Regardless of your feelings about the taste of the bird, turkey is obviously the traditional go-to for any authentic Thanksgiving feast. If you’ve waited until now to pick up a turkey—ballsy!—you’re gonna want to scoop one up, stat.
But choosing the perfect poultry is going to cost you whether you go frozen or refrigerated; conventional birds can start at around $20 and get as pricey as $80, depending on the labels slapped on. What's the difference between "no hormones" and "no antibiotics"? How can you make the best choice for your family? That's where we come in. Here's our quick guide to deciphering those cryptic labels.
Modern turkey producers typically flash-freeze meat, which minimizes the amount of damage that can happen when defrosting. With a frozen turkey you’ll need to leave at least a few days to defrost, so if you prefer minimal prep time, grab a fresh bird. (Our resident Food Editor recommends going fresh for the most reliable flavor and texture.)
This label doesn’t guarantee that your turkey is fresh from the farm—it just means that it's never been brought below 26 degrees Fahrenheit.
Kind of obvious, eh? This bird is as hard as a hockey puck, and has been frozen at 0 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’re opting for frozen, give yourself at least a few days to defrost the turkey in your fridge (it’s the safest!).
Hard Chilled / Previously Frozen:
A kind of vague label that indicates your turkey could have been frozen at one point, or has been preserved between 0 to 25 degrees F, which is considered "hard chilled."
What might matter a little more than fresh versus frozen is paying attention to the values listed. If you’d buy organic, antibiotic-free meat during any other time of the year, you’ll probably want to follow suit for the star of your Thanksgiving dinner table. Here are details on some of the most common value labels you'll spot on turkeys.
The USDA Organic label is one of the strongest because of the stringent requirement that producers prove that at least 95 percent of the ingredients in a product are certified organic—no GMOs allowed. When it comes to meat and poultry, certified organic animals have to be raised without being exposed to conventional pesticides artificial fertilizers, antibiotics, growth hormones, or GMOs. Plus, these animals have been raised on organic feed and had access to the outdoors.
Hate to break it to you, but this label basically means nothing. This label is totally unregulated by the FDA, which means that manufacturers can slap a “natural” label on pretty much anything in order to make it more attractive to consumers.
Exactly as it says—you won’t find any antibiotics in this animal. Although the USDA is accountable for this label, they don’t do a great job verifying whether products contain antibiotics or not. You’ll have to trust that the manufacturer is honest.
Considering that hormones are already prohibited in poultry production, this label is redundant … and probably exists just to convince you to buy.
"Free-range" only means a bird was not confined inside a small cage, and “has been allowed access to the outside.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that your turkey was roaming free outside for its entire life, but it probably spent the majority of its time outside.
Fun fact: 95 percent of turkeys are raised in open houses, according to the ASPCA. That means most turkeys are by definition cage-free; this label suggests that the turkey may have only seen the outdoors a few minutes a day, as opposed to free-range birds.
This label is typically found on animals that are traditional breeds, and are more difficult to come by. But raising heritage breeds supports biodiversity, which is why they’re worth seeking out even though they're more rare.
Our recommendation? A fresh, organic, free-range turkey is about as eco-friendly and healthy as you can get. Try brining your bird for extra flavor, and keep your preparation simple for maximum flavor—a little garlic, coconut oil, and salt, and you're ready to eat!
Photo credit: Paul Delmont