In our modern day and age, we've really managed to complicate even the most simplest of tasks. Like which turkey to use for Thanksgiving.
Back in the day, you'd shoot the one you wanted. End of discussion. He was all-natural, hormone-free, free-range to his little gobble heart's content. Your biggest problem was cooking his ass.
Nowadays we have many different options. Frankly too many options in my opinion. Fresh or frozen? Which is better? Does free-range really taste different? What the hell is a kosher turkey anyway? Yes, we often find ourselves a week before Thanksgiving staring at the aisle in our markets going "huh?" while life seems to just pass us by.
So the million dollar question this Thanksgiving is How Do I Choose A Turkey?
And here's my answer....
...it doesn't fucking matter. It's totally up to you. Many "purists" would have you buy fresh, from the farm, yada yada and that's great. I've also worked with frozen with great results. It's totally up to your own personal preferences. But let me break it down for you further to help you along...
1. Fresh or Frozen?
Here's the biggest difference between fresh turkeys and frozen ones: the fresh ones aren't and never were frozen. They've remained above 26 degrees. Technically, a turkey doesn't freeze at 32 degrees like liquid. Betcha didn't know that! Nope -- 26 is the magic number for old Sam there. So for a turkey to be considered "fresh" he needs to be kept over 26 degrees. Fresh versus frozen is more an issue of where the turkey is coming from. Some farms prepare their turkeys and freeze them as early as the winter before Thanksgiving. Yup -- that's about a year old there. Meats can stay frozen that long with no repercussions, except it will dull the flavor a bit in the sense you won't get that quitessentail Turkey Taste.
Turkey is a gamier meat than chicken. Although similar in texture and color, it definitely has a distinct gamy (read: "wild") taste to it. Frozen turkeys tend to taste less gamy because the freezing process sort of dulls them, while the fresher the turkey obviously the more like turkey the turkey will taste.
So in conclusion:
If you like the taste of turkey (want a gamy taste) then definitely go with fresh turkey.
If you like a more muted turkey taste, then go with frozen.
2. Organic v. Non-Organic
You know where I come down on this one. In terms of taste there is no difference. But if you or the people you're making the dinner for (kids) are sensitive to hormones, antibiotics, etc. then definitely go for an organic turkey.
3. Kosher Turkeys and The Complication of The Brine
They also offer kosher turkeys which I think is wonderful. Kosher turkeys are already salted, inside and out. The kosher process (forgive me Jewish friends for oversimplifying it here) involves a humane slaughter of the animal by an authorized religious slaughterer called a shoshet who kills the animal with religious intent. Kosher also means all blood must be drained out of the meat (well mostly...it gets technical because blood is still in the meat but that's a whole other blog posting) so they do this process where they soak the slaughtered meat in water, then cover it in salt, then wash it again a few times. Now it's kosher meat to work with.
So in terms of cooking, if you're going to use a kosher turkey then my strong advice is to refrain from brining unless you find a kosher recipe using a specific brine that takes into account the prior Kind-Of-Brine that happened when the meat was first slaughtered.
I've read and heard that kosher turkeys are actually quite wonderfully flavorful.
4. Flavor-Injected Turkeys
Look. My mother used Butterball turkeys all my life growing up. It yielded pretty good turkeys, notwithstanding her constant overcooking the damn thing. Some turkey purveyors offer turkeys injected with flavors. At first this sounds odd and ...a little violating to the turkey frankly. But it's a wonderful flavoring technique to prepare meats. In fact serious BBQers often use injections before they smoke their meats, especially if they're working with poultry.
Injecting flavoring simply involves placing a marinade (oil, juice, herbs, seasonings) into a really, really big syringe and then shooting the turkey up with the flavored concoction. It's often concentrated in the breast where meat tends to dry out faster. Especially if you plan to smoke your turkey, I highly recommend injecting it with your own marinade or buying an injected with seasonings bird to use because the moisture you've now placed inside will keep the bird moist as it cooks over a long period time on the outside.
If you're planning to roast, you can go ahead and use one as well. Personally I've achieved a moister bird simply by roasting the damn thing properly, and as my mother has demonstrated repeatedly, you can kill a turkey twice by overcooking it. And no butter-marinade-injected nothing will help you. Crack won't help that bird wake up from that kind of oven abuse.
So it's strictly up to you whether you'd want to use one already flavored or not.
5. Size DOES matter!
Obviously the bigger the turkey the more people it feeds, so you need to take that into consideration when choosing your turkey. A good rule of thumb is 1 pound per person you're planning to serve. However, based on my personal experience feeding Europeans who eat approximately twice the amount of normal Americans, I've deduced the following chart to help you:
# of People Turkey Pounds
4 or under 6 lbs; or 1 turkey breast
6-8 10 lbs
8-10 14-16 lbs
10-12 16-18 lbs
12-14 20 lbs
14-16 20-24 lbs
16-18 24 lbs
18+ 26-30 lbs; better idea is to just get 2 turkeys at this point to ensure even cooking
My chart will feed everyone, give you leftovers, and have everyone be happy.
Hope this helps and Happy Thanksgiving! Gobble gobble!