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Thursday, May 23, 2024

How to pick your Thanksgiving turkey: a briefing for home cooks


Thanksgiving is in 10 days, on Nov. 24th, but, as many home cooks know, planning, shopping and cooking for the event starts earlier in the month.

Central to the event is the turkey. North Carolina is the nation’s second – largest producer of turkeys after Minnesota, and it’s home to Butterball, the largest retail producer of turkeys. In fact, in 2013 North Carolina produced the greatest total value of turkeys – in part due to the higher price of organic and heritage breed birds – despite Minnesota producing a greater quantity. That means a North Carolinian has a lot of choices to make in the week leading up to Thanksgiving.

Below are some critical factors in how and when you choose your bird.

Will you brine?

Brining is a prolonged soak  – from 24 to 48 hours – of a thawed turkey in salty water, often with herbs and spices added. The process works best when the turkey is minimally processed and does not contain any salt-solutions or preservatives, information home cooks can find on the label of their turkey. G. William Copeland, a personal chef and caterer who has worked at some of Wilmington’s top restaurants, described the process:

“I will put my bird in a large well-cleaned bucket or stock pot, the biggest one I can find that will still fit in the refrigerator, and fill it with a brine. It could be as simple as just salt and water. I like to add some aromatics,  bay leaves, thyme, black peppercorns, garlic, but whatever the combination, the solution must taste like the ocean. Very salty. Twenty four hours can do the trick, but two days in advance just feels right. Then I’ll rinse it right before cooking.”

Brining adds flavor to the bird and prevents drying out during cooking, but it takes advanced planning and a considerable about of refrigerator space.

Dean Neff, executive chef and co-owner of Pinpoint restaurant in downtown Wilmington said, “If I’m serving the bird on Thursday, I’m buying it on Monday or Tuesday and brining it. Turkey was meant to be brined, but I like to do my own mix of aromatics and spices.”

Related: Where to find a fresh, local turkey for your Thanksgiving meal

Fresh vs. Frozen

Frozen turkeys can contain much more than just turkey. Chefs agree, check the label.

While the National Turkey Federation claims that “flash frozen…is virtually the same freshness as the day it was processed,” even flash-freezing can create drier turkey. This is because freezing creates water crystals that rupture the cell membranes in the muscle tissue of the turkey. When these cells thaw, moisture can escape.

To compensate for this, many poultry producers will inject turkeys with a solution of salt, water and spices. These turkeys – often labeled ‘basted’ or ‘self-basted’ – can include artificial preservatives and flavoring, which can cause a turkey to taste overly salty. Preservative and flavoring also mask the actual flavor of the turkey and prevent a cook from choosing what flavors he or she wants to add to the turkey.

Copeland described the best case scenario for freshness: “Ideally, one would go to a local turkey farm, where they are raised in an open free range environment and organically fed. Then thank the creature for allowing you to feed your family. Then humanely slaughter it. Pluck and eviscerate it. That process, I’m sure, is hard for most Americans. So, when shopping in your favorite grocery store, I personally would go for an organic, “never frozen” bird, with no added ingredients, just turkey.”

Fresh turkey does, however, have a very short shelf-life and can be considerably more expensive than frozen turkey. Neff and Copeland both recommended anyone using a frozen turkey make sure the bird was minimally processed and contained only turkey and water.

A full sized bird can often take four days to completely defrost, and two days to brine, so buying a frozen bird an entire week ahead is advised.

Frozen turkeys can be brined just like fresh turkeys, but home cooks should remember thawing can take as long as 24 hours for every five pounds of turkey. A full sized bird can often take four days to completely defrost, and two days to brine, so buying a frozen bird an entire week ahead is advised.

Organic vs. All-Natural vs. Free-Range vs. Local vs. Heritage

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These labels can be confusing and occasionally misleading. “Free range” and “cage free” mean that the birds have access to an exterior yard which, in general, allows for healthier birds. Free range birds develop in size through exercise rather than over-feeding. However, the label serves as no guarantee of quality of life, hygiene, diet or processing.

“Organic” guarantees that the no antibiotics or chemical pesticides were used on either the turkeys or their feed and that the turkeys were given free range access to outdoor spaces. However, organic labeling costs farms money because the inspections and certifications are done by third party businesses, not the government. These means that many smaller farms cannot afford to label their product organic, even though they are abiding by the same high-standards of production.

In other words, a home cook looking for an organic turkey may be better off looking for a local farm with high standards and lower prices.

While “natural” has no FDA-recognized meaning for the majority of food products, meat and poultry labeled “natural” or “all-natural” must obey certain restrictions: no artificial flavors, coloring, ingredients, chemical preservatives or any other artificial or synthetic ingredients. Natural turkeys, unlike organic ones, can contain antibiotics. Some turkeys will also be labeled ‘no added hormones,’ but this label has no practical meaning.

“That’s complete nonsense. It’s true, but it’s a distraction,” said Mack Fleming, who ran the produce department at Wilmington’s Tidal Creek Coop for several years, sourcing their turkeys for Thanksgiving. “By law you can’t use hormones or steroids in poultry. So you don’t get credit for not breaking the law.”

“By law you can’t use hormones or steroids in poultry. So you don’t get credit for not breaking the law.” — Mack Fleming

“Local” can also be a confusing label, although with a little research it is rarely misleading. There is no official definition of ‘local’ – some stores and producers use a 500 mile radius, or the state boundaries, or other rubrics – but North Carolina has many farms, so finding one that is local enough to actually visit is not difficult. (Port City Daily will be providing information on local turkey farms in the Cape Fear area later this week.)

Example of ‘heritage’ turkey labeling. (Courtesy D’Artagnan)

Lastly, something a home cook is less likely to see in a grocery store is the “heritage” birds, turkeys with distinct genetic markers that allow farmers to trace them to wild birds. The term is not sanctioned or monitored by the government. However, when visiting local farms – or researching them online – the home cook should look for bird that have long life spans, natural breeding patterns, and slow physical development.

These birds have a more even distribution of body mass, unlike the breast-heavy birds of most industrial farms, and have a gamier flavor, which is more akin to guinea hen or other wild bird. They are also typically older than the young turkeys sold by larger producers.

Heritage birds are generally expensive, with average-sized heritage turkeys routinely costing over $100.

Picking your turkey is just step one. Check back with Port City Daily later throughout the week for more Thanksgiving meal tips and information.

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