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Kitchen Notes

Buying Whole Turkeys

by Michael Chu
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The American holiday of Thanksgiving is rapidly approaching, and the traditional Thanksgiving dinner centering around a roast turkey looms over us. If you're planning on roasting a turkey, it's probably time to start thinking about buying one. (Thawing a large frozen turkey could take a whole week.) "Designer" turkeys can cost as much as $10 a pound while some supermarkets will sell you a turkey for less than $1 per pound. But what do you look for when buying a turkey?

Fresh or Frozen
Fresh turkeys are turkeys that are quick-chilled to 40°F (4°C) or lower and have been stored at a temperature greater than 26°F (-3°C). This means, it is possible that the turkey could be partially frozen (if stored for a while). They should kept in the refrigerator after purchase and cooked within two days.

Frozen turkeys are turkeys that have been frozen in a blast freezer and are kept at 0°F (-18°C) or lower. The turkey is frozen quickly enough that ice crystals don't form (so no damage occurs during thawing). Frozen turkeys are packaged tightly in plastic to prevent freezer burn and can be stored in the freezer for long periods of times (over a year if necessary). To thaw a turkey, move it from the freezer to the refrigerator and allow about 5 hours for each pound of turkey. A 12 pound turkey will take a little over two days to thaw while a large 20 pounder will take about four days. Once the turkey has thawed, you can keep it in the fridge for up to two days before cooking. Refreezing a turkey reduces the quality because ice crystals will form during the slow freezing process (tearing the tissue of the turkey apart).

Both fresh and frozen turkeys produce excellent results when roasted properly. In general, fresh turkeys cost more than frozen, so I use frozen turkeys.

Basted or Unbasted
Basted turkeys have been injected with a sodium-based solution to increase the juiciness of the bird. Flavor enhancers, fat, broth, or stock can also be injected into the turkey. In the United State, it is required by law that labels must include a statement identifying the total quantity and common name of all ingredients in the solution. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website provides this example: "Injected with approximately 3% of a solution of _____________ (list of ingredients)."

In general, basted turkeys are more juicy (when roasted directly), but have an off taste. For the best turkey, buy an unbasted one and brine it for a few hours before cooking. Don't brine a basted turkey since they already have a heightened salt content.

Fryer/roaster turkeys are young turkeys usually less than four months old. These are generally between 4 and 8 pounds (1.8 and 3.6 kg) and are very tender.

Young turkeys are between 4 and 7 months of age. They are sometimes referred to as young roaster turkeys and are also very tender. I recommend using either fryer/roaster or young turkeys for roasting.

Yearling turkeys are around 12 months old. The skin and meat are moderately tender and can still be roasted well.

Mature turkeys are over fifteen months old and should not be used for roasting since they will produce fairly tough meat.

To figure out how much turkey you need to roast, use the 3/4 pound (1/3 kg) per person rule of thumb. A ten pound turkey can be expected to feed 12 to 14 guests.

Other labels
Free range or free roaming turkeys must be allowed access to the outside while being raised. This does not affect the taste of the turkey.

Hen turkeys are female turkeys and generally are 15 pounds (7 kg) or less. Tom turkeys are male and are typically more than fifteen pounds. The sex of the turkey has no bearing on flavor, texture, or tenderness.

Kosher turkeys are turkeys that have been prepared under Rabbinical supervision. Often, they are sold with a layer of salt coating the turkey increasing juiciness and saltiness. These turkeys do not need to be brined, but soaking them in water may increase their tenderness by increasing water content prior to cooking.

Minimally processed turkeys are supposedly minimally processed. However, processing can include traditional processes for preparing meat such as smoking, roasting, freezing, drying, and fermenting. Generally, this isn't an issue when buying a turkey for roasting because they all be minimally processed.

Although there does not yet exist a man-made turkey, there are Natural turkeys. Natural turkeys do not contain artificial flavors, food coloring, chemical preservatives, or any other artificial ingredient. In the U.S., the label must explain the use of the term "natural" (for example, no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed). Natural turkeys generally have the best flavors without the chance of the turkey tasting artificial. They also cost more.

The label "no antibiotics" can be used when the turkey producer proves to inspectors that the turkeys were raised without antibiotics.

Although the U.S. government prohibits the use of hormones when raising turkeys, the label "no hormones" can still be found on some turkeys. According to the USDA, the claim "no hormones added" cannot be used on the labels of poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says, "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones."

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Written by Michael Chu
Published on November 10, 2004 at 07:46 PM
32 comments on Buying Whole Turkeys:(Post a comment)

On November 02, 2005 at 05:42 PM, Dean (guest) said...
Thanks Michael! Since some friends and I are being abandoned by our families for Thanksgiving (the fate of a college student...) we're thinking about doing it ourselves - this'll help.

On November 02, 2005 at 05:42 PM, an anonymous reader said...
Hey Michael I have been reading your site for a while and I have to say I love it! I tried out the peanut toffee recipe and I have to say it was soo good. I'm never buying toffee again! Hey, how about putting up a picture of you and your wife one of these days. I'd love to see who the master is behind this site!

On November 02, 2005 at 05:43 PM, an anonymous reader said...
I completely disagree on the point of the affect of free range/roaming turkeys/birds not having a positive affect on flavor. I've been buying free range turkeys & chickens for a little over 20 years. I don't have to quote news articles or related. This is direct experience from myself, family & friends I've cooked for over the years. I also find it too bad that you'd choose price versus quality. Don't you question yourself when you spend top dollar for Nikon's superior quality optics & camera bodies, then you go buy a grocery store frozen bird? Ick, the thought makes me cringe. Do yourself, your family and your body a favor and find yourself a decent bird for this holiday season. Quality of food matters.

Biggles /

On November 02, 2005 at 05:43 PM, an anonymous reader said...

I believe you must have mistyped your statement regarding "designer" turkeys costing upwards of 10 dollars a pound. Please cite your references for this. At that price my turkey would cost $220.00.
I've just came back from El Cerrito Natural grocery and they're selling Diestel free range birds for $1.98 per pound.
I called Andronico's Market in Berkeley on Solano, 510-524-1673. They're going to stock Willie Bird free range for about $2 to $3 dollars per pound. They are known for being a high priced grocery store.
Rick's Quality Meats in El Cerrito is now taking orders for Martinelli's natural turkeys for $1.99 per pound. 510-233-9390.
Please go to and notice the special for this holiday season, an entire free range turkey MEAL for 8-10 people coming in just under $100.00, that's $120.00 under your estimation for my turkey only.
If your taste is for a certain bird, that's just fine with me. But please don't post incorrect, misleading information and possibly ruin someone else's holiday season.

Biggles /

On November 02, 2005 at 05:44 PM, an anonymous reader said...
no where does michael say free range or free roaming turkeys or the turkeys you purchase are the designer turkeys he talked about at the top of the post.

i'd like to see an example of a $10 a pound turkey myself, but you're the one claiming designer = free range.

And Michael -- there are man-made turkeys now. I would put tofurkey down as a man-made turkey.

On November 02, 2005 at 05:44 PM, Michael Chu said...
re: "designer" turkeys?

While most turkeys can be purchased below $6 per pound, there are occassionally turkeys that sell for almost $10 per pound. These are usually marketed towards people who want to have a "real" turkey and often claims of being "the orginal breed of turkey" are associated with these obnoxiously high priced turkeys. I've never seen a turkey cost more than $150 though. I don't think anyone should ever pay those prices for a turkey - especially since excellent turkeys are available mail order for reasonable prices.

The statement was meant to show the large delta between cheap and expensive turkey possibilities, not to claim that you'd be able to find a $0.50/lb. turkey or a $10/lb. turkey unless you looked really, really hard.

re: Fresh vs. frozen
Fresh turkeys are juicer and more tender than frozen turkeys if you do not brine your turkeys. Since, I recommend brining turkeys, the frozen turkeys come out as juicy, tender, and flavorful as a fresh turkey. When properly prepared, fresh and frozen are interchangable.

re: Free range
A turkey's access to the outdoors does not have an effect on the turkey's flavor or texture. Feed mix does make an effect and often times a free range turkey will be fed in such as a way as to promote a bolder flavor. This stronger flavor (which some people like and others do not) has often been attributed to allowing the turkey to roam. This is not the case. A caged turkey with the same feed mix will provide the same flavor. For me, free range is more of an ethical question than a food quality issue.

Having said all that, I usually purchase frozen, minimally processed, natural turkeys at slightly less than $2.00 per pound.

I have heard from several people that the Heritage turkey from Mary's Turkeys is one of best turkeys you can get and it's a reasonable $4 per pound at my local market.

On November 02, 2005 at 05:44 PM, Michael Chu said...
re: Clarification on the mail order comment

Before anyone jumps on me about not supporting local turkey farms, I said "...excellent turkeys are available mail order for reasonable prices" but should have said "...excellent turkeys are available locally and by mail order for reasonable prices". I was thinking someone would pay a lot of money for a turkey if they thought they couldn't get something good locally, but was suggesting that if that was the case, just mail order a moderately priced one instead.

On November 02, 2005 at 05:45 PM, an anonymous reader said...
Michaels quote from the post:

"Other labels
Free range or free roaming turkeys must be allowed access to the outside while being raised. This does not affect the taste of the turkey."

It's right up there, go see.

On November 02, 2005 at 05:45 PM, an anonymous reader said...
Yup, well I guess we'll have to leave it at agreeing to disagree. I can live with that. There's just too much written information supporting free range meat having better flavor both on the web and from the rancher's themselves. Sure they need to make a living and promote their business, but there are so many inherent problems with caged animals. Stress, bad blood flow through the muscles and disease. I haven't had a Foster Farms or Albertson's bird in years, brined or no, I ain't gonna bite. That cheap meat ain't good for ya neither. I can live with 1.98 a pound for a fresh one.

Biggles /

On November 02, 2005 at 05:46 PM, Michael Chu said...
We're not comparing apples to apples here. A frozen turkey is just as good as a fresh turkey when both are prepared properly. A frozen Albertson's turkey should not be compared to a fresh Diestel's turkey because the Albertson's turkey probably uses inferior feed and most likely has had an accelerated growth rate. Many turkey farms produce both fresh and frozen turkeys and these turkeys are equivalent.

When I said frozen, I meant "all things being equal" a frozen bird == a fresh bird (when properly prepared). I was examining each aspect of turkey buying separately.

Sorry for the confusion.

On November 02, 2005 at 05:46 PM, an anonymous reader said...
Yeah yah know, that clears up a lot.

See, my freezer is used for ice cream & ice cubes & meat ingredients for stock. I'm not a fan of the frozen meat. Although, that isn't to say I haven't done it or received decent results from frozen meat.

But when someone says they got themselves this great frozen turkey from the grocery store it turns my stomach.

When I choose my meat, I attempt to find something that is out of the crate good. As with chickens, rub with evoo & kosher salt. Then roast. The meat should stand on its own goodness. I really don't want to have to dress it up, brine it to get it to taste right. To taste better yes, but not to make it as good as the bird sitting next to it for a dollar more per pound.

See, I pay a bit more per pound but have to do less work to get it to taste right. I do cheat a bit though, I admit. I cook the bird 2/3 the way through upside down. The last 30 for browning the breast. Crazy juice, no tenting of the foil and the quality of meat flavor is right there.

Biggles /

On November 02, 2005 at 05:47 PM, an anonymous reader said...
My goodness, I can see the effects of all these analytical people on this website after reading all these comments. I have to say "give the website owner a break" and I'd also have to say "advertising" on their dime is despicable. I buy meat from a co-op and grocery store meat because you've got to do what fits your budget, schedule, etc. No one can ever convince me that fish tastes good, it's disgusting, so couldn't someone like grocery store turkey better than a snob turkey? Florida mother p.s. the purpose of the article was clear and it provided good information without slant. Thanks

On November 02, 2005 at 05:47 PM, an anonymous reader said...
Is a turkey receipe just around the corner? Would love to see one since I plan on cooking Thanksgiving turkey for my friends soon.

On November 02, 2005 at 05:47 PM, an anonymous reader said...
Wow, never been accused of being analytical before, spiffy.

Turkey Pot Pie with tender flaky crust.


On November 02, 2005 at 05:48 PM, an anonymous reader said...
Get a natural turkey, then go read the previous post on brining. You can refer to Alton Brown's recipe (,,FOOD_9936_8389,00.html ) for a good brine. Have done this twice last year and the turkey is amazingly moist.

The biggest issue was finding a vessel large enough for a turkey of any decent size (15-18lb), ended up getting an NSF garbage can from the restaurant supply house for a couple dollars. With some looking finding another suitable container should be easy to find if a trash can isn't your style.

On November 02, 2005 at 05:49 PM, Doug (guest) said...
A cooler or ice chest might work well too, if you have one of those monster ones sitting around :)

On November 02, 2005 at 05:49 PM, supergood (guest) said...
Free Range vs Caged Birds.

I have to disagree with you as well on this one. A free range bird should have a stronger flavour than a caged bird, particularly around the thighs. I am pretty sure this is because muscles that do more work on an animal have an increased blood flow during life, but also other reasons as well potentially. The flipside to this is that animals that have spent more time running around will have tougher meat than those that don't.

I would assume then that a caged bird that does very little excercise would have a different flavour to a free roaming bird. However in my experience with New Zealand chicken farms at least, the birds that are raised for eating are kept in large barns (and fed around 16 hours a day to help them grow quickly) which would quite possibly give them the same amount of exercise as an outdoor bird, so it depends on how you Americans farm your turkey I guess.

On November 02, 2005 at 05:50 PM, an anonymous reader said...
It never ceases to amaze me what you can find on the web.

There's really someone out there who classifies tofurkey as turkey??

On November 02, 2005 at 05:50 PM, heath (guest) said...
What is your feeling about deep fried turkey?

On November 02, 2005 at 05:50 PM, Michael Chu said...
Deep fried turkeys are great tasting and usually the meat is extremely juicy and tender. Make sure you don't over fry or let the oil temperature drop too far because the oil can enter the turkey.

On November 02, 2005 at 05:51 PM, an anonymous reader said...
Here's a strange question that I'm hoping someone can answer. Why are american turkeys so darned big? Seriously?

In Canada, we go to the grocery store and all the turkeys are under 10lbs. We usually get like an 8lb turkey to feed the family. Where do these huge birds come from?

btw, it can't be hormones because hormones on turkeys are illegal pretty much everywhere. Oh and they're usually killed at 3-7 months here.

On November 02, 2005 at 05:51 PM, an anonymous reader said...
Re: posting by someone in Canada claiming not to see any turkey more that 10 pounds in the grocery stores. I think you actually meant 10 Kilograms (22 pounds).
In BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan anyway, the Safeways that I frequent have a whole section for birds "under 8 kg" and another for "over 8 kg" (16 lbs)

On November 02, 2005 at 05:51 PM, Arlene (guest) said...
I had a whole stuffed cooked leftover 24lbs turkey for Xmas and was coming down to the beach so threw the whole thing in freezer andf am now wondering how to deal with it! Should I thaw it first or put it in a slow oven covered with tinfoil for about 8 hours, maybe at 300 temp? Anybody out there who reads this and has a sugestion HELP as I have to do it today!Thxs

On November 02, 2005 at 05:52 PM, Michael Chu said...
re: frozen turkey

I would thaw the turkey first in the refrigerator (this will take about a week with a turkey of that size) before reheating/cooking. This is because cooking in the oven for a long period of time will dehydrate the bird and create tough and possibly unpleasant meat.

If I read your question correctly, and the turkey was fully cooked already and then put back into the freezer whole, then after thawing, I would carve the turkey and serve the meat cold or braised briefly in seasoned chicken or turkey broth broth to reintroduce some moisture to the meat.

On November 02, 2005 at 05:52 PM, an anonymous reader said...
in the fresh vs frozen debate, one website discusses how fresh birds are aged to promote tenderness while frozen birds are not.

can anyone confirm this? I prepared a fresh turkey a few months ago (not brined), and it was fabulous! A couple of days ago i brined a utility grade turkey and it was dry and tough ( i also think i didnt defrost it long enough).

before i spend money on a frozen bird again, i will look for a fresh one.

On November 02, 2005 at 05:53 PM, an anonymous reader said...
For years I have had traditional (e.g.: frozen or fresh) turkeys at Thanksgiving.

Last year I decided to try something I've wanted to try for a long time - a Heritage Turkey.

Most turkeys you get in stores today are the Broad Breasted White, and frankly, are kinda boring in taste. A few years ago I found out there are small farms that are resurrecting other breeds (like Bourbon Red) that are what people used to get when they had a turkey.

I wanted about 20 lbs of bird, so I got two 8-10 lb birds last year (total cost, shipping included, $110), and I have to say they were just fabulous. I didn't know what to expect, but the taste was great and they made an absolute wonderful gravy.

I would get them again in a second, and would never go back to plain old store-bought turkeys again. Even "free range" is still going to be the same breed. The heritage turkeys (so-named because they are "heritage" or original breeds) are pretty much the only thing I want to eat/cook from this point forward for a major meal like Thanksgiving.

On November 11, 2005 at 03:38 PM, an anonymous reader said...
Subject: Free range Vs. caged and Heritage vs. Broad Breasted
You state in the article that free ranging makes no difference in taste as long as the birds are fed the same things. I cannot argue with that, only point out that how many grasshoppers, flies, beetles, butterflies, etc. is a caged bird going to catch? I have raised both Broad Breasted and Heritage birds on my small farm and believe me they taste way better than any turkey I have ever purchased, Diestel included. The Heritage birds are so tasty they seem to me to be a whole different bird than the turkeys I have been eating for the last few decades.

I think one of the difficulties in analyzing the taste of free range birds is that the is a huge disparity in different free range methods and places. For example, I have never had more than 200 birds on three acres. That is a lot of bugs and fresh grass per bird. The recomended maximum for free ranging is 800 birds per acre. There is a fellow that will buy Heritage birds from you if you raise no more than 500/ acre. I have no doubt that my birds will taste different than any of those birds because their diet will invariably be different , just as my eggs are far richer than any free range egg I have bought in a store. Even those densities are only recomendatiuons. There is no standard set for how many birds you can raise per acre and still call them free-range.

On November 18, 2005 at 10:19 PM, an anonymous reader said...
10 pound turkeys? 15 pound turkeys? Try 43 pound free roam turkeys eating fresh fruit and vegetables out of the garden all summer (6 months at slaughter). I would just like some good recipes for cooking such large birds (no hormones, anti biotics - just good living!)

On November 25, 2005 at 07:25 AM, starxcrost said...
Subject: Corn Fed
My husband lived in Spain for a few years and grew accustomed to having corn fed chicken. I have to admit I was quite skeptical regarding the difference it would make. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a big difference in the flavour of the bird. If you ever get a chance to try one...go for it. Be prepared for some good eating...yummy!

By the way, I have found a that Sainsbury's does a good fresh, free range, and corn fed chicken.

I also shop at Tesco's to get eggs from free range, corn fed hens. The yolk is bigger and I think the egg is much tastier as well. ;)

On September 13, 2007 at 12:12 PM, an anonymous reader said...
Wow - I'm kicking a dead horse. That's almost always a terrible idea, but with Thanksgiving around the corner I'm hoping to see more on Turkeys very soon!

Free Range turkeys do NOT necessarily mean that the meat tastes better. As with so many things in the food industry, it depends on whether the farmer is using the term to simply sell more turkeys, or out of a sincere desire to produce a better (more expensive) product. As near as I can tell, there are no strict requirements to how often or for what duration a turkey must be "given access to" the outdoors. An irreputable farmer might categorize a turkey as "free ranged" while still raising the turkeys in almost identical conditions.

On November 13, 2007 at 05:55 PM, an anonymous reader said...
Subject: free range that knock
Local drought conditions this summer and fall drove all sorts of wildlife into my "subdivision fringe" yard. Figuring if I feed birds, I could feed deer, racoons, possums, a platoon of squirrels and what ever else wanted scratch feed, sunflower seeds and free pond water.

Then several days running, a knock at my front door just after dawn brought the wild turkey group (is there a name for the little flock?) to my attention. Cracked corn was added to the diet and even more things showed up to dine. The tom was probably bumping heads with his reflection in the glass door but his 4 ladies did gain a bit of noticable weight after the addition.

Sadly, tom no longer travels with his little harem. Guess he died but I shall toast him and them when I dine on delish turkey purchased with tips gleaned from your fine article.

Thank thee much - now to find alton brown's how to brine info. . .

On January 27, 2011 at 09:38 AM, Rochelle (guest) said...
Subject: turkeys
Thanksgiving is far off, but I just happened to see your article on whole turkeys. So, here goes - my method. The white meat is always tender.

I suggest that you try a KOSHER turkey, the commonest available is Empire but the other brands are great too. The process to make it kosher also serves to tenderize the meat and even out the time so the white meat is not overcooked when the dark meat is done. You need to get it though from a reputable store where it is stored properly and not too long. So get the kosher turkey at a store patronized by a lot of kosher keeping Jews to ensure that the bird is of good quality. Do not buy it from a store where maybe once a month someone wants this turkey.

Then defrost it in water in the fridge. The bird is so large, normally, that the outside and inside may not defrost UNIFORMLY even in the fridge unless the whole bag is defrosted in a big pot or tub of water. If it is cold enough outside [<40 deg.] and you have a tub or pot or bucket with a strong snug fitting lid, by all means let it defrost outdoors immersed in cold water.

Wipe the turkey all over with paper towels or a tea towel, then wipe on some soy sauce and honey. Put an onion and apple, cut into chunks inside, place the turkey on a rack in a big enough pan. Pour 1/2 cup of white wine or OJ or pomegranate juice or even water into the pan so the juices won't burn and to add flavor. You can also put cloves of garlic and sliced onion into the pan. You may truss the bird if you want.

Bake the bird at 350 deg. for 1/2 hour, then lower the temp. to 275 deg. and leave it pretty much alone for at least several hours. Poke the leg with a knife tip or fork. If the juices run clear, it is done. Whenever it is done, lower the oven temp. to 200-210 deg. and keep it warm until you are ready to serve it. Please keep in mind that a LOW temp. roast technique like this is INCOMPATIBLE with stuffing the turkey!!! If you want to stuff the turkey, you must roast it at no lower than 325 deg. for the entire period.

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