How to Buy a Turkey for Thanksgiving


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‘Tis the season turkey talk. Your grocery store is likely looking a bit different, with fall flavors and holiday favorites hitting the shelves — turkey being the main staple. Here’s what to know about types of turkey before you buy.

Cooked turkey inside a roasting pan placed on top of the stove.

Before you buy a turkey from the supermarket, it helps to know about the different types of turkey available. There’s so much more than Butterball these days, and with Thanksgiving just around the corner, you’re likely gearing up for a delicious dinner. Buying the perfect turkey is crucial to serving up the main course that’s juicy, tender, and savory. 

Types of turkey

While all frozen birds may look the same at first glance, there are various turkey types, such as basted or injected turkey, natural turkey, kosher turkey, free-range turkey, organic turkey, and heritage turkey.

Basted, Self-Basted, Injected Turkey

A frozen Butterball premium young turkey in a package.

These are the Butterballs of the world found in the grocery store’s freezer section. They are pre-injected with saline and oils. Because injected or pre-basted turkey is usually factory farmed, it’s not the type of turkey for sustainable and environmentally conscious. Don’t brine these turkeys. While they will come out of the oven very juicy, their flavor is diluted.

Natural Turkey

Unlike organic, a natural turkey is not fed any byproducts, antibiotics, or growth enhancers. You’ll typically see “no artificial ingredients or preservatives” on the label. They will have a more prominent turkey taste than a Butterball-type turkey due to less dilution with saline and oil.

Kosher Turkey

Kosher turkeys are still free turkeys, AKA not farmed in a factory. However, they do come pre-brined in salt, unlike a natural turkey. You’ll have less control over the brining and flavor and seasoning. However, they still generally turn out juicy.

Free-Range, Free-Roaming, Cage-free Turkey

One of the free-est of all types of turkey, free-range turkeys, is said to spend a little more than half of their life with access to the great outdoors. If your particular bird decided to wander and roam more than others, its meat might be leaner. However, cage-free turkeys may still be raised with hormones or antibiotics. 

Organic Turkey

Frozen organic turkey label.

Often referred to as a natural turkey, organic turkeys have different regulations. They must be fed organic feed (never genetically modified) without hormones, byproducts, chemicals, or pesticides. 

Heritage Turkey

Heritage turkeys are a large breed of turkey that reigned popular before large-scale farmers took over the industry. They are entirely free-range (the closest you can get to a wild bird), so they tend to be leaner with less fat. They tend to have longer legs and wings and look darker when raw.

While generally leaner, heritage turkeys have a thicker layer of fat under the breast, adding a ton of flavor. Because they live longer than turkeys, more-commercial farmers are trying to turn and burn.

Buying fresh vs. frozen turkeys: what’s better?

You may be wondering: fresh or frozen, and does it matter? It does! Here’s the thing: fresh turkeys at the grocery store are essentially already thawing frozen turkeys. It’s not exactly the fresh, straight-from-the-farm, just butchered turkey you may be imagining. You’re better off buying frozen so you can safely control the thawing and avoid having to refreeze and rethaw, which takes a toll on the meat’s quality.

However, if you want to buy a fresh turkey from a store in North America, they are usually only available a few days before Thanksgiving, and you should cook it within 2-3 days. If you have access to a genuinely fresh turkey from your butcher or a local farmer, you have a window closer to 5-10 days. However, always ask the butcher how long the turkey was held or if it was previously frozen, and then plan accordingly. 

What size turkey should you buy?

For Thanksgiving dinner, plan to purchase one pound of turkey per person. This may leave you with some leftovers, but consider an extra half pound per person in that case.

Even if you’re cooking for a large party, it doesn’t mean you should reach for the massive Thanksgiving turkey. A giant turkey is more difficult to cook evenly without drying it out and needing lots of cranberry sauce. Two smaller turkeys can yield better results: 12 to 14 pounds is the sweet spot.

When to thaw your turkey

Got a frozen turkey? Plan to defrost it in the fridge; you’ll need about one day for every four pounds. Add a day or two for the brining process if you plan to do so. Make sure to defrost in another bag or a pan. The packaging they come in tends to leak! If you’re in a pinch, you can also thaw a turkey in a bucket of cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes. And surprise! You can skip rinsing your turkey.

Experts at the USDA have found it’s more likely to spread harmful bacteria around your kitchen and cross-contaminate. However, if the bird contains bacteria, cooking it properly will destroy it; no rinsing or cross-contaminating is necessary. 

Health benefits and nutrition

The least processed, the better. So, any type of turkey raised without hormones and antibiotics may be healthier from that perspective. And an active, free-range turkey may be leaner. Make sure not to add additional salt to kosher or injected turkeys, or you may increase the sodium content. 

And when it comes to dark meat vs. light meat. While dark meat contains more fat and calories, it also has more vitamins and minerals.

Turkey recipes for Thanksgiving

Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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4 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Marion says

    Jessica I always love your very informative and educated information. I learn so much from you. Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. George Spatz says

    Hi Jessica;

    I have a question about these frozen turkey breasts. How does one try to get rid of the high amount sodium in these products?

  3. Darlene Couch says

    Thanks for the information on turkeys.I have a question regarding Flank steaks. I need instructions. My single son, father of 3 girls cooked one in an iron skillet. It was over cooked and tuff. Would like your magic instructions. Thanks