The turkey will be the star of your Thanksgiving dinner, so you want to make sure you choose one that’s worthy of top billing. But how do you pick the right turkey with so many options out there? Check out our guide to selecting the perfect bird for you.
Figure out how much bird you need. Plan to have 1 ½ to 2 pounds of turkey per person you’re serving. You should err on the side of 2 pounds per person if you’re only having a few guests (smaller turkeys have more bones to meat than their plumper counterparts), if your guests are hearty eaters, or if you like those day-after sandwiches.
Select the right type of turkey. There’s more than one way to raise and prep a turkey—so you have plenty of options for your Thanksgiving feast. Some turkey growers may use the same term to describe very different styles of raising turkeys, so read the label carefully to ensure you know exactly what you’re getting.
- Self-Basted These are the traditional turkeys you grew up with—they’ve been injected with butter, broth or salt water to ensure a moist turkey, though not necessarily the most flavorful one. Some brands come with a built-in temperature sensor that pops out when the turkey’s done, making cooking a cinch. Just keep in mind you can get the same results with an old-fashioned meat thermometer, which you can use for other roasts.
Why You Might Like This: The self-basted turkey, with its built-in temperature sensor, takes a lot of the guesswork (and work) out of making a turkey, making it easier for a Thanksgiving newbie to get great results.
- Natural When you’re talking turkey, “natural” generally means that there’s been no added preservatives or chemicals during the preparation for market. Sometimes, it can even mean that the turkey was raised in a more natural way, with a vegetarian feed and no antibiotics. Read the label carefully to see exactly what that particular grower means.
Why You Might Like This: If you’re concerned about preservatives and other chemicals in your food, getting a natural turkey will minimize your exposure.
- Kosher Kosher birds are raised and prepped in accordance with Jewish laws. That means that they’ve been subjected to a cool water bath and a serious salting before they hit your table. You’ll likely be able to skip the brining process if you opt for a kosher bird.
Why You Might Like This: Even people who don’t follow a kosher diet may want a kosher turkey—this turkey comes prebrined, so you don’t have to do that.
- Organic Organic turkeys need to be raised to strict standards to get that label. They aren’t given growth hormones or antibiotics, and eat organic, pesticide-free feed that doesn’t contain animal byproducts.
Why You Might Like This: Organic food will limit your exposure to chemicals—and organic turkeys will be free of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides that you might find in non-organic turkeys.
- Free Range and Pastured “Free range” simply means that the turkeys aren’t cooped up for their entire lives—but the amount of outdoor access varies, so read the label to see how much outdoor time your turkey actually had. Pastured birds likely spent much of their life out in the sun, eating their native diet of insects and grass, which could give you a more flavorful bird.
Why You Might Like This: If you’re concerned about humane farming practices, a free-range or pastured bird will likely have been given more room to move and a more natural life.
- Heritage If you want to taste a turkey like the Pilgrims ate, try a heritage turkey. These are unique breeds of turkey that are descended from the original domesticated turkeys, and are usually grown in humane conditions, including pasturing and grazing on grass and insects. Their meat is darker and more flavorful than a standard turkey, but they may be a bit harder to come by—you may need to order online rather than pick it up at the supermarket.
Why You Might Like This: If you want a more flavorful bird, and one grown in a more humane way, a heritage turkey will provide that.
Take care of your turkey properly. You can keep your turkey in the freezer until a few days before the big day. But give your bird plenty of time to defrost properly—one of the most common mistakes people make is trying to defrost a 20-pound turkey the night before Thanksgiving. Your turkey needs one day of defrosting in the refrigerator for every four pounds it weighs—so a 16-pound bird needs to hit the fridge at least four days before the holiday. (And don’t even think about speeding up defrosting by leaving the turkey out on the counter—that puts you and your guests at risk for food poisoning.) To avoid icky spills in your fridge, keep the turkey in its original wrapping and thaw it on a rimmed baking sheet. Once the turkey is thawed, you’re ready to roast!
What kind of turkey are you going to pick?