Thanksgiving will be here soon, which means we need to talk turkey. The good news is, unlike last year, you won’t have to worry about a turkey shortage this November. According to the USDA’s September 2023 report, the number of turkeys raised increased by 4 percent compared to 2022.
But while you'll likely be able to find a bird this year, you'll still have to make some decisions, and one of the first is whether to buy a fresh turkey or frozen turkey.
To help you make the right choice, we reached out to turkey experts, including a turkey farmer and folks who work for some of the country's biggest turkey brands. Their tips and tricks will help you decide which bird is right for you.
Should I Buy a Fresh or Frozen Turkey?
This might seem like a simple question, but there are lots of factors that go into making this decision. Here's what you need to consider.
The flavor of your turkey can be affected by many things (how it was stored and what you do—or don't—put on it when you roast it), but generally speaking, fresh turkeys will often have a richer flavor than a frozen bird and can sometimes taste a bit gamey in comparison. That's because many fresh birds are organic and/or free-range and have a more varied diet than conventionally raised frozen turkeys, which are usually grain-fed.
Fresh turkeys can be a bit tougher than frozen turkeys, but can also have a smoother texture with moister meat because they've never been frozen. Freezing and thawing can dry out turkey meat and make it shred a bit when sliced. To make up for that, many frozen turkeys are injected with a salt solution.
“Typically, it'll say something to the effect of, ‘a whole turkey with 10% added brine solution or salt solution,’ because most of [the bigger brands] are shooting a salt water mix into the bird,” says Evan Gunthorp, owner of Gunthorp Farms, in LaGrange, Indiana. Although the salt solution doesn't affect the taste that much, it does increase the weight of the bird.
Most of the time, you'll pay a premium for a fresh turkey. It costs more to feed these birds and free-range farms can usually not house as many birds as a conventional turkey farm can, where the birds are kept in very close quarters. Conventionally raised frozen turkeys are usually the most affordable option at the store and are often discounted further as Thanksgiving approaches.
Space and Time
According to Kim Anderson, brand manager of the Jennie-O Turkey Store, it’s the “practical considerations, such as available storage space, [that] influence the decision-making process.” When you buy a frozen turkey, you'll have to incorporate thawing time into your schedule.
A 16-pound turkey will take four days to thaw in the refrigerator, not including the time it takes to cook. Make sure to place the bird on a large pan to catch any drips as it thaws in the fridge. A fresh bird may be more convenient in terms of avoiding thawing, but either one will result in a delicious centerpiece dish.
Where should I buy my turkey?
Once you've decided on a fresh or frozen bird, you have to figure out where to buy your turkey.
Although you can buy fresh turkeys at some markets, Gunthorp advises “reaching out to a farmer, somebody who actually raised the turkey” because there is “a say in how that animal was raised—what it was fed,” he says.
“If you're going through the grocery store, there's going to be the illusion of choice, of an awful lot of different brands,” he added. “But the reality is that they're going to be coming out of one or two plants in your region that are running several thousand per day.” If you do decide on a fresh turkey from a local farm, Gunthorp recommends contacting them as early as possible to ensure that they can accommodate your order.
Frozen turkeys are much easier to find. They're available at your local grocery store and at nationwide chains like Walmart, Costco, Whole Foods, Aldi and Trader Joe's. There are also mail-order options, such as Harry & David and Omaha Steaks.
More Turkey Talk
Now that you're clear on a fresh or frozen bird, here's more great info on making your Thanksgiving turkey the best it can be.
• How to Thaw a Turkey Quickly and Safely
• How to Brine a Turkey Like a Pro
• How Long Does It Take to Cook the Perfect Turkey?
• How to Carve a Turkey
• How to Tell If Your Leftover Turkey is Safe to Eat