Talking Turkey: How to Choose Your Thanksgiving Bird

Belcampo turkeys on the farm in Shasta Valley. Photo: courtesy of Belcampo
Belcampo turkeys on the farm in Shasta Valley.
Photo: courtesy of Belcampo

Updated November 9, 2018.

Now's the time to figure out what kind of turkey you want on your table. Options abound, as do prices. So, how can you get the best of your bird?

Here a few questions to help you deconstruct your turkey-buying possibilities:

  • What is your budget?
  • Are you looking for a fresh or frozen turkey?
  • How many people will you be feeding (and how many leftover-turkey sandwiches do you want to make)?
  • What's important to you and your family: Organics? Avoiding GMOs? Humane practices? Helping preserve heritage breeds?
  • Do you, your family, or your guests have a strong preference for white over dark meat, or vice versa? How adventurous a cook (and eaters) are you working with?

Turkey Prices

Prices for turkeys really vary, depending on where you're shopping, and more importantly, how the turkey was raised. Supermarkets often price their mass-produced frozen turkeys very cheaply, even giving them away if you spend a certain amount on other items. By contrast, a locally and humanely raised bird that's been freely wandering the green pastures of Marin or Sonoma for five or six months and eating organic, certified non-GMO feed can cost between $75 and $150, possibly more, depending on size. However, there are a variety of options between free and top-of-the-line, so it's worth calling around to quality butcher shops in your area to see what they're offering.

Fresh vs Frozen

Refrigerator real estate is one prime reason for buying a fresh, rather than frozen, bird. The safest, most reliable way to thaw out a frozen bird is in the refrigerator. Count on a thaw rate of four pounds a day, which getting a frozen bird oven-ready can take anywhere from two to four or even five days. In other words, you'll need several days' worth of turkey-sized thawing space available in your fridge if you buy a frozen bird. A fresh bird is just that, probably dispatched less than a week before being purchased.

Local Brands and Butchers

Both Diestel Turkey and Willie Bird focus exclusively on turkey raising--Diestel in Sonora, in the Sierra Foothills near Yosemite, and Willie Bird in Santa Rosa, in Sonoma county. Both are longtime family-run operations, and their birds are available at many butcher shops and specialty markets around the Bay Area. Willie Bird sells both free-range and free-range organic birds, while Diestel offers several different types: classic "original" birds, organic birds, pasture-raised birds, and its heirloom collection of old-fashioned breeds, a mix of Bronze, Auburn, and Black. All of Diestel's birds except for the "original" birds are raised on certified non-GMO feed.

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The Fatted Calf (in San Francisco's Hayes Valley and the Oxbow Market in Napa) will be taking orders for heritage turkeys raised by Good Shepherd Ranch in Lindeborg, Kansas. The Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley will also serve Good Shepherd Ranch turkeys, and they're offering delivery in the East Bay. According to a Fatted Calf newsletter, farmer Fred Reese "began raising birds in the 1950′s, maintained and improved his flock over the years and now has the oldest continuous strain of standard bred turkeys in North America. Some of Frank’s heritage turkeys come from bloodlines dating back to the mid 1800’s."

Slow Food Russian River will be partnering with Sonoma County 4-H for this year's Heritage Turkey Project. The 180 turkeys, raised by young 4-H farmers in Sonoma, are a mix of Bronze, Narragansett, Midget Whites and Holland Whites.

Marin Sun Farms, based in Inverness, will be selling turkeys raised on its farms in West Marin. They'll be offering both White Breasted and heritage turkeys, which are a mix of several breeds.

All Marin Sun Farms turkeys are sold frozen.

What size should you ask for?

  • 6-8 people, 10-12 lbs
  • 8-10 people, 12-16 lbs
  • 10-12 people, 14-16 lbs
  • 12-14 people, 16-18 lbs
  • 14-16 people, 20-22 lbs

The bigger the bird, the higher the meat-to-bone ratio. You'll want at least 12 ounces of meat per person, which will come out to about 2 pounds of raw, bone-in bird for a small turkey, and about 1 1/2 pounds raw bone-in bird for a larger one. It also helps to be flexible.

As Joshua and Jessica Applestone note in their book The Butchers' Guide to Well-Raised Meat,

"You cannot tell by looking at a young bird how big it will be, and you cannot stop it from growing until you slaughter it...to sell fresh birds means slaughtering mere days before Thanksgiving, five at most, between a typical Saturday slaughter and a Wednesday pickup."

If you order a 12-pound bird, you might not have the means (or oven size) to take a 30-pound bird instead, but expect a window of say, 2 to 4 pounds between what you order and what you get. Being a lover of cold turkey sandwiches, I never mind extras, and you can always send home care packages with your guests. But if the specter of weeks of turkey tetrazzini wakes you in a cold sweat, order smaller.

Marin Sun Farms Broad Breasted Bronze and heritage turkeys are pasture-raised. Photo: courtesy Marin Sun Farms
Marin Sun Farms Broad Breasted Bronze and heritage turkeys are pasture-raised. Photo: courtesy Marin Sun Farms

Free Range vs Pasture-Raised

As with chickens, and eggs, "free range" and "pasture-raised" mean two different things. Free-range birds are not confined in individual cages, and they have access to the outdoors. Pasture-raised birds, by contrast, spend most of their days outside, usually rotating to a new field every few days. At night, they typically roost in mobile poultry pens to keep them safe from predators. Pasture-raised turkeys also have a more natural diet, since they're able to supplement their grain-based feed with plants and high-protein bugs and bug larvae found in the fields. Organic turkeys are raised free-range, are kept free of antibiotics, and are raised on organically grown feed.

What about Breeds?

The typical supermarket bird, the Broad-Breasted White, is just that: a bird that's been bred as the Carol Doda of turkeys. These birds offer what supermarkets think Americans like: lots and lots of very mild white breast meat. Since the 1960s, these have been the dominant — and in many places, the only — turkey breed in the U.S. Heritage breeds, by contrast, are breeds that were popular during the nineteenth century up through the 1930s. These breeds are now experiencing a renaissance, much like heirloom vegetables. They are closer in style to wild turkeys, offering more dark meat, a little more chew and typically, more flavor as well. Heritage breeds grow slowly, part of the reason for their high price. A typical heritage bird needs up to 28 weeks of care and feeding to reach its finished weight.

All well and good, but if you have a houseful of white-meat-only eaters, splurging on a heritage bird may leave a lot of dark meat on the platter.

Order Ahead

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Once you've decided on the type of bird you'd like, order ahead. Procrastination is no friend to the turkey buyer. Most independent butcher shops contract with local ranchers for a certain number of birds. Remember, it can take up to 28 weeks to raise a turkey to roasting size. if you've got your heart set on getting a bird of a particular breed or provenance, placing your order several weeks ahead will spare both you, and your butcher shop, from boiling over with last-minute turkey-sourcing stress. Also, remember that four-pounds-a-day thawing rule; you can't buy a rock-hard frozen turkey on November 27 and expect it to be ready to roast the next morning.

  • Pre-ordering at The Local Butcher Shop is a must, as they only order a few extra. They'll be taking orders now through November 16, either in person, online, or by phone.
  • Reserve your Heritage Turkey Project turkey (with a $40 deposit) from Slow Food Russian River by mail. Print out the order form from the Slow Food Russian River blog.
  • Belcampo is selling organic turkey (Heritage Turkey) online through their shop.
  • Fatted Calf will take turkey orders by phone or over email at either store.
  • Marin Sun Farms is taking orders by email with pickups in Oakland and Point Reyes.

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