7 Terms to Know When Picking Out Your First Thanksgiving Turkey

By Farrah Shaikh |

© Ewing Galloway / Alamy

Whether this is your first time hosting Thanksgiving or Friendsgiving, the turkey situation can be daunting. The key to a tasty result is starting with a good bird, but when you get to the grocery store you are faced with multiple options like organic, heritage, free-range…and Butterball. What does this all mean? We asked Theo Weening, Whole Foods’ global meat coordinator and resident turkey expert, to walk us through the many varieties of turkeys.

1. Heritage

One of the most popular birds in the past few years because of their superior flavor, heritage turkeys are purebred and generally older than other turkeys you may find at the store. They tend to be smaller, have more bone and darker leg meat. Life outdoors gives these turkeys a gamier taste than the regular store-bought varieties. According to Weening, many of the birds, due to their coloring, may have specks of black or brown when the turkey is cooked. 

2. Organic

Certified organic by the USDA, these turkeys are now more easily found in grocery stores, and are Weening’s top choice. They are fed an all-organic vegetarian diet, never given antibiotics and are raised on organic pastures. They tend to be a little more expensive because the feed the birds eat is more expensive.

3. Free-Range

No antibiotics or hormones are given to these turkeys and they have access to the outdoors (at least part of the time, according to the USDA).

4. Pastured Turkeys

This type of turkey is raised outdoors and is pretty much free to do and eat what it wants, although they are also given feed to ensure they get the proper levels of nutrients.

5. Kosher

Kosher turkeys are raised and processed according to strict rabbinical guidelines. Before they are packaged they are rubbed with Kosher salt, which also acts as a brine.

6. Brined

Some turkeys are one step ahead of you and have been brined already. Various juices, oils, seasonings, sugar and/or salt are injected into the turkey. Brining is beneficial because it can provide extra moisture and flavor to the turkey in addition to saving you some prep time, but it can dictate the flavor of your turkey and take the seasoning out of your hands. Butterball turkeys are usually brined.

7. Fresh (vs. Frozen)

According to Weening, fresh turkeys are kept at a temperature of 27 degrees. When the temperature drops below that, the meat begins to freeze. If you’re buying a fresh turkey, buy it no more than two days before you plan to cook it; you can usually reserve one at markets and farmers’ markets way in advance. 

In the end it comes down to what you want to pay. Turkeys can get pricey, so know how many you are buying for and be sure to take into account the leftovers you want to eat for days to come. 

Related: Thanksgiving Dinner in 5 Shots 
This Thanksgiving Loaf is the Most Efficient Way to Use Your Thanksgiving Leftovers 
Kick the Can: 5 Incredibly Easy Ways to Avoid Jellied Cranberries This Thanksgiving