Sure you can buy one of those small icebergs known as a frozen turkey, but with access to our extraordinary butchers and nearby top quality turkey farms, why would you? Besides, many of those mass produced frozen turkeys have been processed with "self basting" solutions that often contain emulsifiers and salt solutions. Why eat that when we can have fresh and locally raised?
Take risk and stress out of cooking your holiday meal by ordering and buying a fresh turkey. It's important to order it in advance to be sure to get what you want in both type of turkey and the size. Order it with a pick-up date a day or two before the holiday. You may need to re-arrange your refrigerator to let it fit among all the other holiday ingredients so plan for this as well.
Prices run in a huge range so if you're sure of what you want and are willing to travel to another neighborhood to pick up your turkey, you might want to check web sites and make some phone calls because it could save you some money, especially for a straightforward fresh natural bird.
Before you place your order, there are decisions for you to make. Here's what you need to know:
Are you cooking a whole bird or a turkey breast? If buying a whole bird, you'll have several choices:
- Natural: Often free-range, these are untreated with solutions. Some stores are now selling pre-brined natural turkeys, although these will cost $1.00 or so more a pound.
- Heritage: These are pure breed birds that will have a slightly more pronounced turkey flavor and are usually juicier. That's because these breeds haven't been over-engineered to produce huge and breast-heavy birds. Instead, they're normal, as nature intended. Like most game birds, some pure breed turkeys have less fat in them and will need more careful roasting and more basting so as to have moist meat. Ask your butcher for advice on the particular breed you buy.
- Kosher: A natural turkey brined with water and salt during the koshering process, giving the birds the same flavor and added juiciness as brining your own.
- Organic: The birds have been raised without any antibiotics or animal by-products in their feed. Sold both fresh and frozen.
Tip: If you plan to brine your own turkey, do not buy a kosher bird. It's already been brined.
Tip: Fairway is selling pre-brined Murray's Turkeys for $3.19 per pound.
If you're instead making a turkey breast, many butchers offer the following:
- Turkey breast on the bone.
- Rolled boneless, sometimes stuffed.
If you're going to go through all the trouble to roast a whole turkey, buy one that will give you leftovers. The smallest turkey usually available through our butchers is about 10 pounds, although some sell ones as small as 8 pounds.
With a smaller bird you can figure about 1 pound of turkey per person. But as the bird gets bigger, the ratio of meat-to-bone decreases because the skeleton of the bird gets bigger so increase the per pound amount by about a 1/2-pound. If you're buying to produce leftovers, aim at an extra half-pound per serving. In other words, a turkey serving 10 people, with leftovers, would be about 15 pounds.
Butcher Marc Reyes, head of the meat department at Eli's Manhattan, says that if you're feeding a really big crowd, you're better off buying 2 12-pound turkeys than one 25-pound size because smaller birds roast more efficiently, plus you'll get 4 legs, 4 thighs and 4 wings, making it easier to please more people who prefer dark meat.
Here's what many cooking experts and butchers recommend:
Turkey Weight Servings Plus Leftovers
10 pounds Up to 6 persons
12 pounds 6 to 8
14-16 pounds 10
18-20 pounds 12 to 14
If you buy an on-the-bone or boneless turkey breast and not a whole bird, aim at about 1 pound per person.
Some people want the tradition of a bird but don't want turkey. There are many choices of poultry. Always buy a fresh bird and if you want to be sure you get what you want, when you want it, always place your order in advance.
The appeal of many of these birds is that they're smaller than the smallest-sized turkey, making them a better choice for smaller households. The holidays can also be a time to try roasting something you normally don't try, like a pheasant.
- Chicken: natural chickens, usually 3 to 4 pounds; try to buy free-range and organic. Murray's and Bell & Evans are excellent brands.
- Capon: A large (6 to 10 pound) castrated male chicken.
- Cornish Hens: Also called Rock Cornish Hens, these are small chickens. One usually serves 2 persons. They have been bred to have larger breasts and thus more white meat.
- Guinea Fowl: A chicken-like pheasant prized for its strong and juicy flavor with light meat and little fat. Most are about 2 pounds and thus perfect for 2 persons.
- Poussin: Baby chickens that are particularly juicy and flavorful. One per person. Typical size is about 1 pound.
- Goose: A game bird with mostly dark meat and a large amount of fat that cooks off during the roasting process. Buy a goose that provides about 2 pounds per person due to the amount of fat and bone.
- Duck: Moulard, Pekin and Muscovy vary in size. Sold as whole birds or breasts. Like geese, they have a large amount of fat that cooks off during the roasting process. If buying a whole bird, aim at 2 pounds per serving.
- Squab: A small game bird with a mild flavor and both white and dark meat. Typical size is 3/4 to 1 pound, a perfect size of one per person.
- Quail: A tiny game bird that is all dark meat with a stronger, gamier flavor. Typical size is 4 to 5 ounces so allow 2 birds per person.
- Pheasant: A game bird that has flavorful dark meat and rich chicken-like flavor. Typical size is about 3 pounds.
Tip: Cooking poultry safely requires having an instant thermometer among your kitchen tools. You'll need it to check if your turkey is done and to prevent it from being overcooked and thus, famously dry. The target: 160°F in the dark meat. The white meat will be done when the dark meat is.
We've added a link to a turkey-specific web site from the smart people at Cook's Illustrated magazine that includes excellent tips about brining. While you may get a case of turkey brain by reading all these details, some of them can make the difference between a flavorful result or butter-basted cardboard.