Which Type of Turkey Is Best for Your Holiday Table?

We break down everything you see in the supermarket so you can choose which bird best suits your family's gathering this year.

thanksgiving turkey on a platter surrounded by side dishes
Photo: Meredith

Thanksgiving is almost here, and we've all got turkey on our minds. It's not too early to start shopping for yours, depending on what type you're planning to buy. Confused by all the options? You're not alone. Here, the experts break down each type of turkey you'll find in a supermarket, pros and cons of each, and what you need to know before choosing one. There's no one turkey that's perfect for everyone — it comes down to what's most important to you.

Fresh Turkey

The biggest advantage of a fresh turkey — which means it's been quick-chilled to a temperature between 26°-40°F, according to the USDA — is convenience, says John Peterson, third-generation farmer at Ferndale Market in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. "Because it's never been frozen, you can pick it up the day before and it's ready to go in your roasting pan or brine bag," he says. (Shout-out to all the last-minute Thanksgiving planners!) Fresh turkeys will also roast slightly faster — since they've never been frozen, the core won't have gotten as cold, and won't take as long to cook.

Some people will say there's a quality differentiator here — that nothing beats the flavor and texture of a fresh turkey (but others will argue that frozen turkeys can come out looking and tasting just as delicious). The only real downside to a fresh turkey is that it can be slightly more expensive, says Peterson. Fresh turkeys do also have a shorter shelf life than frozen ones, so you have to plan ahead, and you may want to order in advance and pick it up closer to Thanksgiving. "That's not necessarily a bad thing, but some people stress and like to have everything at home in advance," says Craig Emmons, executive chef of research and development with Freshly.

Frozen Turkey

Slightly more economical than fresh turkeys, frozen turkeys — which are frozen very quickly to preserve texture and moisture — have the added benefit of versatility. "For folks who aren't quite sure when their Thanksgiving gathering is going to happen, you can buy it early," says Peterson. While this has value any year, it's especially important during 2020, when many families' Thanksgiving traditions have been disrupted. Having the flexibility to determine when and how many you'll gather with, and know you have turkey waiting in the wings when that happens, is a strong reason to go with a frozen turkey.

The disadvantage here? You must plan ahead. That can be a significant factor if you don't plan accordingly or have the refrigerator space. Peterson says the only safe way to thaw a turkey is to let it happen naturally in the fridge. A good rule of thumb: 24 hours for every 4 pounds of turkey, meaning that a large turkey can take the better part of a week to thaw (so—you may want to plan on some takeout that week to conserve space). "It's not like pulling out a pack of ground beef and having it thawed by dinner time," says Peterson.

Self-Basting or Pre-Basted Turkey

These are great beginner turkeys, says Emmons — most are pre-basted with butter or a salt solution to help with moisture and make sure you don't cook a dry turkey. However, some people don't like the flavor with the extra salt added. The other downside? You're paying for extra water and salt as if it were turkey, says Peterson. Skip this kind of turkey if you're planning to brine or baste yourself.

Natural Turkey

In the world of poultry, the only requirement for a turkey to be labeled "natural" is if it doesn't have anything added to it (such as a salt solution) — so any non-basted turkey would technically be considered natural, says Peterson. The catch here is that this word, like in other food categories, doesn't mean anything. "If someone is looking for a 'natural' turkey, they're probably looking for additional attributes like antibiotic-free or free-range, and natural doesn't get to any of those," he adds.

Kosher Turkey

This is important when following certain religious principles, says Emmons. It's important to note that most kosher turkeys have been pre-salted; while this helps with moisture retention (and results in a juicier turkey), it may be a concern to watch out for if you're watching your sodium intake (or have guests who are). The actual growing process for kosher turkeys is no different than other types; here, it's about the processing. "Kosher turkeys speak a lot less to how the turkey was raised and focuses on the slaughter portion," Peterson explains. There's really no difference in taste.

Free-Range Turkey

Watch out for any turkey labeled "cage-free," as that's not a legitimate claim in the turkey world like it is for eggs and chicken. "Whether turkeys are raised indoors or outdoors, they wouldn't be caged; they'd always have the ability to move freely, even within the barn," says Peterson. The real differentiator here is a free-range label. Regulated by the USDA, it requires that birds labeled as such must have continuous, free access outdoors for more than 51 percent of their lives. Peterson says birds grown this way tend to be better-tasting, because they've been moving around more in a lower-density, lower-stress environment, allowing them to exhibit more natural behaviors.

If you don't want to think too much about the barnyard life of your turkey, focus on the taste: Emmons says some free-range birds may have a bit of a gamey flavor, and can often be a bit tougher since they're more muscular than other birds. "Some people soak [free-range turkeys] in milk to remove some of the extra gamey flavor while also tenderizing the bird, then they brine them to increase tenderization and add more moisture," says Emmons. "It's a little more work, but easier on your conscience."

Heritage Turkey

These can be tougher to find than your average supermarket turkey — often you'll need to go to a local farm or butcher shop that specializes in heritage turkeys (and yes, expect to pay a premium for these, too). Over the years, turkeys have been bred for consumption and have taken on different characteristics because of it, says Emmons. Heritage turkeys, now coming back into favor, have been bred to stay the same as they were many years ago — "much like an heirloom tomato looking and tasting like a tomato before science got a hold of it," Emmons adds. Know that the flavor and texture of a heritage turkey will be much different (i.e., stronger) than a common domestic turkey, and you'll have to prepare it accordingly to accommodate for these variations.

What Turkey Type is Best?

There's a turkey out there for everybody, but not every turkey is for you. Big picture, think about what values are most important to you when going to buy your bird. "Whether they're really cheap at a big-box store or really expensive with lots of claims, all of the turkey types can be a good option — it's just about finding the right consumer for the right turkey," says Peterson.

If prepared right with a little patience and planning, a Thanksgiving turkey can be one of the best meals you enjoy all year — especially in 2020. "We're all craving things that feel normal and give us a sense of tradition and anchoring," says Peterson. "Nothing says that more than Thanksgiving turkey."

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