Picking a turkey: Frozen or fresh? Organic? Heritage? What?

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In need of a Thanksgiving turkey? Don't despair!

Roasted turkey

For the last couple of generations, the concept of picking a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner went something like this:

  1. Drive to the grocery store.
  2. Haul a frozen turkey out of the freezer section.
  3. Take it home and thaw it.

Many a delicious Thanksgiving dinner was achieved by this method of picking a turkey. However, with rising interest in food sources and varieties, the options for your turkey for Thanksgiving dinner have expanded. Now it's not just about picking up the ubiquitous Butterball during your next market excursion. Now you can choose fresh or frozen, free range, organic, heritage or a combination thereof. It can get confusing. It can make you long for the simplicity of the conventional frozen turkey as your only option. So how do you make sense of  all the options? And will it really make a difference on your Thanksgiving table?


It's a little obvious, admittedly. A frozen turkey, and usually the ones at the local market, are conventionally raised birds that have been mass-processed, packaged, frozen and shipped to your local market. They come in a variety of sizes. Because they are frozen, they need adequate time to defrost in your refrigerator before roasting on Thanksgiving day.


Fresh, as the name implies, are turkeys that have not been frozen. They may be mass-processed just like the frozen turkeys, but have not gone through that deep freeze process. Where can you find fresh turkeys? Some markets do get them in, so ask your local grocery store. Other markets may need to order them for you. If you live near a turkey farm, lucky you! You can likely call over and reserve one. In some areas of the country, getting a fresh turkey from the local turkey farm is bound with tradition and involves waiting outside in a long line on a specific day -- with everyone else in town. A fun way to combine eating locally with community customs!


An organic turkey is one that has been fed only organically grown feed and has not been treated with antibiotics and/or artificial supplements.


While you might think that "free-range" means your turkey was allowed to roam, in the United States "free-range" really only means that the bird had access to the outside - and whether the bird did or did not actually roam is unknown.


The majority of turkeys raised for food consumption are of a breed selected for specific desired characteristics - amount of light and dark meat, size, and so on. But just like chickens, they aren't the only variety of turkey out there. Heritage varieties are other species of turkeys that are just a bit different from the big previously frozen bird we think about. Typically raised in a true free-range manner and often organic, heritage varieties have different proportions of light and dark meat and may taste different than what you are used to. Heritage birds can sometimes be acquired through local specialty markets by ordering in advance or ordering online. They are more expensive than the typical mega-mart birds, but may be worth it for your food-conscious family.

Most of the above

You may be lucky enough to find a bird that fits most of the categories above. Some CSA farms are branching out a bit and raising turkeys as part of their farm shares - then you can get a heritage brand that is fresh, fully free-range and organic -- and local! The best of all worlds!  You might want to call around to local CSAs to find out if they are selling turkeys and if they have any that have not been spoken for yet. No matter what turkey you choose for your Thanksgiving table, it's sure to be a delicious day.

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