We get it: Picking out a Thanksgiving turkey can be daunting. But there’s no need to be intimidated at the grocery store or farmstand when you’re picking out a bird. Here’s exactly what to look for, guided by a super-skillful chef.

By Alex Van Buren
Updated November 06, 2017
Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Anyone who has ever stood, shivering, in the meat department among the chickens, game hens, and hulking turkeys in the days leading up to Thanksgiving is familiar with the stress the process can entail. Maybe this year you’re making your thirtieth turkey, or maybe it’s your first. Either way, here’s what you need to know about picking one out it—from deciphering the wrapper to getting out your wallet—before going ahead and doing an excellent job preparing and roasting it.

Sarah Steffan, executive chef of The Dogwood at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee, grew up on a farm with a dad and brothers who “were huge sportsmen,” she says, hunting wild turkey on the regular. (More often than not, young Steffan would spy some sort of feather-studded carcass lurking in the fridge.) She took that meaty knowledge on the road, adding layers of sophistication that included stints in Relais & Chateaux kitchens and a degree from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. These days, Steffan cooks plenty of turkeys and chickens at Blackberry Farm, and she walked me through precisely what to look for in your bird and how to get it ready for its big day.

What’s Out There

“Of course everybody would love to buy free-range, all-organic, home-schooled turkeys,” jokes Steffan, “but [those] are not necessarily always [available], especially in [large] grocery stores.” To detangle the labels on the turkeys you see at the store, a good resource is always the USDA, particularly this page, but here are some terms you might spy.

“Free-range,” “Free Roaming,” and “Cage-Free”

According to the USDA, if your bird is labeled “free-range” or “free-roaming,” its “producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” (That’s a big deal for those who care about supporting humane practices.)

“Cage-free” can actually be a little confusing; with eggs, USDA grade-marked eggs marked as such “must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle.” But with turkeys and chickens, cage-free is less relevant, per some sources. The USDA doesn’t regulate poultry raised for meat in the same way. Stick to “free-range” and “free-roaming” if you can.


If organic turkey matters to you, great: Know what the difference is between “100% organic,” “Organic,” and the rest of the birds out there.


Here’s a misnomer a lot of us have fallen for: “Hormone-free” is irrelevant for pork and poultry. Per the USDA, “Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry. Therefore, the claim ‘no hormones added’ cannot be used on the labels of pork or poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says ‘Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.’” So don’t be confused—and don’t pay more—for that one!

What is “Air-Chilled?”

Air-chilled might sound like the opposite of organic, free-range turkey, but it’s actually what you want when you’re hunting for the perfect bird, says Steffan. Because poultry has to be rapidly cooled immediately post-slaughter in order to adhere to stringent USDA standards, the bird is either sunk in a huge vat of water or put through a series of cooling refrigerators. You want the latter, lest your bird becomes too moist. (Think: Weirdly textured meat, lack of crisp skin.) You’re also getting more meat per buck, because you’re not paying for that extra water content. Steffan likes that the skin of air-chilled birds is already dried out, which is what they do manually at the restaurant, letting birds sit in the cooler, brined. Dry skin is what makes for a golden sheen on the finished turkey.

Bank On 3-6 Days Prep for Frozen Birds

Don’t buy a frozen bird the day before Thanksgiving, or even two days before! You want at least three full days of prep time, suggests Steffan, particularly if you’re brining. (Using the metric that you’ll need one full day to defrost per four-pounds of bird, the Butterball site specifies that you’ll need five full days to defrost a 20-lb bird!) You also might want to bank on an extra night for brining the defrosted bird. Note: You can quickly defrost a turkey using cold water, but you have to change out the water frequently; it’s very hands-on, and the results tend to not be as tasty. You are not to leave the bird at room temperature to defrost from being frozen; it’s not safe, and you can get sick.

What to Avoid

Watch out for “if it’s been brined or injected with salt solution,” says Steffan. “It’s salt but there’s probably also sugar, and who knows what else—other chemicals. Avoid anything that says ‘pre-brined.’” Also, feel free to buy a fresh or frozen turkey, but make sure it’s not in between, warns Steffan, which is unsafe. “At a farmers’ market, they’d probably have to keep it cool and frozen,” she says, but “watch out for frost or freezer burn, and make sure it’s been properly sealed and packaged.”

Use Your Nose

Know what raw poultry is supposed to smell like—not much! “If it doesn’t smell good, don’t even risk it,” Steffan says initially, quickly qualifying with, “Then again, sometimes the way things are packaged, it might be totally fine. It’s just been in the plastic for too long.” Plastic containers can develop “a funk,” she says, which can be remedied by salting the turkey thoroughly and plunking it in ice water for five minutes. Scrub it—“Ya gotta exfoliate your turkey!” she laughs—towel it off, and see if it smells less funky. If not, bite the bullet, and toss it.

How Big?

Some would guesstimate one-and-a-half pounds per person, depending on the size of the bird and bone-to-meat ratio, but Steffan goes for two pounds per person, plus at least two pounds of meat for leftovers.

That’s it! Now figure out the “to brine or not to brine” question, and you’re ready to get rolling on the most gorgeous, Instagrammable bird anyone has ever seen. (And yes, naturally, we have recipe ideas.)

And if everything somehow fails despite following all the best instructions around, don’t worry: Everyone makes cooking mistakes, and there’s always pizza!

Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.