Much like eggs or beef, turkeys come with all sorts of words written on their packaging. Words like “heritage,” “air-chilled,” “kosher,” and “pre-basted” all tell you something about how the bird was raised and/or processed, or at least they claim to. Here are the most common turkey terms you might encounter in the wilds of the grocery store, along with what they really mean.
Is a fresh turkey better than frozen?
Though turkeys are certainly capable of behaving in an inappropriate manner, a fresh turkey is not a bird that got a little too forward at the office holiday party. According to the USDA, a fresh turkey is one that has never been stored below 26℉ and is “consistent with consumer expectations of ‘fresh’ poultry, i.e., not hard to the touch or frozen solid.” The term “fresh” does not tell you anything about how the turkey was raised or processed, only the temperature at which it was stored. Fresh poultry should be used within one or two days, or frozen until ready for use.
A frozen turkey is just that—a turkey that has been stored at or below 0℉ and is solid to the touch. These are the turkeys you are probably used to seeing at the grocery store. They’re wrapped in plastic and usually say “previously frozen” somewhere on the packaging. Most frozen turkeys are flash frozen (frozen very quickly) to help maintain the turkey’s texture and flavor. Frozen turkeys are much easier to find, and much cheaper, than fresh turkeys, which usually have to be special ordered or purchased from a farm, co-op, bougie grocery store like Whole Foods, or specialty shop like Williams-Sonoma.
In terms of taste, I’ve never met anyone who could tell me with 100% certainty that a fresh turkey tasted better than one that had been frozen. Though I’m sure such a person exists, I doubt they will be at your dinner table.
Should you get a water-chilled or air-chilled bird?
The USDA requires all poultry to be chilled to at least 40℉ within four hours of slaughter, and this is either done by air-chilling or water-chilling. Water-chilling is exactly what it sounds like: The bird carcasses are submerged in an ice bath, which lowers the temperature, but does allow the bird to absorb water (anywhere from 2-12% of its body mass), and extra water can lead to a mushy texture and diluted flavor. According to poultry distributor D’artagnan, air-chilling is a little more elaborate, but ultimately worth it:
In the air-chilling process, chickens are suspended separately from a track that moves through several chambers. In the first, cold purified air is run over each bird, which quickly reduces its body temperature. Then, depending on the system used, the chickens will cycle through one or two more chilled chambers for anywhere up to 3 ½ hours. The air-chilling process takes longer than the water bath, but many feel the results are worth the time.
Buying an air-chilled turkey (or any poultry) also means that you’re paying for carcass only, not carcass plus any water it may have absorbed during the chilling process.
Does a pre-basted bird taste better than a “natural” one?
A pre-basted turkey (also called “self-basting” or simply “basted”) is a turkey that has been injected with an aqueous solution containing salt, sugar, broth, fat, and other flavorings. According to Taste of Home, the solution can be up to 3% of a whole turkey’s total weight, or 8% of the weight of boneless pieces.
The upside is that the turkey is already flavored—and flavored consistently throughout—so you could conceivably skip a step, but you relinquish some control over flavor, and might not like the flavor at all. Brining a pre-basted turkey can result in it being too salty, so it’s best not to double up, but Cook’s Illustrated noted in their 2022 Thanksgiving issue that a lot of these pre-flavored birds taste “mild” and “bland.”. If you want a streamlined, brine-free turkey cooking experience, and don’t mind a mildly-flavored turkey, a pre-basted bird might be for you; but if you don’t trust someone else to flavor your bird, it’s best to look for a “natural” turkey.
A natural turkey is just a turkey that hasn’t had anything added to it, including artificial flavorings, coloring, or preservatives, and has been “minimally processed.” It does not, however tell you anything about the turkey’s diet, or how it was raised, and whether it was treated with antibiotics, though antibiotics in your turkey meat is not something you really have to worry about. According to the USDA, any turkeys that were treated with antibiotics are required to go through a “withdrawal period” before slaughter to allow the antibiotics to make their way out of the turkey’s system. Even if they were treated for illness, you will not be eating the antibiotics they were treated with. One thing you never have to worry about, however, is the presence of hormones, as no hormones have been approved by the USDA for use in turkeys.
What about a kosher turkey?
Kosher turkeys are similar to pre-basted birds in that they come slightly pre-flavored, but the process is a much more specific, and the only additives are salt and water. We’ve written about the benefits of kosher turkeys before, but just to re-cap:
What makes a turkey kosher? There are multiple explanations (some longer than others), but I’ll stick to the short one here: kosher turkeys are slaughtered quickly and humanely, cleaned in cold water only, and thoroughly salted and rinsed to drain out every last remnant of blood. Cold water keeps the meat super-fresh during cleaning and processing, but the salting is the key step. As any cook worth their salt (I’m so sorry) knows, increasing the sodium content of meat helps it retain moisture during cooking—especially if it’s going to get frozen, which nearly all turkeys are. Plus, to state the obvious, salt makes food taste good.
The process is designed to remove most of the salt after scrubbing, so you can still brine your kosher bird if you want to, but it’s not strictly necessary. Kosher birds cook up juicy and flavorful with a last-minute olive oil massage and healthy sprinkling of salt (just make sure to get under the skin).
What does “free-range” mean?
According to the USDA, a “free-range” or “free-roaming” turkey is one that has “has been allowed access to the outside.” According to Taste of Home, when poultry farmer submit their labels for approval by the USDA, the “farmers must include a description of the turkey’s quarters, which is confirmed by a third party, to ensure they qualify for the ‘free-range’ distinction.”
The term “Cage-free” can be a bit misleading, as a lot of poultry is raised in large barns, which are not technically “cages,” but can still be quite cramped. Ignore this phrasing unless the distributor provides more detailed information (the square footage per turkey in their barn, for example).
What’s a heritage bird?
Heritage turkeys are a type of turkey breed that is “closer” to the turkey that would have been hunted and eaten by Native Americans before colonialism and capitalism altered the bird forever. These turkeys are usually raised in more humane environments, without antibiotics. Beyond that, there are few other requirements a farm must meet to call their birds “heritage.” According to The Livestock Conservancy, this includes natural mating for at least two generations, a long productive outdoor lifespan (including “a genetic ability to withstand the environmental rigors of outdoor production systems”), and a slow growth rate, “giving the birds time to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass.” This means longer legs, more fat, and a deeper flavor, but a higher price tag.
At the end of the day (Thanksgiving Day, to be exact) the best turkey is the one you enjoy eating, so buy a frozen Butterball if that’s what works for you, or shell out the extra dough for a fancy heritage bird. I would avoid water-chilled birds, however. I don’t like paying for water.
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