The glossy magazines with their glorious, burnished birds have begun to arrive on doorsteps all over the country. It’s not too soon to start thinking about your side dishes, stuffing (should it have bacon this year? probably) and, of course, the centerpiece: a beautifully roasted turkey.
Before you choose a bird, there are several key things to consider. Here are five quick tips to keep in mind as you begin to plan your holiday meal, whether you’re serving 25 cousins, aunts and uncles or a simple turkey feast for two.
1. From Butterball to heritage breeds — what’s the difference?
Turkeys come in a variety of sizes and types. Butterball and store brands may be the cheapest route, but they’re not always the best value. Some cooks like pre-brined turkeys, which save time in the kitchen but offer less control over flavor.
Bell & Evans Turkey, from Serious Eats
In recent years, heritage breeds have become increasingly popular for their more developed meaty flavor, but they’re also very expensive, as are organic birds. A middle ground may include Amish turkeys, which are generally natural and hormone-free, and free-range birds, which are given space to roam.
The free-range turkey from Bell & Evans (shown above), a brand that is widely available east of the Mississippi, scored best in an Epicurious Taste Test of supermarket turkeys. For more on this subject, read our post, “Choosing Your Thanksgiving Turkey,” which gives details about free range, organic, heritage and young turkeys.
2. What size bird should you buy?
The amount of Thanksgiving turkey you’ll need to buy depends not only on how many people, children and adults you need to feed, but also on how much leftovers you want.
We’ll offer some great recipes here for using up your excess turkey (check out “Thanksgiving Leftovers: Five Fresh Ideas“), but in general, think 1 to 1.5 pounds of turkey per adult and 8 ounces per child.
3. Fresh or frozen?
Fresh sounds obviously better, right? It’s not that simple. Some cooks rave about a fresh Thanksgiving turkey straight from the farm, but a Cook’s Illustrated taste test between the two showed that frozen turkeys come out more moist and tender than their fresh counterparts, largely because of how they are stored between the farm and the kitchen.
We recommend buying a frozen turkey, but make sure you have the time and the fridge space to thaw it safely — a 15-pound turkey will take about three full days to thaw.
4. Consider your recipe.
While there’s no need to nail down exact details several weeks ahead, it is important to have an idea of your technique when choosing a bird.
Photo by Kenji Lopez-Alt, Serious Eats
For example, if you want to cook your Thanksgiving turkey on the grill, consider asking your butcher to spatchcock it (remove the backbone) for you. This is an excellent method for roasting, too.
Another consideration is seasoning. Cooks who want to experiment with different herbs, Asian flavors or other elements in their Thanksgiving turkey may not want a bird that is pre-brined.
5. Think ahead!
If you want a free-range, organic or heritage bird as your Thanksgiving turkey this year, it’s reasonable to start planning now. Local co-ops and groceries often start taking reservations for turkeys several weeks in advance, and family farms like to know even sooner.
For more ideas on how to make this year’s Thanksgiving turkey the best you’ve ever had, download our FREE Ultimate Turkey Guide (click the link below).
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