These days turkeys come fresh, frozen and somewhere in between. That "in between" category is courtesy of a recent USDA ruling on labeling. "Fresh" turkeys have to be stored at 26 degrees Fahrenheit or above; frozen turkeys have to be stored at 0 degrees Fahrenheit or below. But what happens to the turkeys stored between one and 25 degrees Fahrenheit? There's no name for them; some producers call them "refrigerated," while others call them "hard-chilled or "not previously frozen."
The National Turkey Federation says "there is no quality difference between a fresh and frozen turkey." We can only assume they're also referring to "refrigerated" turkeys. However, freezing any meat has a disruptive effect on cell structure — when meat is frozen, the ice crystals that form around the cells can cause cell damage and fluid loss, ultimately resulting in drier meat.
Though modern flash freezing techniques minimize the damage done during freezing and thawing (it reduces the size of the ice crystals), many turkey manufacturers still hedge their bets by injecting a liquid "basting" solution of water, oil and seasoning prior to freezing. This basting solution is often high in sodium — it's essentially a brine and also imparts a flavor of its own. Such turkeys are often labeled "self-basting."
The flavor of a bird is determined by several additional factors, which may actually be more important than whether your turkey is fresh or frozen. Size is key — smaller birds tend to be more tender; if you have a lot of guests coming, think about cooking two small turkeys instead of one large one. Gender plays a role too — female birds, known as hens, tend to be slaughtered younger (i.e., smaller); larger turkeys are typically males, known as toms or stags.
When choosing your turkey, also keep in mind that frozen turkeys take a long time to thaw — one day for every five pounds.
If you're hosting a small Thanksgiving, you should be able to easily find birds under nine pounds. If not, go with a turkey breast. If you're serving lots of sides, figure about one pound per person.
- Basted or Self-basting: These are whole birds that are injected with or marinated in a solution that, according to USDA specifications, includes "butter or other edible fat, broth, stock or water; plus spices, flavor enhancers and other approved substances." This increases the moisture content in the meat; however, it also masks the natural taste of the bird.
- Free Range/Free Roaming/Cage Free: These birds have access to the outside and the ability to move about a yard. This increased mobility helps to develop muscle, contributing to a more fully flavored and complex meat. A common misconception is that free range chicken is synonymous with organic or naturally processed birds. These distinctions only refer to the animal's ability to roam and its access to light, not feed or processing.
- Kosher: The distinction given to the birds that have been killed according to Jewish dietary laws. Kosher birds are salted inside and out, and left to drain before soaking and washing. Since the salt pulls moisture from the meat of the bird, the flesh is denser. These birds, also prized for their full taste, tend to be more expensive than non-kosher poultry.
- Natural: Can be added to a label if no artificial flavors, colorings, ingredients, chemical preservatives or any other artificial or synthetic ingredients were used to process the meat. Natural poultry can have antibiotics as part of their regime. Poultry labeled "natural" should not be confused with organic. Sometimes "no hormones" will be added to the label; this is a meaningless distinction, since hormones are never used in poultry or egg production in the U.S.
- Organic: Organic poultry represent a two stage process. First, the farmer does not use any chemicals, antibiotics or roughage fillers when raising the birds, as well as giving them access to the outdoors and direct sunlight, as with free range. In addition, the animal's feed must be raised organically — without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. These birds tend to be more expensive, but are potentially the finest and fullest flavored available.