There are a lot of options when it comes to picking a good turkey at the grocery store. “Organic,” “air-chilled,” “heritage,” and “free range” are just a few of the buzzwords that fill up a turkey label these days. It’s okay if it’s all just a bit confusing. We’re here to help you sift through all the confusion and figure out which is the best bird for your Thanksgiving table.
The crucial starting point here is that you need to know yourself and what you want. If a pre-brined, factory-farmed frozen bird is fine for you, then that’s the path for you to take. If you can’t stomach that (sorry), then you’ll need to find the turkey that suits what you deem worthy of your feast.
One hard and fast rule is to be diligent if you’re looking for humane and unadulterated poultry. Read up at home, ask the folks behind the meat counter questions (within reason), and read those labels thoroughly. At the end of the day, it’s on you to do the hard work when finding the best bird for your Thanksgiving table — and if you want something that was raised ethically you’re going to have to wade through greenwashing and intentionally murky language choices.
Still, we’re here to help as much as we can — so keep reading to get some tips on decyphering those overloaded turkey packaging labels!
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What “Air-chilled” Means
This means the bird wasn’t put into a chlorine-infused ice water bath to cool it down as quickly as possible after slaughter. The USDA allows all poultry to contain 15% of that water as part of its weight to accommodate this process. You’re basically throwing 15 cents on the dollar away on bloody chlorine-infused slaughterhouse water when you don’t buy air-chilled poultry, and that’s just bad accounting. Plus, just eww.
“Air-chilled” means the bird never touches that water. Instead, the freshly slaughtered birds are run through a cooling room that does the same thing without the bird ever getting bogged down with dirty water or touching any other turkey. It’s safer, cleaner, and doesn’t add chlorine water to your Thanksgiving turkey.
Overall, air-chilled is the only way to go.
What “Organic” Means
You’ll see “organic” on a lot of labels. But what does that mean exactly? Well, according to federal regulations that means that the turkey was never fed feed with “antibiotics or antifungals” and only “organic feed.” So organic sort of automatically also means “no antibiotics” as well. It also relates to how many herbicides and sanitation chemicals are used in the living space of the birds and keeping all of that to a minimum.
Those are all positives. The only drawback is that “organic” turkeys tend to be on the smaller side. Otherwise, all of these points seem pretty solid when considering what to put in your body on Thanksgiving.
You might have to end up buying two smaller turkeys — which will bring up questions of oven space. If those issues don’t worry you, this is going to be a better-cared-for bird.
What Are “Heritage” Breeds?
Heritage turkeys are the closest to wild turkeys in domestication. They’ll have a much richer tasting meat. They won’t be juicier per se (that depends on your cooking skills) but these birds will be a tad fattier. That’s something you want in your Thanksgiving turkey.
Bourbon Red, Standard Bronze, Narragansett, Auburn, Buff, Black, Royal Palm, Slate, and Midget White are the breeds you’ll likely see. Sometimes the label will just say one of those breeds and assume you’ll know it means “heritage” without explicitly stating that the bird is a heritage breed.
It’s worth noting that these birds are going to be mostly found at local butcher shops, higher-end grocery stores (think Whole Foods), and farmers’ markets. It’ll probably be worth looking up your local poultry farm today and seeing if they have any birds left to pick up. Otherwise, don’t be afraid to ask the good folks behind the meat counter at your local grocery store. They might have something in the back.
Fattier birds are better in our book. If you’re aligned with that, this is the play.
Pre-Brined Or Not Pre-Brined
If you’re buying a frozen turkey from the average grocery store, it’ll likely be pre-brined. Hell, even if you’re buying a fresh turkey, you’ll want to look over that whole label to see if it’s pre-brined or not — sometimes this information is buried on the back.
The difference can be drastic. Pre-brined turkeys are soaked in water solutions with salt and “spices” that, according to Butterball, “enhance tenderness and juiciness.” Really though, you’re letting someone else season your turkey in a factory setting. That’s never really ideal unless you’re in a huge hurry leading up to Turkey Day. That might be the case, obviously — it’s a busy season.
Dry or wet, brine is all about the nuance — and you want to be in control of that nuance. You can add aromatic herbs, botanicals, and fruits to amp up specific flavors that will make your turkey shine. Brining your bird gives you control over the flavor of the turkey and the outcome. If you can accommodate the time it takes to brine at home, it’ll enrich your turkey and keep it super moist while adding deep flavors. You want all of that.
Brine your turkey at home if you can. You’ll need an extra day or two ahead of time (and a fair amount of fridge space) but it is 100% worth it.
“Free Range” Birds
“Free range” birds will likely be heritage breeds and usually air-chilled. They’re often “organic” products as well. So you’ll be able to hit all these points at the same time. You can mostly find these turkeys by going to farmer’s markets and/or farms in your area. Even if you’re in a big city, it’s worth a short train ride or drive out of town to hit up a farm. Likewise, you can go to a higher-end supermarket and ask behind the counter if you don’t see “free range” birds in the coolers. Sometimes grocery stores can do special orders for you. But you’d have to do that — again — like tomorrow at the latest.
Moreover, “free range” is a no-brainer. Don’t eat meat that lived a shitty life. It’ll taste blander, for one. Plus, you don’t want to eat an animal that suffered through the only days it had on this planet. It’s that simple.
You vote with your pocketbook every time you go shopping. Vote for the ethical treatment of the protein you’re spending all that money on. Okay, we’ll get off our soapbox.
Frozen Or Fresh?
This is the big one. Do you buy a frozen bird or a fresh one? I’ve roasted both quite a few times and there’s rarely that big of a difference, especially if you’re buying from a grocery store.
The biggest difference I’ve been able to pinpoint is fresh from a farm versus frozen or fresh from a grocery store. There’s a pretty big uptick in the quality of farm fresh birds compared to ones that have to go through the process of getting into a grocery store, fresh or frozen.
If you’re going “fresh,” get it from a farmer. If you’re not getting it from a farm, fresh or frozen will be splitting hairs.