Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
What to know about buying your Thanksgiving bird

What to know about buying your Thanksgiving bird

Thanksgiving Turkey

Not sure whether to spring for a heritage-breed turkey or just stick with the self-basting kind you bought last year? Read on to learn what type of turkey is right for you this holiday season.


Natural turkeys are raised with no animal by-product feed, no administered growth promotants or antibiotics, except for parasite control, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Turkeys labeled as natural must be minimally processed and have no artificial ingredients, preservatives or coloring added. Natural turkeys can be brined, as they contain no added salt or seasoning.

Self-Basting, Basted or Injected

These turkeys are injected with a saline solution and vegetable oils (and often emulsifiers and artificial flavorings, too) to flavor and tenderize the meat. Due to these seasonings and flavorings, it’s not advisable to brine them. These birds are most often raised on industrial farms without access to pasture, sunlight or the space to move and walk around.

Free-Range or Pasture-Raised

Turkeys with these labels must have free access to the outdoors for more than 51 percent of their lives. There is a difference between pasture-raised and free-range birds: The former label indicates that turkeys were able to freely roam throughout their lives, while the latter only indicates that they were given some access to the outdoors. Neither label guarantees what the turkeys were fed nor if they were raised with or without antibiotics and hormones. These birds are prime for brining, as they aren’t typically processed with added salt or flavorings.

★ If you live in St. Louis, Kansas City, Columbia or Jefferson City, Missouri, seek out a pasture-raised turkey from Buttonwood Farm in the tiny town of California, Missouri. In the Springfield area, source a pasture-raised bird from Bechard Family Farm in Conway or Ozark Natural Farms in Aurora.


Kosher turkeys are slaughtered and processed under rabbinic laws and are always brined in salt, which means they won’t benefit from additional brining. There is no one set of traditional or legal standards for how these birds are raised, although they are often fed grain free of antibiotics and have access to pasture.


Turkeys must meet a strict set of criteria to be labeled organic and birds can only be fed organic feed. Federal law mandates that organic feed be free of antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, chemical residues or animal by-products. Organic birds must also have access to roam on pasture, although there are no set guidelines for slaughtering and processing. These turkeys are ideal for brining, as no salt or additives are used.


These turkeys are the most expensive, and for good reason. In the 1920s, enterprising farmers began breeding turkeys to have broader, meatier breasts. By the early 1960s, a new hybrid emerged: The Broad Breasted White, bred to have larger breasts than standard turkeys. They also mature almost twice as fast, yielding fatter birds. Because heritage birds, which are varieties presenting characteristics no longer present in modern, hybrid breeds, are raised to preserve and strengthen non-hybridized breeds, they are humanely raised and typically given access to roam on pasture. These birds have a naturally lower fat content than Broad Breasted Whites, so the meat is leaner and requires a shorter cook time.

★ At Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Lindsborg, Kansas, farmer Frank Reese raises Standard Bronze, Narragansett, Black, White Holland and Bourbon Red heritage breed turkeys. No matter where you live, you can have one of his birds delivered to your doorstep through

Fresh or Frozen

Fresh or frozen has nothing to do with the turkey’s breed, how it was raised, what it was fed or how it was slaughtered – only what happened to it during the final stage of processing. In order to meet the USDA’s definition of fresh, processed poultry must never dip below 26°F, which is the temperature at which it freezes.


* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Shannon Weber is the creator, author and photographer behind the award-winning, and her work has appeared on websites such as Bon Appétit, Serious Eats and America’s Test Kitchen.

Related to this story