What the label means: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, free-range turkeys have “been allowed access to the outdoors.” But this doesn’t ensure that the turkeys can roam, which would markedly improve the birds’ quality of life―and their taste. The conditions vary by producer. The word pasture is an unregulated term that indicates a roomier life spent strutting in the sun and feeding on grass and bugs.
What to expect: Free-range birds have a more robust turkey flavor and substantial texture than their coop-raised counterparts. They tend to be moist but not exceptionally so.
Price: $3 to $5 a pound.
Try: Polyface Farms, whose poultry are brought out to pasture 24/7 beginning at six weeks of age.
2 of 6Jessie Hartland
What the label means: These turkeys have been pumped with anything from broth to butter, including water, salt, or even chicken fat. The result, producers claim, is added flavor and moisture.
What to expect: You’d really have to try to dry out one of these foolproof plump, juicy birds. On the downside, they taste only mildly like turkey, and they can be salty (but buttery); the texture can be slightly spongy.
Price: $1 to $1.50 a pound.
Try: Butterball, which has been the top-selling brand of turkey in the United States for more than a decade.
3 of 6Jessie Hartland
What the label means: Turkeys bearing the organic label are raised free of antibiotics and growth hormones, are given access to the outdoors (also qualifying them as free-range), and are fed organic feed, which by law contains no genetically modified grains, pesticides or herbicides, or animal by-products.
What to expect: Organic birds have a pronounced turkey flavor.
Price: $3.50 to $4.50 a pound.
Try: Eberly’s, which is available under the D’Artagnan label as well and offers capons, chickens, Cornish hens, ducks, geese, guinea hens, and pheasants.
4 of 6Jessie Hartland
What the label means: Anything labeled “natural” must, by law, be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients, coloring, or preservatives. By this standard, most turkeys qualify. Some producers take the definition one step further and stipulate all-vegetarian feed, no antibiotics, and minimal crowding. Read the label carefully to determine exactly what you’re getting.
What to expect: In general, the more natural the turkey, the better the flavor. While some natural turkeys are bland and dry, others could be the prototype for a Rockwellian Thanksgiving.
Price: About $3 a pound.
Try: Bell & Evans, which has raised poultry in Pennsylvania Dutch country since the 1890s, produces standout birds: They're plump, moist, beautifully bronzed, and have a terrific turkey flavor.
5 of 6Jessie Hartland
What the label means: Kosher turkeys are raised and processed under rabbinical supervision and in accordance with strict Jewish dietary law, which mandates a soaking in a cold freshwater bath and hand salting inside and out, followed by a triple rinse.
What to expect: Kosher turkeys can vary dramatically in flavor, but some have a strangely cardboardy texture and only a faint turkey taste. Kosher birds sometimes retain a few stray feathers; be ready with a pair of tweezers or needle-nose pliers.
Price: $2 to $4.50 a pound.
Try: Empire Kosher, the world’s largest kosher poultry producer.
6 of 6Jessie Hartland
What the label means: Heritage breeds are direct descendants of the first domesticated turkeys raised by the English settlers. Two common varieties are Bourbon Red and American Bronze. Unlike commercial turkeys, these do not have a disproportionately large amount of white meat. As a result, they’re not particularly plump, though they’re far from scrawny.
What to expect: These tend to have a robust turkey flavor―most noticeably in the dark meat―and a moist, chewy, almost beeflike texture. They turn out best following long, slow cooking at 300 ° to 325° F. Because the turkeys are raised on traditional farms, not in large-scale commercial hatcheries, they have a hefty price tag. Available by special order, heritage turkeys usually sell out a couple of weeks before the holiday.
Price: About $7 a pound, not including shipping.
Try: Heritage Foods USA, which brings rare meats, fruits, and grains from small farms to the consumer.