turkey on farm at sunset

Selecting The Turkey Is Key

Selecting The Turkey: Your Most Important Ingredient

Selecting the right turkey is a crucial first step.

The best way to know about the bird is by 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 of frozen.)

Fresh: This means the bird was never chilled below 26 degrees F ( - 3.3 degrees Celsius).

Hard Chilled or Refrigerated or Deep Chilled, or Not Previously Frozen: If one of these terms is used it means the temperature of the bird ranged between 0 degrees F to 25 degrees F. ( - 17.8 to - 3.9 degrees celsius).

Frozen: The turkey has been maintained at or below 0 degrees F. ( - 17.8 degrees celsius).

About the only way to take home a truly fresh turkey - above 32 degrees F (0 degrees C) - is to buy a freshly slaughtered one from a farm or live bird market.

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".

Mature or Old: A turkey over fifteen (15) months may be a tough old bird, usually not good for roasting.

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.

Free-Roaming or Free-Range: These terms describe how much access to the outdoors a bird might have had. Note the word "access." This doesn't mean they roam around freely. Instead, it means, if they want to go out they can, during the limited time a door might be open. This is not an important consideration when selecting the turkey.

Pastured: This is a term used mostly by small farms. These farms raise the birds on the land as opposed to raising them primarily in buildings. The term has no USDA meaning, but it came about to differentiate from the essentially meaningless "free-range" designation.

Organic: These birds are "free-range," and they are raised on a diet of organic feed produced without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Also, they are not given routine (ongoing) antibiotics. But antibiotics can be given to cure a specific infection, if and when it occurs, and the birds can still be called "organic."

No Antibiotics: A label can claim this only if the producer has demonstrated to the U.S. Food Safety Inspection Service that antibiotics were never administered to the turkey.

No Hormones: A label may say this, but since it is against the law to use hormones on poultry this claim is meaningless when 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.

Basted or 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. 

Kosher: The bird was processed according to kosher law. Much of this type of processing is done by hand using salt and water soaking, so the result is similar to a brined turkey.

Retained Water: If you see this on a label it does not mean that the bird was enhanced. Instead, this means that water was absorbed during a cleaning or freezing process.

Treated with Irradiation or Treated by Irradiation: This notification must be on all irradiation-treated poultry along with the international symbol for radiation. Very little poultry has been irradiated, perhaps because symbol and labeling may scare people away from the product.

Types and Breeds of Turkey:

Commercial Turkeys:

These 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 Bronze (BBB): This bronze-feathered bird evolved during the 20th century and was bred for increased meat about the breast, good hatchability, and early maturity. By the mid 20th century, the BBB had become the standard commercial turkey throughout the US.

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.

Why are Heritage Turkeys So Expensive?

Most are pastured on small farms and many are given organic food.

Since proportionally very few are raised, handling costs are high. It takes longer to raise these bird since they take longer to mature (28 weeks) and they are usually sold after they have matured.

It takes more land and labor to raise turkeys on pasture. Feed is more expensive if they are given organic food to supplement their pasture dining.

How Can You Save Money Buying Your Heritage Turkey?

If you are looking for a Heritage bird try selecting the turkey from a local farmer. One of the most expensive parts of ordering a heritage turkey is the shipping.

If you can pick it up at the farm, or at the farmers market. Or, you may be able to order one through your local butcher.

Are Pasture-Raised, Organic Turkeys the Only Ones You Should Buy?

No. Much of the year you can't even get them and they are more expensive.

These also may not be the best choice for deep frying or smoking where lots of extra flavor is added. You want to be able to experience the special flavor of a pasture-raised, organic turkey that you have paid extra to buy.

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Copyright © 2009 - 2019 The Perfect Turkey
Copyright © 2009 - 2019 The Perfect Turkey
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