Selecting the Turkey Is Key
Selecting The Turkey: Your Most Important Ingredient
The best way to know about the bird is knowing the farmer who raised it. Next best, is knowing your butcher - who knows the farmer.
Traceability is the key. If you know who raised the turkey and where it was raised - you will likely know how it was raised.
Sometimes your available choices will be affected by the lead time that you have to buy, prepare, and cook the bird. But you can always make the best choice for the time and circumstances.
And you do have choices.
You can have a turkey raised just for you by a local farmer. You can order exactly what you want from a supplier and have a frozen turkey delivered to your door.
You can ask your butcher to order one and have it defrosted and ready for you to pick up. Or, you can go to the local grocery store to see what they have.
Should you try a Heritage, Heirloom, or pasture raised organic turkey?
Yes. Especially if you and your family enjoy great food. These birds are more expensive, but there is a notable difference in taste. Also, you will have the chance to educate and promote to other food lovers the benefits of the whole experience called "Slow Food."
Understanding the Label
If you must understand the poultry you are buying by reading a label, a catalog description, or an ad on the internet, you may find the terms unusual and counter-intuitive. The following sections will help you understand that information when selecting the turkey.
You can tell the temperature at which a bird was held by reading "fresh,"
"hard chilled", or "frozen" on the label. (What
has been labeled "fresh" might better fit your definition
Inspection and Grading:
To help with selecting the turkey, the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA) grants authority to the Federal Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to provide inspection for all poultry products sold in interstate commerce and re-inspects imported products to ensure that they meet U.S. food safety standards.
Poultry producers have the option to apply for Federal or State inspection, but products produced under State inspection are limited to intrastate (within the state) commerce. A State's program must enforce requirements "at least equal to" those imposed under the Federal Poultry Products Inspection Acts.
A grade assigned to a turkey has a different meaning than the inspection seal. Different governmental inspection agencies will have jurisdiction depending on where the bird originates, where it is processed and where it will be sold.
An inspection seal from the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) is an indication of product safety and wholesomeness so it may be a consideration when selecting the turkey. USDA grade has nothing to do with wholesomeness. Grading is performed to indicate that it is a pretty bird; it is awarded like a beauty contest tiara. You will probably never see Grade B or Grade C birds, but you might buy them as a ground turkey product with no grade indicated. Grade can safely be ignored when selecting the turkey.
Classes of Turkey
Birds are differentiated into classes which mostly indicate age. These are the USDA's classes:
Fryer or Roaster: This is an immature bird, less than 4 months old, and generally weighs 4 to 8 pounds.
Young: The USDA requires that a turkey labeled "young" be 8 months old or less at the time of slaughter.
Yearling: This turkey, under fifteen (15) months
old is not quite as tender as a bird labeled "young".
How the Turkey Was Raised:
The manner in which the
turkeys are raised, what they are fed, and medications given
may also be described on the label to help with selecting the turkey.
How the Turkey Was Processed:
Natural or Minimally Processed or No Additives: This means nothing was added to the turkey during processing - it was not flavored, basted, or injected. Note that "natural" with respect to processing does not have the same meaning as "organic" which reflects how it was raised. This is a very important consideration when selecting the turkey that you wish to brine.
Self Basting or Enhanced:
These birds were injected with a solution to add taste and moisture.
Details about how the turkey was "enhanced" (e.g. injected,
brined, or marinated) will likely not be described if it is proprietary
information (a trade secret) for the particular brand.
Types and Breeds of Turkey:
are the turkeys sold in supermarkets. They have been bred, not for taste,
but to have an enormous breast size yielding plenty of white meat and
a light, blemish-free skin. They are also bred to be docile and to reach
early maturity with maximum growth. Because of their anatomy, these
birds cannot fly or mate on their own. When selecting the turkey after
January and before October this may be your only choice, unless you
find a specialty poultry supplier.
Broad Breasted White (BBW): This bird was developed in the 1950s at Cornell University by crossbreeding the Broad Breasted Bronze with the White Holland. This breed of turkey matured earlier than the BBB and the skin had a "cleaner" blemish-free appearance. By the 1960s, the BBW became the new commercial standard. Today almost all commercial turkeys are strains of this breed.
Heritage turkeys: historical varieties raised on small farms, can fly, feed on their own and breed by themselves (without artificial insemination). These turkeys are bred to a "standard" (American or European) compatible with a particular area or climatic region. They are slower growing than commercial breeds and are generally eaten after they reach maturity - approximately 28 weeks.When cooked, heritage turkeys are denser, have more dark meat and bring a richer, more succulent flavor to the table.
When selecting the turkey for a special occasion some people feel a heritage turkey is well worth the cost. But these turkeys can be hard to find, if you haven't ordered one in advance. Heritage turkeys are usually available between November and January.
If you want a Heritage turkey raised specifically for you, you need to order one well in advance, as early as spring.Heritage turkeys include the following breeds: Bourbon Red, Royal Palm, Narragansett, Bronze, Slate, White Holland, and Jersey BuffWild Turkeys:
If your idea of selecting the turkey includes selecting the turkey in the field, wild turkeys are available. They can also be purchased from select distributors but they won't have the same flavor as a truly wild bird.
Wild turkeys are smaller and have darker meat and firmer texture than commercial turkeys. The flavor is likely to be more intense and it changes depending on what the bird has been eating. These birds can be ordered from dealers in game meat or obtained by hunting, in season. For more information about wild turkeys see breeds and history.
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