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it’s turkey time: getting the right turkey

Recipe by
Andy Anderson !
Wichita, KS

When you think about it, prepping a turkey for the “big” day is pretty straightforward. You stick it in the oven, cook it most of the day, and there you go. The question is not how to cook it, but what type of turkey to get. Years ago, that was an easy question to answer; however, today it seems like there's more information out there, threatening to overwhelm both seasoned cooks and first-timers alike. So, lets take a good look at the different turkey types, and which one might be the best for your Thanksgiving table. You ready… Let’s go. It’s time to go in search of the perfect turkey.

yield serving(s)
method Bake

Ingredients For it’s turkey time: getting the right turkey

  • turkey

How To Make it’s turkey time: getting the right turkey

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    Not raised in a cage. Free to graze on any grasses or grains it can find in its enclosure. A more humane and healthy poultry farming process. The Department of Agriculture's (U.S.D.A.) food safety agency inspects all poultry processors that carry the term "free-range" to ensure that their birds really are allowed access to the outdoors.
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    Where to get one You can find free-range turkeys at larger supermarkets, specialty markets, and at your local farmer's market, where it's best to pre-order to ensure that you'll get one during the busy holiday season.
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    Bottom Line Purchasing a free-range turkey is taking a stand for the humane treatment of animals. They are also said to be more flavorful because they’re allowed to roam.
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    The organic label is strictly regulated by the U.S.D.A., Raised as free-range. No antibiotics can be used. Must be fed an organic and vegetarian diet of grains and grasses that have not been treated with pesticides.
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    Where to get one Organic birds are available frozen in better supermarkets and fresh or frozen from many online purveyors.
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    Bottom Line The purchase of an organic turkey gives you the best of both worlds: The benefits of the free-range lifestyle, and they are free of chemicals.
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    No government guarantee to back up the "natural" label. In most cases a natural bird is cheaper than organic, and usually comparable in quality.
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    Let the Buyer Beware Not all natural turkeys are created equal. Read the label to find out if the bird you're considering is antibiotic-free, free-range, and/or raised on a vegetarian diet. Many products that claim to be natural also claim to be hormone-free; however, poultry products sold with the U.S.D.A. seal are hormone-free, whether advertised or not because the U.S.D.A. has never approved the use of hormones in poultry production. And, of course, we trust our government to inspect our food, right?
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    Where To Get One The increasing popularity and marketability of natural turkeys means they're available everywhere from the supermarket to high-end retailers to the local butcher shop.
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    Bottom Line Naturally raised turkeys are free-range, but may still contain preservatives, and chemicals. Read the label.
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    Farmed according to Jewish dietary customs, with strict rabbinical supervision. Fed a vegetarian diet Free from antibiotics. Undergone a salting process (after slaughter) that gives the bird a moist and juicy texture when roasted (similar to brining). Chef’s Note: NEVER brine a kosher bird; unless you want a saltlick, as opposed to a nice turkey dinner.
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    What to Look Out For The process of koshering a turkey makes the removal of the quills harder, so it’s possible that you will need to go over the bird and check for quills that remain in the skin.
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    Where To Get One Kosher turkeys are available fresh at most butcher shops, but you should preorder because there will be a limited supply. In addition they can be found frozen at some supermarkets.
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    Bottom Line Basically a good bird for those that want the flavor of a brined bird, but don’t want to go to the trouble of brining. Depending on when the bird has gone through the koshering process, the meat can begin to get a bit mushy over time. Find out when the bird was slaughtered and get one as fresh as possible.
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    Injected with a solution of salt, butter, and/or oil. Some companies inject herb, spices, and/or preservatives. Require less basting than normal turkeys during the roasting process. Does not require brining… they already have salt added.
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    What to Watch Out For The injection of the meat can give the bird a mushy texture, and strange (non turkey) flavors. Definitely not for a turkey for the purists in the group.
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    Where To Get One You can get self-basting turkeys at almost any supermarket. Up to and including the day of Thanksgiving (Butterball comes to mind).
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    Bottom Line In my opinion… this is a last resort.
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    Harvested using pre 1920’s poultry production. Slow steady growth rate 26 to 28 weeks (typical productions birds are ready in 18 weeks). Additional maturing time gives heritage birds a richer flavor.
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    Heritage Types Narragansett, Jersey Bluff, Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Slate, Black Squash, and White Holland.
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    Where To Get One Special order only, and are the most expensive of the lot. One place online is:
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    History Note: From the 1920's through the 1960's, turkeys were selectively bred to create a plumper, broader breast. By the 1960's the only type of turkey available was the suggestively named Broad-Breasted White, also less appetizingly known as the standard supermarket turkey. This is a bird so busty it's unable to stand up without tipping over—a sad state of affairs if your family consists of dark-meat lovers. Broad Breasted Whites are also very susceptible to disease, a condition not helped by the modern practice of keeping poultry caged in close quarters. This, in turn, led to the rise in the use of antibiotics to prevent illnesses from spreading and infecting a whole flock.
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    Bottom Line Excellent birds with a good traditional, flavorful taste… They’re expensive but you might want to give them a try. FYI: They take to a good brine, very well.
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    Fresh vs. Frozen
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    Most traditional chefs swear by a fresh turkey. The claim is that fresh birds are juicer, and more flavorful. This is undoubtedly true of heritage or organic birds (assuming you’re lucky enough to have a local farm to get one). However, if you’re talking about the standard “supermarket” brand of bird, I sincerely doubt if there is much, if any difference. Though fresh supermarket turkeys cost more than frozen, you won't get much more for your money. This is because the U.S.D.A. allows turkeys designated as "fresh" to be chilled as low as 26°F which is well below the freezing point of water. This allows ice crystals to form and the meat to begin drying out just as it would in a fully frozen bird.
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    When to Buy Frozen turkeys should be purchased to give enough time to defrost, and brine.
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    Turkey Weight - Thawing Time in Refrigerator 4 - 12 lbs. 1 - 3 days 12 - 16 lbs. 3 - 4 day 16 - 20 lbs. 4 - 5 days 20 - 24 lbs. 5 - 6 days
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    Turkey Weight - Thawing Time in Cold Water 4 - 12 lbs. 2 - 6 hours 12 - 16 lbs. 6 - 8 hours 16 - 20 lbs. 8 - 10 hours 20 - 24 lbs. 10 - 12 hours
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    Fresh turkeys will keep in the fridge for about two days; however, you can (and should) preorder the fresh turkey well ahead of time, so that they don’t run out. I order my turkeys two months in advance.
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    Final Thoughts Whatever turkey you purchase, cook it with love and serve it to good friends and family, and you will never go wrong. Keep the faith, and keep cooking.