Cooking Light

We go in-depth on which to get, where to find the best kind, and how to make it taste amazing.

Zee Krstic
November 10, 2017

It’s almost Thanksgiving (you probably noticed), and you may be thinking about splurging on a fancier, organic or free-range turkey this year. Maybe you’ve heard that they’re a lot better tasting and more environmentally friendly, or you just want to feed your family the best. But is the extra cost worth it? What do all those terms (organic, free-range, heritage) mean? And most importantly, where do you get a good one and how do you cook it?

Cooking Light’s Tim Cebula, senior food editor and in-house turkey expert, is here to help you understand what makes these birds so great, and why you can’t just treat them like your standard frozen Butterball.

Why Switch

The key to understanding what makes heritage, free-range, and organic turkeys more desirable than their factory-farmed, frozen counterparts starts at the molecular level, Cebula says. The water content and other juices in commodity products like Butterball expand and rupture cells within tissue when the bird is frozen.

This often results in a watery bird going into the oven—and, ironically, an overly dry bird coming out, when all the moisture evaporates. This is also a very likely culprit if you’ve had trouble browning your turkey in previous years. You actually might be steaming your Thanksgiving feast instead of roasting it.

You won’t face that problem with fresh organic and free-range turkeys, however. Be sure to choose a bird that has been “air chilled” rather than one that has been processed in a water bath. 

Understanding the Terms

Free-range means your turkey had access to the outdoors. It’s one of several terms (including cage-free and pasture-raised) which indicates that the bird had the chance to move around, and may have been able to forage for its own food rather than just be fed by the farmer. This doesn't mean that it is organic, however.

Organic turkeys are also free-range, but producers have taken the extra steps to make sure the animal was fed a pesticide-free diet and that no antibiotics were administered. Organic is also a regulated term, meaning that the farm’s practices had to meet certain government standards and be certified by a third party.

Heritage is the term for a breed of bird with qualities or characteristics that aren’t found in the majority of farmed birds—think, here, the difference between your standard Red Delicious, and an heirloom apple variety.

© Fredrika Stjärne

Modern turkeys have been bred to have enormous amounts of breast meat, for instance. Heritage birds often look much different, and are often smaller in size—however, fans claim that the meat tends to be much richer in flavor.

Because they’re so different, Cebula says heritage birds can be much more difficult to work with. And they often require that you adjust a recipe significantly. If this is the first time you’re straying from a frozen turkey, we recommend starting with an organic bird, which will taste better without the same complication and cost.

To see the difference on a smaller scale, Cebula recommends buying a Bell & Evans organic chicken at your nearest supermarket, You can practice on a smaller scale, and get a sense of the taste difference, without paying for a whole turkey.

Where to Get Your Turkey

There are many different ways to source an organic turkey. Many grocery stores now let you preorder organic birds, and pick them up fresh Thanksgiving week. You can also talk to your local butcher or check the stalls at the farmer’s market to see if there are birds for sale, and what kind they are.

If you’d rather not leave the house, there are still plenty of options. Whole Foods will let you place an order online—or in person at the meat counter—and pick it up a day or two before Thanksgiving.

You can also have a bird delivered to your door—unfrozen, so there’s no worry about thawing. Place an order with Williams Sonoma by this Friday, November 17 and you’ll receive your packaged turkey on the 22nd. Upscale specialty retailer Dean & Deluca can also deliver an bird so that it’ll arrive in time for the big day.

Michael Pohuski/Getty Images

If you’re buying local, be sure to pick your turkey up no more than four or five days (at max) before you plan to serve it, so that it remains fresh. And make sure you save room in the fridge! 

Before Cooking: How to Brine

Frozen turkeys are traditionally brined before you buy them, which can result in soggy meat. This isn’t the case for fresh turkeys, especially if they are organic.

The simplest way to brine your turkey for maximum flavor and evenly hydrated meat is a dry brine.

Cebula recommends using a salt-based dry brine, which includes pepper and your go-to herbs. Put it on just 24 hours before you plan to cook your turkey. The meat will absorb the salt and take on a delicious flavor overnight.

How to Cook

The best way to tackle ensuring your turkey is prepared perfectly is actually to break it down and separate the different cuts of meat into different pans. Sure, you might not get the photo-perfect ready-to-carve bird coming out of the oven, but your family will forgive you when they see how delicious everything tastes.

Turkeys have much leaner breast meat than thigh meat, meaning temperature plays a huge factor in the quality of your finished product. By breaking the bird down, you can use a digital thermometer to monitor each section of the bird as it cooks.

You’ll want to pull your breast meat out when it reaches exactly 155°F and wait until the thighs are at 180°F for optimal taste and flavor. 

If you’re feeling nervous about breaking down a raw bird, ask your local butcher to have the turkey broken down for you.