Turkey Terminology

Turkey Terminology – Types of Turkeys in the Marketplace

The package label of the turkey you purchase contains terms regulated by the USDA.  The following list of types of turkeys will help you in your decision making when it comes time to buy that turkey for your special dinner.

Turkey Terminology

Some of the following turkey information is by Chef Mick (Michaelangelo) Rosacci Corporate Chef and co-owner of the Tony’s Markets in the Denver Metro area.

Frozen Turkeys: 

Do you know that a “frozen” turkey is fresher than a so called “fresh” turkey?  Turkeys chilled below 0 degrees F. must be labeled “frozen.”  Or, if they are sold already defrosted, you may see “previously frozen” on the label.  You can purchase frozen turkeys months in advance.  Turkeys can be kept frozen in the freezer indefinitely, but for best quality should be used within 1 year of purchase.  Keep frozen until you are ready to thaw it.  These flash-frozen turkeys are an economical choice and can be fresher than fresh unfrozen turkeys, which can sit around (sometimes for months) before they get to your store.

This is what my favorite butcher told me.  The so-called “fresh” turkeys have been sitting around for many, many days.  From the processing, trucking to the grocery store, and then in the grocery store.  These are not fresh turkeys!  His advice is to only purchase frozen turkeys, as they are flash frozen immediately after being butchered.  Frozen turkey are fresher turkeys!

Fresh Turkeys:

Turkeys may be labeled as “Fresh” if they have never been chilled below 26 degrees F.  According to the National turkey Federation, turkey doesn’t freeze at 32 degrees F. but at a temperature closer to 26 degrees F.  If you decide for a fresh turkey, check the “use by” or “sell by” date.  If the fresh turkey comes from a trusted source, they are easier to use because there is no need to defrost.  NOTE: Some processors will hold “fresh” turkey for up to two (2) months before they send them to the store.

Hard-chilled or Deep-chilled Turkeys:

Turkeys that have been chilled below 26 degrees F., but not below 0 degrees F., cannot be labeled as fresh, but do not have to be labeled as frozen either. T hey may be labeled as “not previously frozen.”

Basted or Self-Basting Turkeys:

This technique is used to increase flavor, juiciness and weight in poultry (as well as other meats).  These meats are also known as ‘Enhanced’ – Enhanced meats are injected, or vacuum treated, to increase weight by approximately 15%.  These processes add a water and chemical solutions of approved food additives into and on the meat.  NOTE: I suggest that you avoid these over-processed turkey that have been injected with a “self-basing” solution.  The solution is usually salt and water plus various fat, flavor enhancers, and “other approved substances.”

Natural Turkeys:

A minimally processed product containing no artificial ingredient or added color.  However, it does not mean that the turkey has not been given antibiotics.  These are essentially birds that are not ‘basted’ or ‘self-basting.’  The term makes no reference to the way the turkey was raised.

Kosher Turkeys:

These turkey are grain-fed with no antibiotics and are allowed to roam freely.  Kosher turkeys are processed and inspected under rabbinical supervision.  This includes soaking in salt brine, which adds a distinctive, savory character.  Much like basted or self basting, the process adds a solution to the meat and increases weight.

Hen or Tom Turkeys:

Hen turkeys are female birds, usually weighing from 8 to 16 pounds.  Tom turkeys are males, usually weighing from 18 to 32 pounds.  In your grandmother’s day, hen turkeys offered more white meat.  But with today’s selective breeding, both Hen and Tom turkeys offer a high ratio of white to dark meat.

Free Range Turkeys:

This labeling term has nothing to do with quality or taste.  When adding  the words “Free Range” to the label, a grower must open part of their turkey house to a common yard for a matter of minutes per day.  While only a few birds venture out, they all can be labeled as Free Range.  Most producers avoid this because of the negative effects of increased stress, disease, insects, and temperature on the entire flock.  While ‘Free Range’ poultry can be of excellent quality, I have found the majority of their marketing techniques to be deceptive – usually the point it better profits, not better poultry.

Organic Turkeys:

This labeling and marketing term has nothing to do with quality, taste, tenderness or juiciness.  These labeling laws are concerned with items such as feed certification, genetic engineering, and the use of ionizing radiation.  While organic farming is clearly a positive revolution in our mechanized world, it is not a determination of quality, though the majority of consumers confuse it as such.  Note: All high-quality American Turkeys are free of added hormones and antibiotics.  The use of hormones is not allowed in any poultry, and both feed and poultry tissue is tested by inspectors to assure there are no chemical residues.

Premium Brand Turkeys:

Many producers go above and beyond to produce premium turkeys with quality emphasized over price.  Premium brand turkeys consistently offer superior quality.  Most of these producers claim that the difference between their turkeys and others is in the quality of the feed their turkeys get.

Young Turkey:

According to USDA regulations, a “young” turkey is a turkey of either sex that is less than 8 months old at the time of slaughter.  Most turkeys reach market maturity at 4 to 5 months of age.

Hormones, Antibiotics, and Additives

According to the USDA, hormones are not approved for use in the production of turkey in the U.S.

Antibiotics can be administered to turkeys to prevent disease and increase feed efficiency.  However, a “withdrawal” period is required to allow these substances to leave the turkey before it is slaughtered, ensuring there are no residues in the bird.

The USDA does not allow the use of additives in fresh turkey.  If turkey is processed, additives like salt, MSG, or other substances must be listed on the label. 

Thanksgiving Hints and Tips:

Turkey Basics – How to purchase, stuff, and roast a turkey – Choosing a fresh or frozen turkey – How to thaw a frozen turkey – How to prepare turkey for stuffing.

Thanksgiving Planning – Stress-Free Thanksgiving – How to plan and prepare your Thanksgiving dinner in advance without stress.

Thanksgiving Dinner Menu – Check out some ideas and recipe for your Thanksgiving dinner menu.

Guidelines for Brining Poultry – The secret to juicy chicken breast is simple – brine them before grilling or baking! It’s very easy and economical, and requires no special cookware.

Guidelines For Roasting a Whole Turkey – Learn how to safely and easily prepare and roast your turkey.

Advice on Stuffing a Turkey Safely – As the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday draws near, learn how to safely stuff your turkey.

Using a Cooking or Meat Thermometer – Have you ever cut into a turkey to see if it has finished cooking?  Cooking thermometers take the guesswork out of cooking, as they measures the internal temperature of your cooked meat and poultry to assure that a safe temperature has been reached, harmful bacteria have been destroyed, and your turkey is cook perfectly.

Making Perfect Turkey Gravy – Hints and tips for making that perfect turkey gravy.

Handling Leftovers Safely – Leftover” foods are cooked foods that you or your family do not eat within 2 hours after they are cooked.  Improper handling or storing cooked food is one of the most common causes of food poisoning in the home.

Let’s Make Turkey Stock – My favorite thing to do the morning after Thanksgiving is to make homemade turkey stock from the turkey carcass.  It is so easy to do and so delicious!  The turkey stock can be used for a delicious soup or frozen for future use.

Barbecued Turkey

Cajun Fried Turkey

Smoked Turkey


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