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How To Pick A Healthy Thanksgiving Turkey

There are a dizzying array of options in the store when it comes to selecting something as seemingly simple as Thanksgiving turkey. How do you decide which one is best for you?
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Many of us strive to be responsible with what types of food we put on the table for our families and loved ones. And our attention to this effort can be heightened when it's time to set lavish spreads for holiday meals such as Thanksgiving.

There are a dizzying array of options in the store when it comes to selecting something as seemingly simple as Thanksgiving turkey. How do you decide which one is best for you?

What I usually tell people is buy the highest quality you can afford. While there can be significant taste differences between standard turkeys and their heritage-bred cousins (and, for the adventurous, wild turkeys), perhaps more vital is how the birds are raised and prepared.

I hope this brief guide will help you wade through the confusing labels and names as you go shopping for your Thanksgiving (or any meal, really).

It's important to take these labels as general guidelines, though. Infinitely more important is knowing where your bird came from and being confident in the producer. There are cases, unfortunately, where producers skirt the rules to gain certification but don't honor the spirit of the designation. Likewise, many birds can be raised ethically and sustainably with no indication of such. And best poultry probably comes with the least packaging, anyway.

Types of Turkeys


The term "organic" is a moving target, and the labeling of food as such can be contentious. However, any birds labeled "certified organic" by the USDA have been fed approved organic grains (in accordance with a list of rules), have not been treated with antibiotics or given growth hormones and have been given freedom of movement. You can find other conditions that producers must meet to earn a "certified organic" label at the USDA's site.


If you see "free-range" on the package or you are told the bird you are ordering is free-range, that means it has not spent its entire life confined to a cage and was given, again, freedom of movement and "access" to the outdoors, but it may have been kept in a barn. Unfortunately, this is a label that can lead to some dishonesty, since producers need only have an exit to the outdoors available to the turkeys, and they may never actually get outside and there are no limits to how many turkeys can be stuffed into a barn. Again, this is where it's important to trust your producer and source.


This goes one step beyond "free-range": These birds have open and unfettered access to the outdoors and are left free to wander as they see fit. Sometimes though (often), they just want to sit around. These birds graze in the outdoors, and, because of a diet high in grasses, its meat will be higher in Omega 3 fats (a good fat), though it may be leaner than what you are used to.


All of the above turkeys would be raised on a vegetarian-fed diet, meaning their diets are free of all animal by-products (though they may not adhere to the strict standards set out for organic certification). Turkeys are naturally vegetarian (except for pecking at a few worms and bugs), but often large commercial farms put animal byproducts from their other operations in the turkeys's feed.


There are many different types of heritage-bred turkeys -- American Bronze, Narragansett and Bourbon Reds, to name just a few -- too many to list here, and these are the equivalent of the heirloom tomatoes of the poultry world. Unlike Broad-breasted turkeys (the common supermarket birds you are likely used to, which have been cross-bred to create birds with more meat -- though not more flavor). The heritage-bred turkeys still breed naturally (the common domestic turkey is the result of artificial insemination), graze on grasses, bugs and worms, and they do run and fly (consequently they are leaner and have much smaller breasts, so you won't want to roast them as long or they'll dry out). They may have distinct flavors and appearances that vary drastically from their hybrid cousins.


Some conventionally-raised turkeys are given antibiotics -- not because they're sick, but because it helps them grow faster. An antibiotic-free label is your assurance that this was not the case. To meet "certified organic" specifications, a bird must be ABF-free, so the labeling may also indicate that the bird did not meet all the other standards necessary to be considered organic.


Fresh, never-frozen (or "air-chilled")

As the name implies, the meat has never been frozen. It's generally recommended to get a fresh, never-frozen turkey (sometimes called air-chilled) if you can find one. These can be ordered in advance at many finer markets and butchers. The result will be a juicier and more flavorful cooked turkey, since freezing tends to dry out the meat. There is no guidance given by the USDA as to how long a "fresh" bird may be stored, just that it can never be frozen, so there is no guarantee of getting a bird that has been freshly slaughtered. However, if you know and trust your producer or supplier (such as your local butcher, which is one way of ordering I recommend), you can be more confident.


This is self-explanatory. The birds are put in a deep freeze to last throughout storage and shipping and the meat will be dryer and less flavorful because of this. You can expect to pay 20 - 30 cents more a pound for "fresh" turkeys, but it's worth it.


The term natural does not refer to how the turkey was raised, but how it was processed after slaughter. To earn this designation the only requirement is that the bird must not have been injected with preservatives or anti-microbials or other additives, such as artificial flavor or coloring.


Kosher turkeys are slaughtered in kosher slaughterhouses. Besides being a approved by a rabbi, these facilities also follow specific rules based on Jewish law. After the feathers are removed, the birds are soaked in cold water and heavily salted. This creates a sort of pre-brine, and whether or not they buy the bird for religious reasons, many people who enjoy brined-cooking prefer the convenience of not having to do this themselves.


If you see this on the label of a frozen turkey -- it may also say this been done to "enhance moistness" or some such similar nonsense -- run far away. Freezing does dry out the meat, as I said above, but a yucky solution of salt, sodium phosphates, sugar and artificial flavoring will do nothing for your feast.

At the links below you'll find resources for to help you find various natural, free-range, pastured, organic and heritage-bred birds.

Resource Links

Check out Local Harvest to find a local turkey farmers near you:

Mary's Turkeys located in California ships its free-range or pastured birds around the country.

On Nov. 17 I'll be hosting a chat on Twitter using the hashtag #turkeytalk where you'll have the opportunity to ask all of your questions about buying a turkey, cooking it and planning a Thanksgiving meal.

You can follow me on Twitter @cherylforbergrd and look for the #turkeytalk chat on Thursday Nov. 17 starting at 6 p.m. EST.

During the Twitter chat we'll also be giving away some goodies to help you to get started preparing a healthy holiday meal, including that all-important centerpiece: a free-range turkey from Willie Bird. (You must live within the contiguous U.S. to be eligible to win.) Also included in the prize pack will be a gift basket from Melissa's Produce full of onions, potatoes, mushrooms, squash, garlic, rice, herbs and more. Join in the chat for your chance to win!