When to Buy a Turkey for Thanksgiving This Year, and How to Store It

No turkey yet? No problem.

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With Thanksgiving just weeks away, it’s time to talk turkey. If you haven’t purchased your bird yet, that’s fine, but you might want to seriously consider procuring the star of your Thanksgiving dinner as soon as possible. While snagging a turkey at the right time has always involved some planning and preparation, it may be a bit more difficult, expensive, and stressful this year given the turkey shortage. And let’s face it, it would be beyond frustrating to send out Thanksgiving invites to all your friends and family only to realize you don’t actually have a bird to cook.

So what do you need to know about when to buy a turkey for Thanksgiving? The key decision you need to make, if you haven’t already, is whether you would prefer to buy a fresh turkey or a frozen turkey. While both birds are very similar taste-wise, they each have their own timeline and set of requirements for how they should be stored leading up to the big day.

When to Buy a Frozen Thanksgiving Turkey

If you’re opting to go the frozen route this Thanksgiving, you can buy your turkey up to a year in advance and freeze it as is. In fact, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, a frozen turkey can stay in the freezer indefinitely, but should be cooked within a year for the best quality.

Assuming you’re not quite as prepared, feel free to shop around a bit and buy a bird a few weeks ahead of time. In addition to giving you some time to find the best price in your area, buying a turkey with a few weeks to spare also ensures you won’t be bird-less as a result of the aforementioned shortage. So long as you have the freezer space, a frozen turkey purchased in early or mid-November will taste downright delicious on the fourth Thursday of the month, as long as you thaw it properly. Just remember that a frozen turkey should be kept frozen until you’re ready to thaw it. Keep the turkey in its original wrapper, and once it moves from the freezer to the fridge, place it on a tray or in a pan to catch any juices that may leak.

If you don’t have a ton of freezer space, you can also work backward when it comes to deciding when to buy a frozen turkey. In other words, instead of buying a frozen turkey a few weeks ahead of time and keeping it in the freezer until you’re ready to thaw it, you can simply buy a frozen bird with a few days to spare and store it in your refrigerator so it can begin the thawing process right away. The downside of this approach is that it leaves you less time to find a turkey, and you also need to plan ahead to make sure you time the thawing correctly. As a general rule of thumb, it takes about a day for every four pounds of frozen turkey to thaw. So if you’ve got a 16-pound bird, you’re looking at a four-day process, meaning you should buy the turkey four days in advance.

When to Buy a Fresh Thanksgiving Turkey

The major upside of buying a fresh turkey is that you don’t need to account for any thawing time. However, since fresh turkeys are, well, not frozen, they don’t keep for nearly as long as their colder counterparts. You should only buy a fresh bird about a day or two before you intend to cook it, which means you should plan to procure your fresh turkey no earlier than two days before Thanksgiving. 

Additionally, assuming you’re not going to cook your turkey immediately after you buy it, you’ll need to store it in the refrigerator until just before it’s ready to go in the oven. To properly store a fresh turkey in the fridge, place it on a tray or in a pan to catch any juices that may leak, and make sure there’s no leakage onto any other foods.

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