Turkey Buying & Thawing Guide

Jason Webster
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Buying a turkey: things to consider

A smaller turkey will feed more mouths. Smaller turkeys also have less fat and take less time to cook. Rinse your bird and pat it dry with some paper towels before starting to cook.

Look for fresh turkeys that are very cold and have a clean, ivory-colored skin. Avoid dark spots and splotches on the skin.

Be sure to check the sell-by date, and freeze it if you are not going to use it right away.

Buy your turkey at least one or two days before you are going to cook it. Store it in the coldest part of your refrigerator.

You can keep it in the freezer up to about six weeks.

At home, keep your turkey in the coldest part of your refrigerator. Discard any turkey parts that were not stored correctly before cooking.

Fresh turkeys are usually sold with the giblets (heart, liver, gizzard). You can also purchase them separately. The neck is the best choice for turkey stock.

A frozen turkey needs to be defrosted before cooking and should be cooked within 2 to 3 days of its arrival. If you are not going to use it right away, then you should freeze it.

A frozen turkey will keep in the freezer for up to six weeks. When you are ready to begin thawing, you should take it out a few days before you plan to cook it.

Choosing the right size turkey

You may need to decide between a frozen or fresh turkey. A frozen turkey is typically available a lot earlier than fresh turkeys, so be sure to ask about availability when you call a local butcher to find out if they have turkeys for Thanksgiving. Once you decide on a frozen turkey, determine how big a bird that you need. Look on the back of the turkey box for how many pounds of meat it yields.

The other decision you need to make is how big of a bird you’re going to need. An average 15 pound turkey will serve 5-8 people whole if it is a typical size bird. You will need to adjust the size of your bird upward if you are serving:

  • a large group
  • a family with smaller appetites
  • adults and children eating dinner together

The other thing you need to do is to check to see how big of a turkey cooking roaster you have. The packaging of the turkey has a weight on it which indicates the weight of the bird. It also has a package date which tells you what the “sell by” date is. You’ll need to buy your turkey well in advance of Thanksgiving because it needs to thaw completely in the refrigerator before you cook it.

Different types of turkey

There are three main types of turkey that are commonly available in the United States.

  • Young, plump turkeys – what most people think of as a turkey
  • Broad-breasted turkeys – the most popular turkey; this is the turkey most people serve for Thanksgiving
  • Herb (heritage) turkeys – a smaller bird that’s less common at the supermarket

Young, plump turkeys are typically sold whole in a plastic bag; they have a front and a back and are sometimes labeled as whole breast turkey. Broad-breasted turkeys are usually sold as a whole bird, parts, or ground. In addition to whole turkeys, sliced or ground turkey in convenient packaging is often sold at supermarkets.

Do not confuse turkey with other poultry such as chicken, duck, or goose. Turkey is a unique type of meat. It’s lower in fat than other poultry and has a distinctive flavor and texture.

Young, plump turkeys, typically called "Rock Cornish game hen" by the poultry industry, are very small birds.

Can you brine a self basting turkey?

The short answer is: Yes.

But most people have no idea what brining is. They just think that they can throw their turkey in a liquid and that will keep it moist. That is a myth. Brining does not make your meat juicier.

A whole turkey chops into very large pieces. You will have to 'wet brine' them. If you don't, not enough salt will be able to reach your meat.

A wet brine will make sure that you get enough salt into the meat to add flavor and also make it cured.

You can use the most basic, time traditional method – brine the turkey in a bath of water, and salt and sugar.

To dry brine the turkey, you will need to pat it dry after the wet brine and apply a cream or butter flavored rub to it. Most rubs have a mixture of sage, onion powder, celery salt and other spices in them. However, you can make your own if you do not find what you want.

If you have ever made a chicken or a pork roast, the texture is very similar.

You should buy your Turkey at least two days before you want to eat it. If it is a fresh turkey, set it in the refrigerator immediately after you get it home. If it was frozen, then put the turkey into the refrigerator upon thawing it.

Should you buy turkey fresh or frozen?

Most consumers prefer buying fresh turkeys. The reason is simple convenience. It is hard to beat that you’ve got a live turkey in your kitchen. You can select and prepare it any way you want, then cook it fresh for dinner. To top it all, you’ve got a week’s worth of tasty turkey meat in your freezer afterward.

However, the reality is that you’d be hard-pressed to find a turkey that is truly fresh. If it happens, you’re likely to pay a premium for that privilege. After all, a turkey is a perishable product. By the time you take it home from the store, it’s already been sitting out for a few days or more. Moreover, it will probably be sitting in your freezer for several months after that. When you take that turkey out of the freezer for Thanksgiving, it is already about three months old, which is old by any standard.

On the other hand, you can’t get fresher turkeys than those you buy from a local farmer or buy at the farmer’s market. But, the downside is that most of these turkeys are frozen. You can expect a local farmer to butcher the turkey live, clean and package its meat in plastic freezer bags.

Where to buy a turkey

Unless you’re buying turkey straight from the farmer or turkey raiser, chances are it will come from a supermarket or a grocery chain.

It is worth sacrificing a little convenience to buy from "real stores" that fully appreciate and are proud of the products they sell. If you prefer the pre-wrapped, pre-sliced, pre-marinated content of most grocery store turkeys, be my guest. Settle for the factory raised, pampered, chemically enhanced birds whose true purpose is feeding the hungry masses.

But if you’re a person who believes great taste comes from great ingredients, buy your turkey from the well-known purveyors of meat, such as Whole Foods, Meijer, Publix or Gelson's.

Be sure to buy the bird with a fresh kill-date for extra flavor. If you are buying it before Thanksgiving, call ahead to ask if the turkey you're looking at still has a fresh kill-date.

And even if the date has expired, you can always take it to be cooked by a to-go restaurant or have a holiday meal cooked at a company potluck. The extra day of lying around before it gets eaten will result in a more tender turkey.

Turkey buying considerations

The turkey you are going to buy determines a lot of what you are going to do with it.

· What size, age, and sex of turkey you need?

· How are you going to cook it?

To figure these things out, we have to know a little bit about turkeys. A turkey, mature or adult, is about 18 to 24 months old. A castrated turkey is older than that but less than two years. A younger, non-castrated, fresh turkey is less than 14 week old.

The important thing to remember here is that too old a turkey will not only be stringy and tough, but will also be dry. There are two broad categories of turkey: fresh and old. You need to decide what type of turkey you need and order it accordingly.

You can buy 16 pound (7.25 kgs), 15 pound (6.8 kgs), and 12.5 pound (5.7 kgs) turkeys. Fresh turkeys weigh less than castrated turkeys.

The biggest difference between a fresh and an old turkey is weight, as we discussed before.

A fresh turkey has a light, almost juvenile taste. This is the flavor we are used to, with a little salty flavor left in it. A fresh turkey breast is succulent and juicy.

Order turkey online from Crowd Cow

Crowd Cow is a farmer-owned online marketplace that directly connects consumers to their favorite farmers.

They improve everyone’s life by creating a transparent supply chain of delicious, responsibly-raised food. It is 100% online and 100% transparent. They use video and photography to engage customers and tell compelling stories about the people that raise their food. Finally, they connect chefs with farm producers and empower consumers to support pasture-based farming.

Crowd Cow works with farmers who commit to raising their animals humanely, sustainably and without the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics or other non-human methods of growth promotion.

They offer 100% grass-fed and finished beef, pastured pork, free-range eggs, and humanely-raised chicken. Using Crowd Cow, the consumer can order one special cut or a mixed quarter (cow, pig, or chicken) then pick-up the meat from a local locker or have it shipped straight to their doorsteps. It’s convenient, fast, and easy.

Step by step guide to thawing a turkey

Step 1: Plan ahead and be sure you can thaw the turkey safely

You have to make sure to allow yourself enough time to safely defrost your turkey in the refrigerator, which can take up to a full day. You also have to ensure there’s enough space in your refrigerator.

Conclusion: Don’t wait until the day before Thanksgiving to start your defrosting process.

Step 2: Gather the tools and supplies

The only things you will need are:

Pharmacy packs of salt, a container, a pan and a thermometer.

Some of these items you might already have on hand, but if not, just ask around.

You can ask your live stock supplier for the ones you don’t have. If you’re buying from the supermarket, pick up a package of salt for every 5 pounds of frozen turkey.

Optional … but not recommended: you can use a hairdryer or heat gun to speed up the defrosting process.

Conclusion: Make sure you purchase these items and stock up on salt before Thanksgiving.

Step 3: How to wrap your turkey

First, remove the packaging from the turkey and discard it, do not save it for the next time you have to defrost a turkey.

Refrigerator thawing

Vs. microwave thawing?

In general, refrigeration is the best way to thaw frozen items. However, there are times when it’s not possible to thaw an item any other way, and you have to resort to using a microwave or warm water.

To be able to determine exactly when it’s time to buy and how best to thaw your turkey come turkey day, the following infographic will help.

Cold water thawing

There are 2 ways to thaw your turkey: in the fridge or in cold water. Thawing in the fridge takes 1-3 days. Cold water thawing takes 12-24 hours. If you are short of time, you can buy a thawing bag and throw the frozen turkey inside. This works especially well in colder conditions. Thawing in cold water is the healthiest choice, wherein the turkey will be completely thawed by the time you are ready to roast it.

Things to remember about cold water thawing:

  • never thaw your turkey on the counter
  • thaw in a leak-proof container
  • never completely submerge the turkey in thawing water
  • never completely submerge the turkey in thawing water
  • never place the turkey in a bag without letting that bag sit in water and out of the way in a leak-proof container
  • change the water every 30 minutes
  • never submerge the turkey in the water for more than 1 hour at a time
  • never defrost your turkey on the stove ….just do not do it!

Microwave thawing

You can thaw a turkey in a number of ways, but how you do so depends on how far ahead of time you need to thaw it. If you need to thaw it for just a few hours, you can simply remove the plastic packaging, place it in a sink filled with cold water and change the water every half hour.

This should be fine for a small turkey. But if you need to thaw it overnight, I would recommend thawing it in the fridge. You can also thaw the turkey in the microwave. But thawing it in water is the best way to go.

Microwave thawing is not recommended because microwaves heat food by agitating water molecules in the food. This agitation can cause ice crystals that are harmful to the texture and taste of the food.

Also, the microwave can cook food from the inside out, which is bad for the meat. So it’s good to keep in mind that if you microwave food to thaw it, it will require additional cooking time on top of the time you use to thaw it.

Safety tips for thawing a turkey

The safety of the turkey is your primary concern when thawing a turkey. So when you thaw a turkey, there are a couple of precautions that you should follow:

Never defrost a turkey at room temperature, it can cause serious food poisoning. Use your microwave.

Place the turkey in a plastic or a paper bag and don’t forget to seal it tight, to maintain a cool temperature. It’s a great way of preventing bacteria from spreading.

Don’t leave the turkey near hot food to thaw, as the defrosted turkey may come into contact with other food. The hot food can increase the temperature inside the food by over 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

When it comes to buying a turkey, make sure you purchase it from a reputable source. Make sure the turkey is labeled, “Raised without Antibiotics.”

Ask the butcher or the meat-man if they custom-slaughter turkeys on the day you plan to purchase it. This is something you should do at least a day before you plan to buy the turkey.

Alternatively, you can ask the grocery store when was the last time they slaughtered a turkey and what kind of inspection their turkey has undergone.

What NOT to do

When buying your turkey?

You might’ve heard the folktale story of a butcher mailing all the parts of a goat to a friend in order to tell them that he was sick. He wanted to get a specific organ and the doctor did not want to diagnose the problem without seeing the goat. The point of this story is simple “ don’t forget what the butcher did with the goat.

The organ he wanted was the spleen, which you can see below.

Why did I bring up the spleen? Because you may want to keep it in mind during the course of the next 36-72 hours!

You see, when you are thawing out your turkey, you might come across some yellowish fluid.

This is the bird’s “turkey juice” and it is harmless. It is, however, not a good sign. This fluid is the result of the thawing process and there are a number of reasons it might occur.

The main reason this yellow juice might show up is because the turkey has been frozen for a long time. As the fluid slowly thaws out, it might get pushed to the surface.

Always observe the correct thawing times

One of the most important steps in preparing a delicious Thanksgiving meal is thawing the turkey. A thawed turkey must cook in 20 to 30 minutes before it reaches maximum temperature (165˚) and food-safety concerns arise.

If your turkey is frozen hard and you plan to cook it the day it comes out the oven, be sure to thaw it under refrigeration. The best method for most healthy home cooks is to place the frozen turkey in the refrigerator where the temperature is 40˚F (4˚C) or below.

You should thaw out the whole turkey in the refrigerator over the recommended period of time per weight:

  • Pounds Time
  • Under 8 4-5 days
  • 8-12 3-4 days
  • 12-16 2-3 days
  • 16+ 2 days

Read and observe the above thawing instructions. Make sure the turkey is thawed in its original package. Never thaw it on the counter or in the sink.

When placing the whole frozen turkey in the refrigerator, always thaw it on a tray to collect excess moisture that may leak from thawing.

It is also recommended that you place the turkey with its cavity slightly higher than the rest of the bird, and to avoid overcrowding the pan. This will help maintain the proper temperature and will help complete the thawing outline faster.

How to store in the fridge

Make sure to either take the turkey out of its packaging the night before or remove any trays to allow space for air circulation.

If you’ve bought a fresh turkey, it’s best to store it in the refrigerator overnight, in its original packaging. This will help to maintain the cold temperature without interfering with the soft and supple packaging. Store an uncooked turkey in a Styrofoam tray with a few ice cubes to help it stay fresh. Let it stay in the cold for about 3 days before cooking.

If you’ve bought frozen turkey parts such as necks, wings, and legs, remove them from their original packaging. Place them in a container and store in the refrigerator for use within 3 days.

It’s okay to thaw the turkey in its original packaging. You may place it in the sink but cover the turkey with a container to prevent any foodborne bacteria. Alternatively, turkey parts may be safely thawed in the refrigerator but don’t expect them to stay fresh for more than 3 days.

Thawing in the refrigerator is the easiest way to thaw your turkey but it can take more time while there are quicker methods. Here are the best methods for thawing your turkey depending on the timing you have to prepare.

Smoked Turkey Rub

What I really do like about this smoked turkey recipe is that it is ideal if you don’t have a smoker and/or if you want some help with brining.

I have found that the liquid smoke that is in the BBQ rub Not only gives you a boost of smokey flavor without actually smoking it, it also helps the brine to move into the meat too … therefore giving you a moist & delicious turkey too.


  • 1 cup raw brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons of salt
  • 2 teaspoons of onion powder
  • 2 teaspoons of chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon of pepper
  • 1 teaspoon of garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
  • 2 teaspoons of liquid smoke

Mix all ingredients thoroughly.