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How to Choose the Right Turkey to Eat on Thanksgiving, Chefs Say

Finding the best turkey for your holiday needs is a multi-step process.
FACT CHECKED BY Jordan Powers Willard

Thanksgiving may be right around the corner, but there's still time to find the perfect turkey for your holiday meal. However, picking the best turkey for your Thanksgiving dinner isn't as simple as just going to the store for some chicken breast.

When buying a turkey, you'll have to consider things like the size you need, your budget, if you want it fresh or frozen, and where you're going to get it. Not to mention, there's also the fact that we are currently facing a turkey shortage due to multiple influenza outbreaks, which in turn, has made the prices for Thanksgiving turkey soar.

So, how exactly do you choose the right turkey for your Thanksgiving dinner? We asked professional chefs to help us find out. And after getting your fill of how to shop for Thanksgiving turkey like a pro, be sure to also read and bookmark How Long You Actually Need to Cook Your Turkey, According to Chefs.

Should you buy a fresh or frozen turkey?

store bought turkey

One of the first questions people often have when they decide they're going to buy a Thanksgiving turkey is whether they should go frozen or fresh. When making this decision, chefs suggest considering a few key things: time, storage, and availability.

Rodney Freidank, corporate chef at Table 301 Catering, says that frozen may be the best idea.

"Most people won't be able to tell the difference between fresh and frozen. Flash freezing techniques help keep the meat in great shape to minimize moisture loss during thawing," Freidank tells Eat This, Not That! "It is hard to find a fresh turkey in a supermarket, and the price is typically lower for a frozen turkey."

While these benefits are significant, Freidank notes that "the biggest challenge is storing the bird prior to cooking, because it will take at least three to four days to thaw a frozen bird."

Diana Manalang, chef and owner of Little Chef Little Café in NYC, says that she doesn't really have a preference between fresh or frozen. However, she also emphasizes the challenge of time when it comes to buying a frozen turkey over fresh.

"The determining factor for me is time. With a fresh turkey, I can skip the brining step if I'm short on time, and I can have everything prepped in roughly one day," explains Manalang. "With a frozen turkey, time is needed for the turkey to defrost as well as for it to brine overnight. Then, I pull it out of the brine and let it sit in the fridge for a few hours to allow the skin to dry out, which ensures some crispy, golden brown skin," she adds. "The total preparation time for frozen turkey then ends up being about three to four days."

So, when choosing between fresh or frozen, a frozen turkey will be the best choice if you want an easier time trying to find one to buy and save a little more money. However, it will take you more time to prepare a frozen turkey overall. Therefore, it's important to be mindful of your individual dining needs when trying to choose between these two options.

How big of a turkey do you need?

Once you've decided what type of turkey you're going to buy, you'll need to decide what size you're going to get.

When you buy a turkey, it's almost always going to be measured out in pounds. The right turkey weight that you're looking for "depends on how many people you're feeding," according to Freidank. "I buy at least one pound of turkey per adult, and then tack on a couple pounds for leftovers," he advises.

Pete Servold, a classically trained French chef and founder for Pete's Real Food, says you may be able to get away with a little less.

"You can calculate about half a pound of bird for every person you are serving. For example, if you are serving eight people, you would want at least four pounds," Servold says.

So, it's safe to say that an acceptable range would be anywhere between half and one pound of turkey per adult you intend to serve—and always keep leftovers in mind.

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Where should you buy your turkey?

Turkeys at costco

With the current turkey shortage, finding a turkey may be more challenging now than it's been in years past.

Freidank claims that the best thing you can possibly do when buying a holiday bird is to go local.

"If you can buy a locally raised turkey, then that is wonderful. But you will need to think ahead as most breeders have a limited quantity, and they are typically pre-sold well before the holiday," Freidank says. "A local butcher will also most likely have access to heritage breeds and organically raised birds, if that is what is important to you."

While this is ideal, buying a locally raised bird usually can't be done at the last minute. And if you're reading this article and haven't yet bought your turkey for this Thanksgiving, you are more than likely out of time for shopping through a local farm.

Thankfully, Manalang says there's truly nothing wrong with going the old-fashioned supermarket route. "Many grocers will offer special pricing, discounts, and even free turkeys if you can find the right sales," says Manalang.

A number of restaurants and fast food places also offer fully-cooked turkeys, as well. For example, Popeyes was taking online orders for Thanksgiving turkeys to be delivered straight to your door this year. Although the online orders are currently closed, you can still call your local Popeyes for pickup.

What else do you need to know when choosing a turkey?

Deciding on fresh versus frozen, where you're going to buy your bird, and what size you're going to choose are some of the most important decisions to make when choosing a Thanksgiving turkey. However, there are a few other things you may want to consider this year.

According to Freidank, it's important to look for specific terminology used in the marketing of turkey.

"Don't be fooled by terminology used to sell turkeys; 'free-range,' 'all natural,' etc. A lot of them are marketing terms designed to make you feel good about the turkey, but are often not regulated or tested by anyone," Freidank says. "Organic is a certification that has merit, and fresh is a term that is regulated—the turkey can never be chilled to below 26°."

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Also, given the turkey shortage, Servold recommends having a holiday meat backup plan.

"As a result of the ongoing supply chain issues, I would suggest having a backup plan just in case," he says. "There are plenty of main dish substitutes that offer rich flavor and complement a Thanksgiving dinner, like a slow-cooked brisket, braised pork belly, or my personal favorite duck confit."

Samantha Boesch
Samantha was born and raised in Orlando, Florida and now works as a writer in Brooklyn, NY. Read more about Samantha