That makes them prime candidates for brines, spice rubs and smoking.

Natural: This weak label doesn’t mean much, except “no artificial ingredients” including flavor, coloring and preservatives. There are no regulations about how the turkey is raised or what it’s fed. Not generally worth any extra cost.

Free-range: According to the USDA, “free-range” indicates a bird that was not raised in a cage and had access to the outdoors (even if that’s a little door across a crowded henhouse). Raising a turkey free-range is generally considered more humane and healthy. Available at specialty markets, farmers’ markets and bigger grocery stories, free-range is a good option if you don’t want to spring for organic.

Certified Organic: Certified organic turkeys are free-range, free of antibiotics and fed an all-vegetarian diet of organic grain and pesticide-free grasses. They’re expensive, but many cooks say they’re worth it, both for the benefits to the environment and for superior taste.

Heritage turkeys: At top dollar ($100 for a big bird) heritage turkeys are older breeds making a comeback. According to the food-centric radio show The Splendid Table, flavors are more distinctive than a supermarket turkey, but expect more bone to meat and less fat.

A heritage bird won a Cook’s Illustrated turkey tasting for “excellent flavor,” but tasters were unsure whether it was worth more than four times the price of a supermarket turkey.

Lynn Rosetto Kasper says don’t brine a heritage bird — just slow-roast it and make a pan gravy to moisten the meat.

Self-basted (or pre-brined): Turkeys that are “self-basting” can be a time-saving choice for a busy cook, since the brine/marinade — a solution of salt, butter or oil, as well as herbs, spices and other preservatives — has already been injected into the meat.

This saves the trouble of shoving a big turkey into a bag of brine, but you run the risk of a mushy texture and odd flavor.

If you definitely don’t want a self-baster, check the label and make sure the only ingredient is “turkey.”

Kosher: A kosher turkey has been prepared under rabbinical supervision under Jewish dietary law. For practical purposes, kosher turkeys are covered in kosher salt, then rinsed several times in cold water. According to Epicurious, this results in “juicy, flavorful meat,” though you may have to pull out a few extra feathers; the “koshering process makes them harder to pluck.”

Note: Don’t brine a kosher or pre-brined turkey; it will be too salty.

Let us know what type of Turkey you choose for this Thanksgiving feast!  

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