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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.

      http://www.slate.com/articles/life/sh...

      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

      http://www.butterball.com/product/fro...

      "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.

      http://www.cuesa.org/article/heritage...

      "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.

              1. Frankly, it all boils down to personal taste.

                We've been pre-ordering fresh free-range turkeys from Whole Foods for our Thanksgiving dinners for many years now & have never been disappointed. The first time we shelled out the extra bucks for one & tasted it, we looked at each other like we'd never had turkey before. It was that good.

                Now D'Artagnon recently had a sale of their free-range organic birds, & we bought a small one & roasted it just last week, & while it was delicious, it still wasn't as good as the cheaper Whole Foods bird, so that's what we'll be sticking with for Thanksgiving.

                But for times when I want to experiment with new recipes or on the grill, I just buy the cheapest supermarket bird available at the time.

                We do have several farms in our immediate area that raise heritage breeds, but their prices are so out of whack that I doubt I'll ever be springing for their birds just to do a "taste test".

                2 Replies
                1. re: Breezychow

                  Yes, heritage birds from a small farm are expensive to buy and raise. Like I said earlier BBW's - the type of turkey grown commercially - are ready for processing in 12 weeks or less. Heritage breeds grow slower and can't be processed for at least 6 months. Feed costs $17 a bag in our area. So to raise a 'heritage' bird I have to feed my birds for at least twice as long as commercial growers. With just 6 birds we were going through at least a bag of feed a week. That's probably $50 per bird in feed only to raise for market.for our 6 birds - they do eat less feed in the first 6 weeks. The poult itself costs $6-$8 to purchase. Then add in bedding material (hay costs $3 per bale to have it cut from our own property), labor (at least an hour per day to care for our chickens, ducks and turkeys), etc. and heritiage turkeys get expensive.

                  For our birds the cost to raise one bird is:

                  Turkey poult $7

                  Feed $50

                  Hay $12

                  Total $69 + labor

                  If I had to sell that bird at 'commercial' prices I could sell a 20 lb bird for $6 - $12 (at .30 to .60 per lb). At $2- $3 per lb. I wouldn't even break even.

                  I'm not saying everyone can or should go buy a heritage bird. Just trying to give a realistic view of what it costs to raise a heritage bird from personal experience.

                  1. re: rosepoint

                    Oh please trust me - I didn't mean to offend you & know all too well what it must cost to raise these birds - especially for a relatively small purveyor. They're just out of my price range. I'd love to try one some time, but we have a number of local growers & their prices are all around $100-$150+ per bird. Too rich for my wallet.

                    We do however sometimes get to buy free-range organic heritage breed turkey parts - drumsticks & ground meat - which is enjoyable when their available & much more reasonable.

                2. A frozen Butterball turkey will be the best and easiest turkey to prepare. Butterball is more expensive because they pull the heavier tendons from the legs, make sure all the pin feathers are pulled out and make sure there are no tears in the skin or bruises in the meat. I say frozen over fresh because you can baste the breast all you want, you'll never get it as moist and tasty as a frozen BB. BB is the only company that "feathers" in the basting into the breast meat. Cheaper brands just pump the breast meat to increase the weight of the bird. Also, if you want more tender meat and better meat to bone ratio, get a bird under 16 lbs. Those are hens. Anything bigger it a tom. More bone, less meat.

                  If you like to spend a lot of time preparing your bird and waste a lot of extra money, you can invest in brining, free range, organic etc.

                  Remember this. If one bird gets sick, that bird will get the entire farm sick. That's why you need to use antibiotics.

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: awm922

                    >>> Also, if you want more tender meat and better meat to bone ratio, get a bird under 16 lbs. Those are hens. Anything bigger it a tom. More bone, less meat. <<<

                    As I mentioned above, I tested this theory with dozens of birds last summer, with birds ranging from 13 to 31 pounds. Average yield of smaller (13.42 lbs) birds: 65% raw, 51% cooked. Average yield of larger birds (30.62 lbs) 68% raw, 52% cooked. So no statistical difference. Slight advantage to larger birds but not worth writing home about.

                    I have nothing against Butterballs but note that they also make UNbasted birds, so read the labels carefully.

                    As Breezychow noted quite accurately above, this is all about personal taste. If you get a Basted/Injected bird, you wouldn't want to brine. Some people don't like the flavor of the injected solution. I don't mind it but I like to control the strength of the brine and seasonings myself. Brining doesn't cost anything but time.

                    1. re: acgold7

                      Butterball Fresh Turkeys are not basted, just the frozen whole birds and bone-in breasts. You are right in that statement.

                    2. re: awm922

                      It looks like a lot of folks are weighing in for the tried and true Butterball, and we swear by it as well. We have settled in to the Reynolds turkey bag recipe, with 1 cup of a butter and white wine (Loupiac) mixture poured over the turkey as it goes into the bag. Moist, tender, every time. Shorter cooking time in the turkey bag. Many Chowhound posts complain about a dry, tasteless turkey on their tables, but ours is consistently great.

                      1. re: Florida Hound

                        I worry about the plastic in the bag leaching onto the food.

                        1. re: chicgail

                          I have read some of the warnings about different kinds of plastic and heating foods in plastic, so I shared your concern when you replied to my post. (My traveling coffee mug is BPA-free...)
                          I checked out several websites for food safety issues related to turkey cooking bags, and they all give these bags a clean bill of health. Many negative comments about chemical leeching when people cook a turkey in a trash bag (huh?) or a brown paper bag. The University of Illinois Extension Service and the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service seemed to be credible sources of reassurance. See links:

                          http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/l... http://urbanext.illinois.edu/turkey/c...

                          OK, we're keeping the Reynolds Turkey Roasting bags- and the results are delicious.

                        2. re: Florida Hound

                          Those measurements in our family recipe, btw, are 1 C butter + 1 C white wine to cover an approximately 24 lb turkey.

                      2. If I can afford it, I would always go for an organic or free-range Bronze - but that's the sort of bird that needs a second mortgage or bank robbery to pay for it.

                        1. So I gather there's no concensus. We like big birds, little birds, pre-brined, home-brined, unbrined, Butterball, Jennie-O, generic, organic, free-range, heritage, fresh, frozen, mass-produced and small-farm free-range.

                          FWIW I tend to prefer a natural turkey, I consider brining to be a big messy waste of time, I like a big bird (although you all have me thinking about getting two small ones instead), we cook it indirect on a big Weber that seals the outside pretty well and makes a tender bird. I buy wings and necks for gravy ahead of time.
                          When we go to another relative's house for Thanksgiving, I make sure that we do our own turkey and favorite sides within the week- leftovers are something we all love, especially Thanksgiving leftovers. gotta make some when we go elsewhere on Thanksgiving sometime after the real day.

                          1. I've tried everything and I think a butterball is just fine. I have been wet brining, but am willing to try a dry brine next time.

                            I have cooked big and small birds, I used to think if I was going to the trouble of cooking a turkey might as well cook the biggest one I could find. I have changed my tune now, and much prefer to cook two 12 or 13 lb. birds simultaneously.

                            I also have to cook a turkey if i am a guest and there are no leftovers, the day-after-Thanksgiving-sandwich is the entire reason for having the dinner in the 1st place IMO. BTW, a breast won't do, must have dark meat.

                            1. I'll have to get back on this after I've cooked it, but our reduced guest list for T-Day this year (five, down from eight, and one's a veggie) provoked me to try a Diestel Petite. What I did not know was that it's a smaller breed of turkey, so smaller-boned as well; this means the usual small-bird-less-meat equation does not hold true. It's a little odd, salting down a turkey that's smaller than some capons I've cooked, but I'm looking forward to trying it. For the record, it was from Whole Foods, $3-something a pound, or roughly $27 for an 8.5 lb bird. An extravagance of sorts for us, but it will probably be worth it.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: Will Owen

                                The Diestel Petite, I have to say, is one dandy little bird. Next time I will cook it more slowly, as the meat was done before the connective tissue had loosened its grip, but four of us ate quite well and there's plenty left over, plus a lovely carcass, some gorgeous giblets, and about a pint of good goop from the bottom of the pan. I did a potato gratin, so I did not make gravy, but I certainly will make some to mix with leftovers.

                              2. I lived in the States for a number of years nut have lived most of my life in Canada. When I moved to the states i was always disappointed with the turkeys whether they be free range, organic or whatever until I tried the Empire Kosher turkeys. I always brine my turkeys so that does not explain the difference but to me Empire turkeys just seemed to taste better.

                                1. Interestingly enough - there was an article in last week's New York Times about heritage-breed turkeys & how most folks don't realize how dry & stringy they can be until they roast one. Yes, they're flavorful, but they also frequently need a different cooking approach. The Times said that for the most part, these birds do better cut apart, browned, & then braised rather than roasted whole, which would eleviate much of the disappointment many folks have after shelling out big bucks to end up with a dry bird.

                                  I have to say that after roasting just the drumsticks from a heritage-breed bird, I'll be braising them next time.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: Breezychow

                                    Of course! This is not a big chicken, it's a gigantic Guinea hen with white meat! I was just re-reading my report on cooking the Petite, above, and found myself thinking that since none of us is particularly attached to the notion of crisp skin, this thing should probably be pot-roasted low and slow. It really is a big dry game bird.

                                  2. Heritage breed. Raised 100% free range living off the land. They are trained to roost in the barn every night.
                                    Basically they are wild birds.
                                    I get them from a local farmer who only raises about twenty a year b/c of the foraging limitation of his land.
                                    I order in advance for Thanksgiving.
                                    I pu the turkey after it's back from the processor. Air dry in fridge for four days. Wet brine overnight.
                                    'Low and slow' of course. Nothing rubbed on the skin. Cavity filled with lemon wedges/lots of fresh thyme sprigs. That's all. Remove from oven when correct deep internal temp is just over 160 F. Carry-over will add a few degrees.
                                    After resting/tenting the bird for half an hour I crank up the broiler/brush on a liberal coating of white wine vinegar and Kosher salt to the skin. Turkey back in screaming hot oven. Watch through oven window as the skin gets a 'broken glass' crispy deep golden brown. This takes only a few minutes. Out of oven. Lightly tent for half an hour at least. Carve/serve/recieve on-going accolades until next thanksgiving.