Turkey Tips: Choosing the Right Bird

The centerpiece of any Thanksgiving celebration is of course, the turkey. But for those of us who have chosen to cook the darn thing, it can be a source of hand-wringing holiday stress. Ultimately, the most important variable is in the cooking, but choosing the right type of bird can pay dividends on the big day.

1. Farming methods

Not all turkeys are raised equal. Here’s a primer on the most common options.

Conventional “non-natural” turkeys are raised using high-volume methods that include the constant use of antibiotics. Taste tests (see below) seem to indicate that these birds have a tendency to be bland and may even exhibit a “chemically” flavor.

Natural turkeys are a USDA designation where it is important to do your research. At a minimum they are free of any artificial flavorings and preservatives and differ little from non-natural turkeys. Look for natural birds that include “no antibiotics” and “vegetarian feed” on their labels.

Organic turkeys have not been treated with antibiotics and have been fed organically grown feed. Many cooks feel these differences in the way the animals are raised results in improved flavor and texture.

Free range turkeys, as the name implies, have access to the outdoors for at least 51% of their lives. This method of raising turkeys reputably results in better health for the animal and stronger legs, as they able to exercise and behave more naturally than conventionally raised birds, which can impart a slightly “gamier” flavor.

At a high level, these are the big designations in how your Thanksgiving turkey was raised. Some producers also include multiple definitions, such as “Organic Free Range.” In these instances use the guide above to understand what you are getting.

2. A breed apart

To add another variable to the mix, you may want to consider a Heritage Turkey. Think of Heritage Turkeys as the Heirloom Tomato of Thanksgiving poultry. According to the Heritage Turkey Foundation, these pedigreed poultry were developed in the United States and Europe over hundreds of years, and were identified in the American Poultry Association’s turkey Standard of Perfection of 1874. Commonly available breeds include the Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, and White Midget.

While more costly than their homogenous cousins, chefs and foodies swear by the deeper turkey flavor and texture these birds bring to the table.

3. Hormone hype?

According to the USDA, hormones are not allowed in raising poultry. Therefore, the claim “no hormones added” or “raised without the use of hormones” cannot be used on the labels of poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says, “Federal regulations do not permit the use of hormones in poultry.”

4. If you are brining …

Avoid a turkey that mentions use of a “salt solution to increase juiciness” this essentially means the turkey has been pre-brined.

So how do they taste?

We’ve provided several links below to turkey taste tests. While there is no unanimous winner, the consensus seems to indicate that the farther you get away from conventially-raised birds, the better the end result.

What kind of Turkey are you cooking this year?

Next: Tips for cooking your bird.