21 Pro Tips for Buying Turkey for a Perfect Thanksgiving

Shopping for a turkey should be easy! Here are some tips from a professional chef that will make finding and buying the perfect turkey a breeze.

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View of preparation of thanksgiving turkey
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Buy frozen

Some say fresh turkeys taste better, but we can barely tell the difference (other than price). Norma Farrell, a consumer-education specialist at the National Turkey Federation, says there’s no real quality difference between the two. Frozen turkeys are flash-frozen after processing to preserve them, and “fresh” turkeys can be many days old by the time you buy them. And just in case you forget to defrost, you can cook a Thanksgiving turkey from frozen.

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Midsection Of Woman Carrying Tray With Roast Turkey In Kitchen
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Buy a well-rounded bird

Consider the shape of the turkey before you plop it in your shopping cart. Above all else, look for one with a well-rounded breast—it’ll turn out juicier. Beware of flat spots, which can indicate the bird has been thawed and refrozen. This not only increases the chances of freezer-burned meat, but it also raises the risk of food-borne illness.

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Find the right size turkey

Knowing how much turkey per person when planning your shopping is essential, but keep in mind the differences when you’re deciding between a large turkey or a smaller one, Smaller turkeys take less time to cook (and thaw, if you’re buying frozen), and the meat usually turns out more tender. If you’re feeding a crowd, consider cooking two small birds instead of buying a larger one. Just make sure you’ll have enough room in your roasting pan.

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DES PLAINES, IL - NOVEMBER 26: Meat wrapper Rick Shapiro restocks and arranges turkeys November 26, 2002 at a Jewel-Osco food store in Des Plaines, Illinois. With Thanksgiving just two days away, supermarket shoppers are busy with their last-minute needs. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
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Buy your turkey early

If you’re buying a frozen turkey make sure you purchase it with enough time to thaw it properly: One day for every four pounds. Buying early ensures you’ll be able to brine the turkey—and avoid dealing with turkey shortages—but be careful with fresh turkeys. After purchasing them, they can only be stored up to two days in the fridge.

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Happy man serving roasted turkey to his family during Thanksgiving dinner at dining table.

Figure out how much turkey you need

In general, it’s best to aim for about one pound of turkey per person when serving a smaller bird. Larger turkeys have large bones and less edible meat, so a pound-and-a-half per person is a safer bet. Of course, some crowds eat more than others, and you’ll want to be sure you make enough for leftovers. It’s never a bad idea to throw a few extra guests into the calculation. Here’s a quick guide to how much food to serve, course by course.

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Close up of unrecognizable person carving white meat during dinner at dining table.

Remember your guests’ preferences

If your guests are particular about their turkey—preferring more white or dark meat—tailor your dinner to meet their needs. Consider buying an extra bone-in turkey breast for the white-meat lovers, or skip the whole turkey if no one in the family likes the dark meat. Alternatively, get a smaller turkey and pick up extra drumsticks or thighs if everyone prefers the dark meat. If you end up with more than your guests can finish, try one of these delicious recipes for turkey leftovers.

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Preparing stuffed turkey with vegetables and other ingredients for holidays

Know what you’re getting with a natural turkey

You can expect to receive a turkey with no additives or preservatives when you buy a natural turkey, but the term isn’t intended to indicate health or nutritional benefits. In short, the FDA’s definition ensures the turkey won’t contain anything that would “not normally be expected to be in that food,” like artificial ingredients or colorings. Check the ingredients label, though, because sodium solutions and broths can still be added to plump-up natural turkeys.

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Preparing Stuffed Turkey with Vegetables and Other Ingredients for Holidays

Know the difference between “organic” and “natural”

Organic turkeys are usually the most expensive options for Thanksgiving. They meet the “free-range” criteria, so they have access to the outdoors, and they’re fed a USDA-certified organic diet free of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, additives or animal by-products. Because they cost more, we recommend saving money by picking a smaller bird. Learn more about how to read poultry labels.

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SONOMA, CA - NOVEMBER 25: Days before Thanksgiving, a group of turkeys walk around their pen at the Willie Bird Turkey farm November 25, 2002 in Sonoma, California. It is estimated that Americans feast on approximately 535 million pounds of turkey on Thanksgiving. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Justin Sullivan/gettyimages

Consider a free-range or pasture-raised turkey

Turkeys labeled as “free-range,” “free-roaming” or “cage-free” tend to be more expensive, but some consumers find this muscular, leaner meat to be more flavorful. Be aware that while the USDA regulates this term, it’s defined as birds that have been “allowed access to the outdoors.” That doesn’t necessarily mean they actually roamed free.

Pasture-raised birds, on the other hand, live outdoors year-round and have more room to roam, but it’s an unregulated term. There really aren’t any guarantees here, either, unless you know your farmer.

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Turkey Roasting in the Oven

Understand that heritage turkeys cook differently

The classic Thanksgiving turkey is a selectively bred bird known as the Broad Breasted White. These birds produce more white meat, but they can’t fly and don’t get much exercise. Heritage turkeys are more similar to what the Pilgrims would have eaten, and they’re often available from local farms at a much higher price than store-bought turkeys. They’re leaner and more muscular, so they’ll cook faster. Brining is key to ensuring juicy meat, and we also recommend cooking these birds at higher temperatures (over 400°F). For best results, consider making a deconstructed turkey when cooking a heritage turkey.

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Turkey, stuffing, and gravy dishes on wood surface
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Know what “self-basting” means

Self-basted turkeys make things easy on Thanksgiving Day. These birds have added flavor and moisture because they’ve been “injected or marinated with a solution containing butter or other edible fat, broth, stock or water plus spices, flavor enhancers and other approved substances” (according to the United States Department of Agriculture). If you’re planning to brine or season the turkey yourself, avoid those basted labels.

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Dry brining - salting raw turkey, thanksgiving dining, preparing raast turkey

Don’t choose a kosher turkey if you want to brine

Like self-basted or enhanced turkeys, you really don’t want to brine a kosher turkey. These turkeys are salted as part of the processing, so brining them would make them way too salty! They’re a good option if you don’t want to brine and want to skip the added fat and spices of self-basted birds.

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Roasted Chicken with Potatoes and Carrots with Rosemary -Photographed on Hasselblad H3D2-39mb Camera
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Look for a hen turkey

There are two types of turkeys: female hen turkeys and male tom turkeys. If you buy a turkey that’s over 18 pounds, it’s likely a tom turkey. Other than size, there’s no real difference between the two, except that toms have larger bones and less edible meat. Most grocery stores sell tom turkeys, so you’ll want to shop at a local farm or ask your butcher if you specifically want a hen.

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Thanksgiving Turkeys
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Avoid packaging with tears or holes

Turkeys should be wrapped in plastic that’s smooth and intact, so avoid any ragged-looking packaging. Holes can cause freezer burn, and you’ll have to place the turkey in a new bag if you’re thawing the bird in cold water.

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DES PLAINES, IL - NOVEMBER 26: Bess Tinaglia shops for a turkey November 26, 2002 at a Jewel-Osco food store in Des Plaines, Illinois. With Thanksgiving just two days away, supermarket shoppers are busy with their last-minute needs. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
Tim Boyle/gettyimages

Know what the sell-by date means

You don’t have to worry too much about these dates when buying a frozen turkey, but it’s critical information for fresh turkeys. The sell-by date is seven days after the bird was processed. The turkey will be good for up to two days in the fridge after this date, but you’ll need to cook or freeze it by then so it won’t spoil.

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Assorted food in a refrigerator
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Check your fridge space before buying a fresh turkey

It’s okay to thaw a frozen turkey in a cooler filled with ice packs (so long as the cooler stays below 40°F), but you have to store a fresh turkey in the fridge. Make sure you have enough space before committing to one.

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SAN FRANCISCO - NOVEMBER 21: A volunteer prepares a box of turkeys to be given out during the 2006 holiday turkey distribution at the San Francisco Food Bank November 21, 2006 in San Francisco, California. Despite donations being down at most food banks across the country, the San Francisco Food Bank will distribute over 1,500 turkeys to churches and community centers over the holiday season. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Justin Sullivan/gettyimages

Consider purchasing a generic turkey

If you have the choice, consider buying a generic turkey instead of one from a brand name. They often come from the same place as well-known brands, and they’re usually much cheaper. Most of the time you won’t be able to taste the difference when cooking Thanksgiving turkey. Some brands do use a unique seasoning blend, which may pique your interest if you don’t plan to season yourself.

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turkey in oven
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Know your roasting pan’s size

There’s no sense in buying a gigantic bird that won’t fit in your roasting pan (or in your oven!). Know your pan’s dimensions and buy the right size turkey for your pan. While you’re at it, do a quick check of your platters, serving utensils and ensure you have enough leftover containers.

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Preparing stuffed turkey with vegetables and other ingredients for holidays

Avoid pre-stuffed turkeys

The USDA doesn’t recommend buying pre-stuffed turkeys because they can be a food safety risk. The stuffing is highly perishable, and the depth of the cavity can cause bacterial growth under the right conditions. Instead, buy a regular turkey and cook the stuffing on the side. We recommend using these flavorful ingredients to stuff your turkey.

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An uncooked turkey in a baking pan.

Skip a turkey with a pop-up timer

Some store-bought turkeys come with a pop-up timer or plastic thermometer. If you buy one of these turkeys, take the insert out and toss it in the garbage (or ignore it if it won’t come out). They sometimes don’t pop up at all, and they’re often inaccurate when they do work. Use an instant-read meat thermometer or digital probe thermometer instead.

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Festive dish for Thanksgiving, roasted turkey legs with vegetables on a table with snacks. Top view, flat lay.
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Buy alternatives to a whole turkey

If buying a whole turkey is too intimidating, pick up a turkey breast instead. You can roast it the traditional way in the oven, or free up space by cooking it in a slow cooker. For those who prefer dark meat, braised turkey thighs or hot-and-spicy turkey legs are great options.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest

Lindsay D. Mattison
Lindsay has been writing for digital publications for seven years and has 10 years of experience working as a professional chef. She became a full-time food writer at Taste of Home in 2023, although she’s been a regular contributor since 2017. Throughout her career, Lindsay has been a freelance writer and recipe developer for multiple publications, including Wide Open Media, Tasting Table, Mashed and SkinnyMs. Lindsay is an accomplished product tester and spent six years as a freelance product tester at Reviewed (part of the USA Today network). She has tested everything from cooking gadgets to knives, cookware sets, meat thermometers, pizza ovens and more than 60 grills (including charcoal, gas, kamado, smoker and pellet grills). Lindsay still cooks professionally for pop-up events, especially when she can highlight local, seasonal ingredients. As a writer, Lindsay loves sharing her skills and experience with home cooks. She aspires to motivate others to gain confidence in the kitchen. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her cooking with fresh produce from the farmers market or planning a trip to discover the best new restaurants.