Fresh or frozen, and how big? That's pretty much all anyone needed to know when they strolled into the store to purchase their Thanksgiving turkey back in the day. Not anymore. Now, shoppers are confronted with a bewildering array of choices, such as free-range, organic, free-range and organic, pastured, antibiotic-free, wild, and heritage turkeys, just to name a few of the options. But what do all of these terms mean, and are they worth the price premium they often command?
That's why The Daily Meal teamed up with Ariane Daguin, owner and founder of D'Artagnan, a purveyor of meat, game, truffles, mushrooms, and, yes, turkeys, to fine restaurants, retailers, and home cooks, to help guide cooks through their turkey shopping experience. D'Artagnan was selected as the exclusive purveyor of turkeys for the White House Thanksgiving celebration this year, host to diplomats from around the world, on Nov. 15, so we thought, hey, if it's good enough for the president, it's definitely good enough for folks at home.
So let's start with the basics. Our first question: Fresh or frozen?
It turns out that even this basic distinction is muddy. For poultry, the USDA's definition of fresh includes frozen. What? Yes, that's right. The USDA states that poultry labeled "fresh" has always had an internal temperature somewhere between 26 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. So, if you ever see a "fresh frozen" label, that's why.
What do cage-free and free-range actually mean?
The USDA officially defines "cage-free" in the following manner: "This label indicates that the flock was able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle." Their definition of "free-range" is similar, but includes a stipulation that they have "continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle." It's worth noting, though, that this definition is fairly open-ended and producers who stuff thousands of birds into a shed with a door at the end leading out to a dirt patch can call their birds free-range.
That's why it may be better to go with a smaller purveyor who places more emphasis on animal welfare than on the bottom line, and who may be able to exercise greater care in their choice of producers and subject them to more careful scrutiny. Daguin, for example, sources all of her turkeys from Amish and Mennonite farmers who go beyond free-range, she says. Their philosophy is to leave the land in better shape than it started, and that philosophy results in better living conditions for their birds, which actually have access to green pasture and roam around, weather-permitting, getting plenty of exercise, and as a result, are less fatty than factory-farmed birds. Daguin's birds are basically pastured, a term which has no official USDA definition, but gets closer to the perceived meaning of "free-range" that most consumers have.
What about organic?
Organic turkeys are raised without antibiotics or growth hormones, and are fed organic feed produced without synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetic modification, irradiation, or most conventional pesticides.