Deciding what kind of turkey to buy is not as easy as it was once. As with most food products, there are infinitely more choices when it comes to choosing the star of your Thanksgiving table: organic, natural, heritage — not to mention fresh or frozen. Here is a quick guide to some of the definitions you should know.
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Free-range: This is a legal definition that requires that the birds be raised having access to the outdoors. There's a bit of wiggle room. They don't necessarily need to have access to pasture or grass, just the outdoors, which can mean dirt or gravel.
Fresh: Legally, it means that a turkey has not been chilled below 26 degrees. Practically speaking, though, a 26-degree turkey is still about as soft as a bowling ball.
Frozen: This means that the turkey has been chilled to 0 degrees. It should be noted that this doesn't necessarily mean an inferior bird. Properly frozen, stored and defrosted, it can be excellent. Keep in mind that a 12- to 14-pound turkey will take three to four days to thaw. Thaw the bird in its wrapping in the refrigerator, placing it on a tray or pan to contain any liquid that may drip from the bird. To thaw more quickly, submerge the bird in cold water and soak 6 to 8 hours, changing the water every 30 minutes.
Hard- or deep-chilled: An intermediate step that means the turkey has been chilled to between 0 and 26 degrees.
Hen: This is a female bird and they usually come in at less than 16 pounds.
Heritage: This is probably the hottest category among food lovers, but it is not legally regulated. Basically, it means anything but the standard turkey breed, which is the Broad-Breasted White. Heritage birds tend to be leaner, with less meat, which means they won't feed as many people and will dry out if not cooked carefully. They also have a gamier flavor, which is appreciated by some but not everyone.
Kosher: Turkeys that have been slaughtered and cleaned in accordance with kosher law. Note that while they have been briefly salted to draw out any remaining blood, this is not the same as brining. There is lots of confusion about this, but koshering requires salting for only one hour before rinsing, which is not at all the same as brining for several days.
Natural: Basically no added ingredients and only minimal processing — no injecting flavors or brining.
Organic: Turkeys that have been raised without hormones and steroids and have been processed without preservatives. In addition, they have been fed only organic feed and have ready access to the outdoors.
Pastured: This is a nonregulated definition that is kind of like free-range-plus, as the birds have had access to grass.
Self-basting: These are the familiar supermarket turkeys that have been injected with flavor solution or brine to keep them from drying out.
Tom: This is a male turkey, which usually means it weighs more than 18 pounds.