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A Comprehensive Guide to Choose the Right Thanksgiving Turkey

Sujata Iyer Nov 20, 2018
Whether you're buying a turkey for the first time or you've accepted that your past Thanksgiving turkeys haven't been up to the mark, we've got advice on how you can pick the best bird to make your Thanksgiving turkey the talk of the town!
'Hormone-free' is a misleading label that many turkeys bear. Federal regulations do not permit the use of hormones in poultry. So, make sure you ask the vendor what the label implies before you buy the bird.
Everyone wants their Thanksgiving turkey to be perfect in every sense. It should look delicious. It should be perfectly cooked. It should be a breeze to carve. The flavor of the stuffing should be lip-smacking. There should be enough for everyone at the table and plenty of leftovers too!
A little too much to expect from poultry, you say? We say it's the least you can expect from the main attraction at your Thanksgiving feast. It didn't get its place of honor for no reason now, did it? There's a lot that goes into making the turkey at the dinner table as scrumptious as it is.
And it all begins with buying the right bird. Here, we will help you with just that; picking the right turkey to satiate all those rumbling tummies at Thanksgiving.

What's with all these labels?

The type of bird you buy will depend on where you shop for it. Supermarkets and poultry suppliers are stocked with turkeys at this time of the year. But deciphering what each label on them means can be a task in itself. The types that you are most likely to find have been explained here.
Natural: This is probably the best kind of bird to buy if you intend to cook it within a couple of days, after chilling (not freezing). It is generally sold fresh and has no artificial ingredients in it.
Minimally Processed: This label means that the bird has been processed, but to a relatively lesser extent than its possibly-injected-with-antibiotics counterparts. These processes are preservation-centric and can include drying, freezing, smoking, and sometimes even roasting and fermenting.
Organic: Buying organic turkey is encouraged for the sole reason that the turkey contains a majority, i.e., almost 95% of ingredients that are purely organic. USDA regulations dictate that they be so.
Free-range: A turkey labeled so means that while it was bred in captivity, the bird had 'sufficient access' to the outdoors. How much this 'access' is, no one can say.
Pastured: Birds that grew up in pastures are (supposed to have been) allowed to graze and remain outdoors. Since they consume only naturally occurring grass, they are considered more healthy, are generally high in nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, and have leaner meat.
❖ Heritage: Heritage turkeys are steeply priced as they are rare, indigenous birds and are scarcely available with special breeders.
Kosher: Birds that have been bred as per Jewish customs and fed grains are referred to as kosher turkeys. They are slaughtered according to Jewish traditions (may even be in the presence of a rabbi) and soaked in salt and water brine for preservation.

How much will you need?

So, you've picked the type of bird but now need to decide how much of it you actually need? How do you decide that? Here's the trick.
◆ Assign 1 to 2 pounds of turkey to each person you expect at the table, depending on how much you know they can eat. People may tend to fast all day to enjoy dinner thoroughly, so factor in that as well.
◆ If you wish to keep leftovers aside, then assign a minimum of 2 pounds to each person.

This will give you a rough idea of how much you need to buy.

How old was the bird?

A general rule of thumb when it comes to turkey, or any kind of meat, is that the younger the animal/bird, the more tender the meat.
Hence, turkeys that are under 4 months have the most tender meat and are extremely easy to roast. As they grow older, their meat becomes firmer and more difficult to roast. The meat is easy to roast until they're around 6 to 7 months. Then onwards, it is just reasonably tender.
These are inexpensive compared to the younger ones, and are moderately easy to roast. If your bird is more than a year old, we suggest you refrain from roasting it. Use other methods to enjoy it instead.

Do you want it pre-basted or un-basted?

Pre-basting a turkey is the process of injecting flavor enhancers, broth, seasoning, spices, etc., into the bird and keeping it frozen until use.
Though this may mean that you have to spend less time cooking it, the ingredients that have been injected are something you should watch out for. If the label does not specify what they are, do not buy it. The drawback of pre-basted turkey is that it has high levels of sodium in it. Are you willing to overlook this just to quicken the process of cooking?

How soon do you want to cook it?

Frozen: Though buying frozen turkey is the least expensive and the most convenient option, the defrosting and thawing process can take quite a while.
Hence, a frozen bird should be removed from the deep freezer and stored in the refrigerator a minimum of 3 days before you cook it (make sure you have enough room before you buy it). The standard calculation is one whole day for 5 pounds of bird, so do the math and move it accordingly.
Hard-chilled: If you've purchased hard-chilled turkey instead of a deep frozen one, then you should ideally cook it within one day of thawing.
Fresh: Fresh turkey should be refrigerated for no more than 2 days before it is cooked.

Pre-stuffed or Unstuffed: What to choose?

Another dilemma that you may face is choosing between pre-stuffed or unstuffed turkey. Here's a tip: if you're short on time, go for pre-stuffed, and if you want to go all the way, then prepare the stuffing yourself. A word of caution: though pre-stuffed turkeys may seem like less work, there are chances of bacterial growth.
Preparing a Thanksgiving meal is no mean task. So, if you're planning to pull all stops, at least with the turkey, we suggest you get planning and buy the bird ASAP, or all the good ones will be gone.
Follow the appropriate storage, thawing, marinating, and cooking instructions as per your recipe and you'll have a lovely, succulent turkey that everyone will remember for ages!