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Bon appetit Magazine

Turkey Buying Guide

A quick and handy key to shopping for the most important part of the feast

Heritage turkeys

Fresh, frozen, free-range, organic, kosher, or wild? Keep it simple with these top three picks.

Best Bird
Fresh Heritage Turkey (up to $10 per pound)
Once teetering on the edge of extinction, these birds are descendants of the first domesticated turkeys in this country. "They have excellent genes," says Todd Wickstrom (an AFEA winner this year), who co-founded Heritage Foods USA as a way of preserving and promoting heirloom foods in America. He's emphatic in his belief that the conditions under which a turkey is raised and processed are as important as unquestionable pedigree. That's why heritage birds are pasture-raised, antibiotic-free, and natural (no additives). They're also allowed 26 to 28 weeks to develop to their full weight, which is twice as long as it takes factory-farmed birds to reach the same size. This genetic preservation and careful raising ensures a deeper, more intense flavor and a firmer texture, which is why heritage turkeys trump the industrially raised Broad breasted White, the bird most commonly found in grocers' freezers. "Heritage turkeys are delicious," says Dave Zier, owner of Zier's Prime Meats and Poultry in Wilmette, Illinois. "They're like wild turkeys, but not gamy or dry."

During the past several years, small-farm producers as well as independent distributors and butchers have joined forces, making farm-fresh heritage birds available to anyone with a car, phone, or computer.

Crossbreed Turkey (about $3 per pound)
In second place is the crossbreed turkey, which is a cross between a heritage turkey and the Broad breasted White. This bird has the heft and enormous breast we're accustomed to, but with a deeper, richer taste. When buying one of these birds in the supermarket, Rick Rodgers, cooking teacher and author of Thanksgiving 101, recommends comparing the size of the breast to the size of the rest of the bird. "Larger-breasted turkeys are new breeds that were created to produce a larger amount of meat ― not a better flavor. The smaller the ratio of breast meat to whole bird, the closer the turkey is to the original model and the more old-fashioned its flavor will be," he says. Most purveyors of crossbreed turkeys adhere to healthy raising practices, but look on the label to be sure.

The Bargain
Quality Supermarket Turkey (about $2 per pound)
The third pick is a Broad breasted White that has been locally produced and minimally processed. "The key word is local," says Rodgers. "The less a bird has to travel, the fresher it's likely to be." When buying this type of bird, let the label be your guide: You want a turkey that was raised locally on all-natural, organic feed. As with a crossbreed turkey, look for a bird with a smaller breast-to-body ratio for a purer poultry flavor.


Heritage Foods USA
On its Web site, Heritage Foods sells Bourbon Red and American Bronze turkeys from small farms across the country. (

Slow Food USA
To buy your heritage turkey directly from the source, look to the Web site of Slow Food USA for a listing of turkey farmers in your area. (

Wild Oats Natural Marketplace
This natural-foods supermarket chain (with 78 stores in 24 states) sells heritage turkeys over the holidays. (

Diestel Family Turkey Ranch
The Diestel family's American Heirloom Collection (organic broad breasted bronze turkeys) can be purchased at markets in the West and Midwest. (

Mary's Turkeys
This purveyor's turkeys are available in stores across the country. You can also pre-order them online, in which case they will be shipped frozen. (

Whole Foods Market
A supermarket chain specializing in natural and organic fare, Whole Foods sells fresh, natural turkeys from local producers at Thanksgiving time. (


Basted or Self-Basting Turkeys
These birds have been injected ― before processing ― with up to 3 percent of their weight (8 percent if boneless) of a solution containing butter or other edible fats, broth, water, spices, flavor enhancers, or the vaguely described "other approved substances." Asks Rodgers, "Why spend top dollar for a flavorful bird and then impose false flavors on it?" Plus, the resulting texture can often be mushy.

Wild Turkeys
An acquired taste, these birds are far gamier and drier than the turkeys we're accustomed to eating.

Free Turkeys
These are often the frozen birds that didn't get sold last year, so they're not a worthy centerpiece for your holiday meal.


♦ To store a fresh turkey: Keep it in the refrigerator in its plastic wrapper until you're ready to cook it. Tuck a rimmed baking sheet underneath to catch drips.

♦ To store a frozen turkey: Place it in the freezer immediately upon arriving home.

♦ To thaw a frozen turkey: This calls for a bit of planning. It takes 1 day of thawing time in the refrigerator for every 4 or 5 pounds of turkey. So a 16-pound turkey would require 4 days to thaw completely. There's also the water-bath method: Make sure the bird is wrapped tightly before fully submerging it in cold tap water, then allow 30 minutes per pound, changing the water every 30 minutes. So a 16-pound turkey thawed this way would be ready for the oven in only 8 hours.

What do those terms on the turkey label really mean? Here's a glossary of the most common classifications.

free-range A turkey with access to the outside. But don't be fooled ― just because it has access doesn't mean a bird will take advantage of it.

fresh Technically, a turkey that's never been kept below 26
˚F. But Wickstrom finds this to be an evasive definition: Most (Broad breasted White) Thanksgiving birds are processed in September and October but are still labeled fresh in November, which means they've been kept just above 26 degrees for months.

frozen A bird that's stored below 0

hard-chilled, or not previously frozen A turkey that's been held between 26
˚F and 0˚F.

hen/tom A hen is a female turkey, and a tom is a male. Setting aside size, even Zier admits he'd be hard-pressed to detect a difference in the taste of a turkey based on its gender. Where the bird's gender does matter, though, is in determining what size turkey you should buy. With hens, which run in size from about 8 to 16 pounds, buy a pound of turkey per person. But for toms, which start at 17 pounds, calculate about 3/4 pound per person, as there's a greater meat-to-bone ratio.

kosher A bird that's been processed by hand following kosher laws, all while under rabbinical supervision. The turkey is soaked in water for half an hour, then packed in kosher salt and placed on an incline for about an hour to allow the blood to drain. "A kosher bird is an acquired taste," says Rodgers. "It can seem salty."

natural A bird that contains no artificial ingredients or added color and is minimally processed. This doesn't mean it hasn't been treated with antibiotics.

organic A turkey that has been certified by a USDA-accredited agency. The term organic ensures that the bird was raised on organic feed, was free-range, and wasn't treated with any antibiotics.

pasture-raised A turkey reared in the pasture full-time and allowed to forage for its own food. "This can still be iffy," says Rodgers, "because there's no USDA standard or certification for pasture-raised meat."

David Leite, Bon Appetit, November 2006