What to Look for When Choosing a Turkey

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With Thanksgiving just weeks away, it’s time to start shopping for the anchor of your feast: the turkey. Here are a few things to consider when making your big decision.

Fresh vs. Frozen

Fresh turkeys are ones that have been chilled to 26 degrees and sold almost immediately after. They should be cooked one to two days after they’re purchased or, if bought in advance, stored in the coldest area of your refrigerator for up to three days.

Time-Saving Tip

If you’re strapped for time, you can defrost your turkey by submerging it (in its original packaging) in cold water, refreshing the water every 20 minutes or so. The turkey is ready to roast when it reaches about 40 to 45 degrees throughout.

Frozen turkeys are usually flash frozen to sub-zero temperatures after processing. For best results, choose a turkey without signs of frost and keep a frozen bird for only a couple of months before cooking. Defrost the turkey completely before roasting by placing it in the refrigerator in its original packaging (and, ideally, another tray or container to catch any drippings). Leave it in the refrigerator for 24 hours per every five pounds of turkey — in other words, a 15-pound turkey will take three days to defrost in the refrigerator.


Fresh turkeys are often raised in an organic or free-range environment, so they tend to be a bit more expensive than their frozen counterparts. Flavor-wise, they’re richer, with a more intense taste, and their texture is more firm than that of frozen birds.



A good rule of thumb is to allow about one pound of turkey per adult. If you’re looking forward to Thanksgiving leftovers, select a turkey a few pounds larger than the size you’ll need for dinner.


  • Hard- or Deep-Chilled: These turkeys have been chilled below 26 degrees so they can’t be called “fresh,” but they’re not frozen, either.
  • Natural: Natural turkeys haven’t undergone too much processing, but unlike organic varieties, they may still have been given antibiotics.
  • Kosher: The processing of these birds has been supervised such that they meet kosher standards of not mixing meat and dairy, avoiding shellfish, etc. They are sold previously brined, so it’s best not to brine these turkeys, or the result will be overly salty.
  • Basted or Self-Basting: Turkeys advertising “enhanced flavor” are self-basting, meaning they’ve been injected and bloated with solutions. These birds are usually highly processed.
  • Organic: These turkeys meet the requirements to be labeled “organic” because of how they’re raised and fed. They are free of hormones and chemicals but have a milder flavor than heritage or pastured turkeys (see below).
  • Free-Range: Free-range birds are allow to roam outside for a designated amount of time each day, so their movement is less limited than those raised indoors.
  • Heritage: Heritage turkeys are direct descendants of America’s first turkeys; they’re also free-range, foraging, organically-raised and hormone- and antibiotic-free. They may lack the fat content of other varieties, but their flavor is more intense.
  • Pastured: Pastured turkeys are also allowed to roam free and forage, and they’re free of hormones and antibiotics. They have a rich flavor and firm texture similar to that of heritage birds.
  • Wild: Turkeys labeled “wild” are raised on farms and small in size, with a slightly gamey flavor and lean, dry texture.
Willie Bird 





Willie Bird 




Find Thanksgiving table ideas, essential tools and dozens of recipes at the Williams Sonoma Thanksgiving Headquarters.

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