How to choose a turkey for Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving is less than 10 days away and turkeys are the talk of the town. The word is that cost is up, availability is down and the number of Thanksgiving dinner alternatives seems to be ever-increasing. 

My recommendation is to plan ahead and get what you actually want. If you want a turkey for Thanksgiving, get the turkey you want. It’s true that the cost of a turkey has increased and availability may be an issue in some areas as the industry has been impacted by avian flu. However, the average price of a turkey only jumped from $1.39 per pound last November to $1.79 per pound this October, and cold storage stocks of whole turkeys are only about 3% lower than last year, according to a Texas A&M study.

Doing a little research beforehand can help ensure you purchase the right amount of turkey and choose the highest quality bird. We’re all going to be paying a little more this Thanksgiving, so we might as well get the most for our money.

What size turkey do you need?

The easiest way to determine what size turkey you need is to plan for about 1.5 pounds of turkey per person. If you’re planning to have 10 guests, a 15-pound turkey should be big enough to feed everyone.

If you’re having an even larger Thanksgiving and you’re unable to find a big enough bird to feed everyone, you can always cook two smaller turkeys. Although cold storage stocks are only down about 3%, there are about 13% fewer tom turkeys and about 12% more hens in storage, which means there’s likely a greater number of small turkeys.

Fresh v. Frozen

Although frozen turkeys can be a little drier than fresh, modern flash-freezing techniques minimize the damage of freezing and thawing. Fresh, frozen and the in-between option — refrigerated, hard-chilled and not previously frozen turkeys — are all suitable choices.

The easiest way to decide what kind of turkey to buy in terms of how it’s been stored is by considering the time between purchasing and cooking the turkey. If you’re going to cook the turkey within 1-2 days of purchasing, fresh is the best option. If you’re buying your turkey well in advance, you’re better off choosing a frozen turkey.

Turkeys have to be stored at 26 F or above to be considered fresh, so they don’t keep as long after bringing them home. Frozen turkeys have the advantage of keeping longer at home — they can keep for up to a year in the freezer. However, they require time to thaw before cooking. The general rule for thawing frozen turkeys is 1 day for every 4 pounds. If you’re looking to purchase your turkey well in advance of cooking it, buy a frozen turkey. If you’re out of time to thaw a turkey or planning to cook it within a couple of days of purchase, fresh is a better idea.

Understanding all the labels

Enhanced, moisture-enhanced, pre-basted, basted, self-basting and marinated in natural broth solution. These turkeys are injected with or marinated in solutions that include butter or other edible fat, broth, stock or water; spices, flavor enhancers and other approved substances, according to USDA specifications. They increase moisture content but alter the natural taste of the bird and increased sodium content.

Hormone-free and no hormones added. This is a misleading food label because federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in poultry. Every turkey is hormone free.

Natural and all-natural. Natural on the label means the turkey is minimally processed and contains no artificial flavoring, coloring ingredients, chemical preservatives or other artificial ingredients. However, both self-basting and turkeys given antibiotics can be considered all-natural.

Free-range, free-roaming, cage-free. These are turkeys that had access to an outside space and were allowed to move freely. The increased mobility contributes to more developed muscle and a more fully flavored, complex meat. However, free range is not the same as organic or naturally processed.

Kosher. Kosher turkeys have been killed and prepared according to Jewish dietary laws. They are salted inside and out and left to drain before soaking and washing. They are known for denser flesh, fuller taste and higher prices than non-kosher poultry.

Organic. Organic turkeys are raised without the use of chemicals, antibiotics or roughage fillers. They also have access to the outdoors and are given space to move freely like free-range birds. Additionally, they must be fed organic feed.

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