What Kind of Turkey Should You Buy?

Buying a turkey isn't as simple as it used to be
Quality cooking begins with quality ingredients, so choose your turkey with care.

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.

What is a wild turkey?

It's not just a popular brand of bourbon. If you're fortunate enough to find wild turkeys for sale, they're as close as you can get to the original breed of North American turkey. They grow more slowly than the usual "broad-breasted white" turkeys sold at the store, and hence are smaller and leaner, usually no heavier than 12 pounds. They contain mostly dark meat, but don't actually have a strong gamey flavor, unlike what you would expect. They have smaller, concave breasts than broad-breasted whites, and since they have a smaller meat-to-bone ratio, you'll want to buy a bit more than normal. Plan on purchasing about 1 ¼ to 1 ½ pounds per person versus 1 to 1 ¼ pounds per person.

How is a heritage-breed turkey different from a wild turkey?

Daguin says that the wild turkey used to be the only type of turkey. Over time, as producers selected for specific traits within their flock, they created different breeds of turkeys, eventually arriving at the fast-growing, broad-breasted whites we have today. But along the way, what we now call heritage-breed turkeys were developed. Essentially, heritage-breed turkeys are "halfway between" wild turkeys and broad-breasted whites, says Daguin. They contain a mixture of traits from each type. Heritage-breed turkeys, such as the Standard Bronze and Bourbon Red, have the convex breasts of broad-breasted whites and hence more breast meat, but are still slow-growing, resulting in very tasty dark meat much like the wild turkey, and are super lean.

One caveat to watch out for when shopping for heritage-breed turkeys, says Daguin, is to make sure that the term "heritage" refers to the bird and not the producer. She cautions consumers against unscrupulous purveyors who use the heritage label to mislead consumers into believing that they are actually purchasing a heritage-breed bird, but which, in reality, are the same broad-breasted whites sold in stores and simply raised on an Amish farm, for example.

Should I cook these fancy turkeys (wild and/or heritage) differently?

While Daguin recommends basting often no matter what kind of turkey you have, she does have a couple of tricks up her sleeve for leaner birds. One trick is to "bard" the bird with bacon or pancetta. Layer slices of bacon over the outside of the bird to give it an insulating layer of fat that will melt as it cooks and crisp up the skin nicely at the same time. Daguin prefers unsmoked bacon since smoked bacon can impart an overly strong smoked flavor — at which point, you might as well smoke the bird instead of roast it, but it's a matter of preference.

Another trick she uses is tried-and-true with a twist. Gently slip little pats of butter underneath the skin (without breaking it) to ensure a moist and tender breast, which is the part which often dries out when cooking. Daguin, though, uses truffle butter.

Is my free-range organic turkey a different breed from good ol' Butterball?

Daguin says no. They are the same broad-breasted white turkey breed; the difference lies in the way they are raised. One is raised on organic feed without the use of hormones or antibiotics with (potential) access to the outdoors, while the other is raised on conventional feed without access to the outdoors, often in overcrowded conditions.

Is there anything else to watch out for when shopping for a turkey?

Just like when you're shopping for chicken, check the label to see how much retained water there is, which can be up to 6 percent of the turkey's weight, says Daguin. Don't pay for salt water in your turkey, which can also water down the flavor. The takeaway message, though, is that it pays to do your research when it comes to shopping for your turkey, especially if you care about issues of sustainability and animal welfare.

Click here to see The Daily Meal's Guide to Thanksgiving

For more turkey talk, visit The Daily Meal's Guide to Thanksgiving!

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