In the EatingWell Test Kitchen, we've roasted dozens of turkeys—both all-natural and conventional—in our quest for the best roast turkey feast. Here's what you need to know.
Related: Our Best Roast Turkey Recipes
Plan on about 1 pound per person when buying your turkey. Remember, this weight accounts for the portion of the turkey you don't eat, like the bones and weight lost during cooking.
Conventional birds are often "prebasted" or "self-basting," meaning that the turkey is injected with a solution that can contain broth, stock, water, seasonings, salt and/or other flavor. This can account for up to 3 percent of the net weight of the bird. The label must include all of the ingredients in the solution. The Broad-Breasted White—the breed of most conventional turkeys—was bred to grow quickly, producing a lot of meat fast, particularly in the breast area. Conventional birds (with added salt solution) stay moister, but if you're watching your sodium intake, avoid them. If you're planning to brine your turkey, choose an all-natural bird without any added water and sodium solution.
Heritage breeds, such as Royal Palm, Bourbon Red and Slate, are older registered breeds of turkey. A varied diet of plants, grasses and insects gives heritage breeds a more nuanced flavor than conventional turkeys. If rich and gamy is what you crave, order a wild turkey from D'Artagnan (dartagnan.com). They have Eastern Wild Turkeys in the 9-pound range available from September through March.
Certified organic poultry standards prohibit all use of antibiotics and hormones. (Hormone use in poultry production—even conventional—has been banned since 1959.) All feed is vegetarian and certified organic—including pastureland—which means that it is not treated with pesticides or herbicides and cannot be genetically modified. Animals have access to pasture, sunlight and enough land for exercise, and grazing is done in a manner that does not degrade the land through erosion or contamination. Animal cloning is forbidden. Localharvest.org lists local farms and online sources for organic turkeys.
Since USDA-certified organic labeling requires that animals be traced from birth to slaughter (including feed sources and medications), problems related to animal diseases and human foodborne illness can be easily traced to the source. Keep in mind: while organic doesn't necessarily mean grass-fed, certified organic livestock generally graze on open-range land three to six months longer than conventionally raised livestock to reach market size.
Refrigerate or freeze turkey as soon as possible after purchase. If freezing turkey for longer than two weeks, wrap in heavy-duty foil, freezer paper or freezer bags to prevent freezer burn.
To thaw out a frozen bird, the turkey experts at Butterball recommend two different types of thawing: refrigeration or cold water.
The refrigerator method involves leaving your turkey breast-side up in the fridge for a few days. Allow at least one day of thawing for every 4 pounds. So for a 10-pound turkey, that's about 3 days.
A cold-water thaw is also an option if you need to thaw the turkey faster: Put the turkey breast-side down in cold water, changing out the water every half hour to keep the turkey properly chilled. It takes approximately 30 minutes per pound for the turkey to thaw this way. So for a 10-pound turkey, that's about 5 hours.