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Aug 23, 2011 10:47 PM

What's the best turkey to buy?

There seems to be a lot of choices. Free range vs. organic, fresh vs. frozen, heritage, bronze, etc. I know people like Butterball. If you wanted to get a better than average turkey, what's the best choice?

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  1. Personally, I feel the method, or recipe you use to roast, barbecue, smoke or deep fry has more importance for a great finished result.......rather than the types of bird you mention in your query. In the States it's quite common to receive a free bird with qualifying purchases from your local grocery store. They are usually of the fresh/frozen variety and they are perfectly fine.

    I don't like to wet brine my turkey...dry brine works fine for me, so I try to purchase my turkey that has not had any saline solution added for holdover in the packaging.

    BTW......ButterBall gets trashed by many on this site..... For the record, *Fresh* is partially frozen until it is delivered to the stores. .....and I prefer a Fresh or Fresh Kill bird. Depending on the size of your family gathering, I also prefer to purchase two turkeys in the 12-14 pound range, rather than one bird that is 20+ pounds in weight and size.

    3 Replies
    1. re: fourunder

      Someone revived this August thread at turkey time.

      I don't agree that method rather than turkey matters. To verify that you probably would have to take each type of bird and prepare it the same way to see if there was any difference in taste.

      I sort of have a limited test of that.

      I lived in the same condo for 10 years. Every year I used the exact same method to roast the turkey in the same oven using the same stuffing. It took me 5 years to not screw up the turkey, so once i got it right, I wasn't playing around.

      When I went from frozen to fresh to organic I really didn't notice much of a difference. Then one year I got greedy and that free Butterball frozen turkey lurded me.

      For me, I rarely notice slight increases in quality, but reversing from good quality to poor always catches my attention.

      The butterball was a horrible dry, tasteless bird compared to the Diestel turkey that had become my bird of choice. I had tried other good birds, but for some reason the Diestel was always better.

      However, here is someone that did back to back comparisons of birds ... Butterball won ... the Diestel came in last ... I obviously disagree with that.

      One interesting thing I never knew, The Butterball leg tendons are removed for easier slicing.

      The other thing with frozen and cheaper turkey's is what is injected into it. The cheaper usually the more junk injected. The premium Butterball frozen bird is better than most but still. From the website

      "Ingredients: Turkey, Water, Salt, Modified Food Starch, Sodium Phosphates, Natural flavoring"

      The fresh is better but there is still up to 4% water, salt and spices to "enhance flavor and juiciness".

      On the other hand, the frozen turkey is fresher. It is frozen shortly after being killed. A fresh turkey is killed about two week before Thanksgiving.

      As to the rest, here's a good article from my local farmers market discussing heritage vs conventional birds. Some of the decision depends on how much you care how humanely the bird was raised and the impact on the environment.

      "Americans eat about 45 million turkeys for Thanksgiving each year, 99% of which are Broad Breasted Whites. These birds have been bred for a heavy breast and rapid growth. As a result, they experience a myriad of health and mobility issues as they mature, including the inability to fly and, in some cases, walk. They cannot mate naturally, so breeders must use artificial insemination for reproduction. In short, if left to nature, the modern turkey would not survive.

      Your typical Thanksgiving turkey is raised in a high-density confinement facility, in which it endures overcrowding, poor sanitation, and lack of access to outdoor space. The waste from these industrial operations places a heavy environmental toll on the surrounding landscape"

      The article goes on to discuss non GMO feed, how the bird is slaughtered, processed, chilled.

      Water chilling will result in the flavor of the meat being diluted. Up to 10% of the turkey can be water weight. They claim air-chilled meat is richer and better to brine. The meat has a finer grain.

      I only tried a heritage bird once at a restaurant. While I didn't notice much difference in flavor, the texture did see denser. The chef said there is less shrinkage when cooking a heritage bird.

      1. re: fourunder

        +1 on the frozen being as good as the fresh, if it is cooked well. Also +1 on the two smaller turkeys coming out better than one large. I spent many years special ordering a large (20 pounds +) fresh turkey, and my preferred method is roasting it, and somehow, by accident, I discovered that smaller, frozen turkeys roast much more evenly. To be fair, I have never done a smaller fresh turkey, but I don't really see a need to....and we are now down to a smaller number of people (8 this year), so I will only roast one bird for dinner. Can you please share more info about your dry brine, fourunder?

        1. re: sunflwrsdh

          Sorry for the very, very late response, but I did not see this until just now as this thread was revived.

          I don't do much other than a very liberal Kosher Salt and Fresh Cracked Black Pepper sprinkle and rub. both inside the cavity and on the skin...usually for about 48 hours uncovered in the refrigerator. I've done the butter under the skin and fresh herbs...but everyone likes it simple now.. Once in a while I'll use one of those Salt/Garlic mixtures you purchase in the prefilled grinders. Nothing more fancy than that.

      2. I tried a heritage turkey one year. It was tasty. Had more bone and less meat than I am used to - also a higher percentage of dark meat to light (which for us is good!). I ultimately decided that it wasn't worth the extra cost. I have used Butterball and other grocery store turkeys and they've been fine. I'm not crazy about the way they are raised and the extra chemicals (antibiotics, hormones, etc.) in their diets or the way they are processed.

        I've settled on free-range turkeys. I always brine them overnight and that makes a huge difference.

        1. We are raising a small number of turkeys this year and I have to agree that how you prepare the bird makes a huge difference. This year we have raised 2 breeds of turkeys. One - the Broad Breasted White - is what you get when you buy the 'average' supermarket turkey (fresh or frozen). That bird has been bred to grow quickly (to processing size in 12 weeks) and to have a huge breast. They are not given hormones to grow that way - even by commercial growers.

          One of our birds went to 14 weeks and weighed in at 30 lbs dressed. All he got was regular game feed and was allowed to free range during the day on our property. There was probably a little more dark meat on him then the last store bought bird we purchased. We didn't brine the bird and it was very moist and well, tasted like turkey. :-)

          To be honest we won't raise the BBW's again. They develop significant health issues due to the quick weight gain and will frequently break a leg or be unable to walk before it even gets to 12 weeks old. Our other birds are much healthier and although they will have less white meat on them I prefer to raise a healthy animal.

          Just my $.02 from a hobby farmer and chowhound!

          1. Pretty much like everyone is saying, preperation is it. I've been buying Jennie-O's for years. I buy half a dozen 14-16 pounders at a local IGA at Thanksgiving time .88/lb last year. I think the days of sales at .39/lb are long gone. Six of them last us a year, holidays, bbq, smoking etc.

            1. Last year I bought a bunch for between 0.19 and 0.29 a pound for large Toms. I haven't paid more than $5 (total) for a Turkey big enough to feed 20 people in years. Sometimes you can get them for free if you spend $25 or $50 on other things, and as everyone else has noted, if you prepare them correctly they taste just as good or better than the ones everyone else spends $2 or $3 per pound for.

              Thanksgiving can truly be the least-expensive meal of the year, certainly in terms of taste for the buck.

              [I should note that price is not my primary motivator. I am happy to pay more for stuff if there is a clear benefit. In the case of heritage/organic/free range Turkeys, it is my opinion that there is not and they are not only a colossal waste of money but likely to lead to major disappointment for many on a holiday that only comes around once a year, where certain flavors and textures are expected. However, I know many people disagree with me on this and so maybe one of those is worth a small side experiment at your house, with a more conventional Turkey as the main event.]

              As I noted in Doug's other thread, I prefer frozen, unbasted, all-natural (no hormones or antibiotics). I like the bigger birds (I usually go for Toms in the 25-26 pound range if I can find them; anything over 30 is a major score) but that's a personal choice. I wet brine but then dry season the day before, but dry brining works great as well.

              The so-called "molecular damage" in frozen birds is mostly theoretical and occurs during thawing, not freezing, and is not an issue if you thaw properly and brine and season and cook properly. There's a reason that Cook's has consistently rated a frozen bird tops in their National taste tests.

              The other secret, at the risk of having the Food Police come crashing down on me, is to radically "undercook" the bird compared to most recipes, removing it from the oven when the white meat hits 150F and rest the bird rest for 20-30 minutes before carving. During this time the temp will rise to 160-165 and be perfectly safe and not pink but will remain very juicy. Rough cooking times for this are 12-15 minutes per pound at 325F, breast down until the last hour, when you turn it breast up to brown if you wish (optional if you're going to carve in the kitchen). The bigger the bird, the fewer the minutes per pound.

              Buy at least one pound per person so you will have the most important thing -- leftovers for Turkey sandwiches the next day. Last year I boned and weighed several hundred pounds of Turkey as an experiment, both raw and cooked. In terms of carvable meat -- not the wings and legs -- you get about 51% yield of the gross package weight after cooking a standard supermarket bird. Heritage birds will be much less.