Let’s Talk Turkey


In less than two weeks Americans will be celebrating Thanksgiving, and the main attraction of the day is turkey.  If  you have been shopping for a turkey lately, you may have noticed the wide selection of  turkeys and the countless claims on the packaging.  Here is a list  of turkey terms to help you  to sort it all out.

Hen Or Tom - A hen turkey is a  female turkey.  Hens  weigh between 8 and 16 pounds.  A Tom turkey is a male turkey and weighs between 18 and 32 pounds.  There is no difference in flavor or texture, they are equally as tender, at least that’s what the USDA website says.

Young Turkey - Turkeys that are under eight months old are considered  to be young turkeys, they can be male or female.  On a side note, turkeys reach their maturity between 4 and 5 months.

Frozen – A turkey that is chilled to 0 degrees or below is considered a frozen turkey. To thaw a frozen turkey, place in refrigerator and allow about one day  for every 4 pounds.  A turkey can also be thawed in cold water in its packaging by submerging  the turkey in water and changing the water every 30 minutes to make sure it stays cold.  Thawing in water will take approximately 30 minutes per pound.  Turkeys should be cooked immediately after they have been thawed.

Self Basting  or Basted –  According to the  USDA website, a self basted turkey is one that is  injected or marinated with a solution containing butter or other edible fat, broth, stock or water plus spices, flavor enhancers and other approved substances.  I wonder what the other approved substances might be?  I think I will baste my own turkey.

Fresh- A fresh turkey is one that has never been chilled below 26 degrees.     A fresh turkey should be cooked no later than two days after the  “sell by” date that is on the label.  I  noticed in my supermarket that the  “fresh” turkeys have sell by dates that are two to three weeks out. I wonder just how fresh they really are?    It seems that fresh only means that the turkey hasn’t been frozen.

Natural –  Natural is a turkey that has minimally processed with no artificial ingredients added.  It does not mean that turkeys have not been fed antibiotics nor does it  not mean free range or organic.

Kosher – Kosher turkeys have been raised and processed with strict guidelines  under rabbinical supervision.  Kosher does not restrict use of antibiotics, or pesticides in feed.

Raised Without Hormones -  The use of hormones in poultry and their feed is not allowed, so this claim means nothing.

Free Range – Free range means that the turkey has  been allowed access to the outside.  The USDA does not specify the quality, size or duration of  the outside access.

Cage Free – Cage free turkeys  have  not been raised in cages,  but it does not mean that they have access to the outdoors either.  There is no standard definition for cage free, and many cage free claims are not certified.

Organic- Organic turkeys have been fed only organic food with no animal by-products and were never given antibiotics. Organic turkeys must have continuous access to the outdoors,  and must be certified organic by a third party.

Pasture Raised – Pasture raised turkeys are  raised in a pasture and can freely roam  and forage for food that they are intended to eat.  Products with an Animal Welfare Approved label must be raised on pasture or range. Certified organic meat must also come from animals that have continuous access to pasture.

A Few Words About Supermarket Turkeys

Most people shop for their Thanksgiving turkey in the super market, and  that is where you will find the largest variety. While searching for the perfect bird, remember to read the ingredients list.  It’s not  just the self basting turkeys that have extra ingredients,  if you see the words minimally processed, keep reading.   Here is what you might find on the label: INGREDIENTSWhole Young Turkey. Contains up to 8% of a solution of Water, Salt, Spices, and Natural Flavor.  If you choose a minimally processed turkey, be sure to check the sodium content which  varies depending on the brand.

Farm Raised Turkeys

If you are looking for the ultimate real fresh turkey, I suggest you check out a local  family farm.  I am fortunate to live near several farms and that is always my first choice.   If you are curious about how  a farm raises their turkey before you purchase one, check out the farm’s website or ask the farmer.  Some are pasture raised eating a natural diet while others  are free range, and  fed food that their body is not accustomed to eating.

And now for some turkey trivia . . .

In case you ever wondered where turkeys came from, I found this little tidbit on the USDA website:

Turkey is a large, widely domesticated North American bird with white plumage and a bare, wattled head and neck. The name turkey was originally applied to an African bird now known as the guinea fowl, which was believed to have originated in Turkey. When the Europeans came upon the American turkey, they thought it was the same bird as the African guinea fowl, and so gave it the name turkey, although the two species are quite distinct.

Are you cooking Thanksgiving dinner this year?  If so, where do you get your Thanksgiving Turkey from?

Sources:  Environmental Working Group Meat Eaters Guide; USDA, Turkey Farm to Table