Choosing a turkey

Let's Talk Turkey

by John Smith


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Purchasing the right turkey at Thanksgiving can be a great opportunity to save money and get a good quality product worthy of a holiday spread. Yes it is true. You can do both. I am a butcher. For the last 25 Thanksgivings shoppers have come to me for help in choosing just the right turkey for their holiday feast and frankly I'm getting a little tired of it. It's time to educate. Its time to talk turkey.

There are 3 main questions that I am asked every year without fail. Where's the cold beer, do you have fresh dip, and how do you fix buffalo wings? No, wait, sorry, those are the Super Bowl questions.

The 3 most commonly asked questions by consumers at Turkey Time are #1. Where are the turkeys? Maybe I'd better make it the 4 most commonly asked questions at Thanksgiving. How about we skip that one and go to #1.

Which brand is best? A very good question you might think, if you hadn't heard it 16,000 times a year for the last 25 years. Ok, in answer to the first question let's talk about what I like to refer to as The Best Turkey Myth. The best turkey according to the majority of consumers is the one they are most familiar with. This means the turkey with the best advertising campaign is the one that shoppers are inclined to purchase the most. Since advertising costs are high the cost of the well known name brand turkey will be also. Just because a turkey has a brand name that you recognize doesn't mean that it will be the best turkey.

It just means that it is well known. Now on the other hand there are turkeys with all sorts of unfamiliar labels being used as holiday 'leader' items. These are the buy one get one free or the buy $50 worth of groceries and get a turkey free or the really down and dirty cheap turkeys all used to lure the poor unsuspecting shopper into their store. These turkeys may have obscure brand names but they are often the very same turkey as the well known brand name turkeys. Many of the large turkey processors put several different labels on their turkeys. In fact many large supermarket chains have their own brand name turkeys which are quite often the very same turkey as the local big name brand turkey. These store brand turkeys are excellent turkeys and are quite often the stores' 'leader' turkey, meaning you can get them cheap.

There is no discernable difference in most brand names so just go with the cheapest. I have always purchased the very cheapest birds for our family holiday and they have been very good and I have sold tens of thousands of the same with the same consistent results.

The trick in choosing the right turkey is not in the brand name which leads us to question number #2. Which turkey is freshest? Or how do I know if this turkey is fresh? Now before we go any further let me make one thing perfectly clear. It's not our fault. Please do not get angry at the butcher if your fresh turkey is as hard as a rock. They come in that way. According to the people who make the laws of this great country turkeys can be called fresh even though the moisture in the bird is frozen. You will find that if you press very firmly on the bird that the meat is not frozen. The turkey processors have it down to a science. They bring the temperature of the birds down to the very legal limit before sending them off to the store up to 2 weeks before Thanksgiving so that your fresh turkey will be nice and fresh for your holiday meal.

That's right, we receive our fresh turkeys almost a full 2 weeks before Thanksgiving. Now please do not overreact to this. The turkeys are in great shape and will serve you well. In the old days we used to get them a full 3 weeks early and they were fine too. It's just in answer to question #2 the freshest turkey is really a frozen turkey. Frozen turkeys are quick frozen immediately after butchering. Also the freezing process has no noticeable effect upon the quality of the bird. The frozen turkey will generally be much cheaper than the fresh turkey too.

Ok, so now we know that fresh turkeys are not the freshest turkeys available and not to worry about the brand name. I hope you are all taking notes. So now for the final and most important question of the 3 most commonly asked questions #3. How do we choose the right turkey? Actually its quite simple. Select the plumpest bird in your desired weight class (not your own personal weight class but the weight of the turkey). For instance you want a 15 pounder. Look over all the 15 pounders and select the plumpest. Some 15 pounders will be slim some will be fat. Some turkeys are flat chested and some are kind of bony. Choose the most rounded and plump turkey. It's that easy. If a bird is skinny it could mean it wasn't a very healthy bird and might be tough and dry. Also the bone and fat will cost you just as much as the meat so more meat less waste is better. Another thing to know is that the larger the turkey the better the good useable meat to bone and fat ratio. Bigger sometimes is better.

One other question gets asked a lot. What is the difference between a Tom and a Hen Turkey? Now if you're old enough to drive down to the local supermarket and purchase a turkey for Thanksgiving you would think that you would know the answer to this question. The truth is most folks don't. The turkey people who process all these millions of birds do not have time to do a thorough survey or give any kind of exam. What they do is separate the birds by their size. Most all of the birds that dress out 16 pounds or more are usually called toms and all the 15 pound and smaller are hens.

Ok, lets go over what we have learned. In choosing a turkey do not worry about a getting a certain brand unless you own stock in the company. The freshest turkey is a frozen turkey, pick the plumpest turkey you can find and Toms are big and Hens are small. Another thing, turkeys can be a great value at Thanksgiving, it's a good time to fill your freezer. Don't buy $50 worth of groceries to get a free turkey unless you intend to do your shopping there and do not purchase anything except what you need at the right price. Watch out for buy one and get one free adds. Chances are you can do better than that. Do the math and have a great holiday.


John Smith has been a butcher/meat cutter for 30+ years. He's written the book Confessions of a Butcher - eat steak on a hamburger budget and save$$$. You can check some of his archived articles at all-about-meat.com or post any meat related question and get it answered usually within 24 hours. John, his wife Vickie and their 8 kids live in eastern Idaho in the shadow of the Tetons.

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