We’re more thankful than ever for online grocery shopping this year. 

By Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner
October 26, 2020
Advertisement

Lifting a chilled turkey the size of a small child into your shopping cart at the supermarket may be a ritual of Thanksgivings past, but there’s nothing typical about 2020’s holiday season. As Americans continue to shop for groceries and home goods online like never before, the practice of venturing out for your biggest poultry purchase of the year has also gone virtual. The good news: Like most things you do now, you can shop in your pajamas. The better news: We’re here to trot you through the digital turkey-buying process, so you can get your best bird yet and celebrate all that we really do have to be thankful for. 

Fresh vs. Frozen Turkey

Picking out a Thanksgiving turkey can be stressful. Not only is this the signature poultry of the most important meal of the year, but this may be the only time each year, if that, that you buy a bird this big. And no, don’t just think of it as a really big chicken. 

“Turkey is complicated when it comes to labeling laws; there are more loopholes,” explains Jake Dickson, owner of Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, a New York butcher with online service. Add in the fact that the run on turkeys comes at the same time (about four weeks to one day before Thanksgiving), and all the poultry and grocery industry pressure that comes with that, and feathers start to get ruffled.

So what’s different about buying turkey? Turkeys can be labeled as “fresh” when that’s not technically the freshest product available. “Because so many people consume turkeys all at the same time, the industry starts sending birds to slaughter really far in advance,” explains Dickson. Like, long before you’ve decided whether you’re going traditional or rogue with your cranberry sauce and stuffing

To keep the poultry “fresh,” the slaughtered turkeys are often pumped with salt brine or another solution (which prevents turkey meat from solidifying into ice) and chilled to 26°F, the temperature they’re kept until they’re purchased, typically for about two months. At 26°F, the turkey is firm but not frozen, and can easily accommodate a thumb print. According to USDA poultry standards, a turkey below 26°F can’t be labeled as fresh, but a loophole means it also doesn’t need to be labeled as frozen. “Only if the turkey drops down below 0°F do they have to call it a frozen turkey,” Dickson says. “We sell freshly slaughtered turkeys, [slaughtered] within four to seven days of Thanksgiving, for better texture and flavors. There’s almost no chance of getting that from a supermarket.”

Still, Dickson doesn’t think that fresh or frozen is necessarily the most important factor in turkey shopping. “If you’re buying turkey online, I have no problem with a well-raised frozen turkey. I would always rather purchase a high-quality frozen turkey from a small farm that’s been pasture raised over a fresh turkey from a commodity operation.” 

Humane and Healthy Turkey Raising and Turkey Labeling Distinctions

Like Dickson’s, many small suppliers and butchers sell turkeys year-round. The benefit of buying from a small supplier is that consumers can typically ask questions, like when the turkey was last walking around, when it was slaughtered, and anything else you may need to know about the bird that will soon be crisp on a platter on your dining room table. 

“The best way to distinguish a quality turkey is to look at all of the care that went into raising that bird,” says Corwin Heatwole, CEO and founding farmer of Farmer Focus, a farm-to-table organic poultry company in Shenandoah Valley. “USDA Organic and Certified Humane seals are a few of the quick ways to tell that a little more attention was put into raising the bird.” Farmer Focus also has a new Where Food Comes From CARE certified organic turkey. The CARE certification takes into account the entire lifespan of the bird, from the turkey’s ethical treatment and quality of life to the impact of the raising practices on the environment and the fair treatment of farmers.

Don’t worry about turkeys that advertise they’re hormone-free—it’s a marketing tactic. Feeding hormones to poultry and pigs is illegal in the U.S. Antibiotics are what consumers should avoid. Antibiotics are used in poultry raising to help the birds grow bigger faster, and to allow growers to pack poultry in close, often unsanitary conditions, and hopefully prevent them from getting sick. “No antibiotics means the turkey was raised better, not in crowded conditions,” Dickson says. Keywords like ‘free range’ mean a turkey was raised with access to the outdoors (though didn’t necessarily spend time outdoors), and ‘pasture raised’ means the bird spent most of its time pecking and foraging in the field. Organic turkeys can be either, but will never have antibiotics or preservatives. 

Turkey Sizing and Selection

Always overdo it with your turkey size. If your fridge is cleared out and ready to accommodate the delivery, you won’t regret it. “I know 10 to 11 pounds sounds big, but there’s a tremendous amount of skin and bone, not big juicy breast meat, on a turkey,” Dickson says. “Go big. Ten to 11 pounds is just a big chicken.” Dickson’s personal favorite size is an 18 to 20 pounder, but his most popular sales range in the 12 to 15 pound range. This looks festive on a table, should result in some leftovers (plan for a pound per person), and hopefully have the right ratio of dark meat to white meat.

If you’re entrusting an Instacart or remote shopper to pick out your turkey rather than digitally adding to cart, you’re still in good hands. Turkeys are typically sold in opaque packaging, so it’s not like you can see what’s inside the plastic shrink wrap anyway. Specify the brand and size you want and any non-negotiables: Do you need an organic bird or is one without antibiotics fine? Do you want a heritage breed? 

Speaking of which, what even is a heritage breed? Typically, you won’t find it in grocery stories, but it’s a bird with a more distinct flavor, and more meat in the legs, as opposed to the traditional broad breasted American turkey, which has more juicy white meat. There’s also wild turkey, and all types of unique poultry treasures when you expand your shopping beyond the pop-up turkey fridge in your local supermarket. But don’t fret. As long as you follow the above guidelines, you really can’t go wrong. “We sell a Kellybronze, pasture-raised, organic-fed turkey, the only kind in America hung like game and plucked by hand,” Dickson says. “But it’s still turkey. And it will always be turkey—it’s not prime rib. Pick the best turkey that’s available to you and you’ll have a wonderful feast.”