Just consider what we are confronted with: fresh, frozen, frozen basted, free-range, free-roaming, all-natural, heritage fresh, heritage frozen, organic, wild, kosher fresh, kosher frozen. It's mind-boggling.
Maybe that's why one year I switched to an all-pie Thanksgiving dinner. I didn't have to choose one pie. I just bought a dozen pies of every variety imaginable, including a turkey pot pie. I thought it was genius, but my wonderful mother-in-law (and my wife) could not wrap her traditionalist head around it. She thought it was too radical. So I learned the hard way that you can't mess with your mother-in-law's expectations when it comes to holiday foods.
My favorite turkey to date has been the Eberly Farms organic bird, raised in Pennsylvania in apparently humane fashion. A couple of years ago I had great success brining an Eberly Farms turkey on a friend's penthouse roof. Of course it was incredibly windy the night before Thanksgiving that year, so I was worried that my brining turkey was going to fly off the roof of the building and kill someone 15 floors below. Now that would have given fresh-killed turkey a whole new meaning. How did I choose the Eberly Farms organic turkey? I read a 1996 New York Times turkey taste test article.
But 1996 predated the resurrection of heritage turkeys, so I thought it might be helpful to all the Serious Eaters out there to gather a flock of experts to weigh in on this weightiest of all Thanksgiving issues.
I spoke to Chris Kimball, the man who has built a media empire (think Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen) tasting, testing, and telling us what the best is. In the November-December issue of Cook's Illustrated Chris and his merrily opinionated band of testers tasted eight turkeys, though not the Eberly Farms organic bird.
The Rubashkin's frozen kosher bird costs an extremely reasonable $1.99 a pound. Kimball's people found this turkey to have plenty of fat and salt (all kosher turkeys are essentially brined in the slaughtering process) and moist, flavorful white and dark meat.
The Walters Heritage bird was a much pricier $7.14 a pound. The Cook's Illustrated gang found this turkey's meat to be mild, sweet, and flavorful. There was a caveat with the Walters turkey. The Walters family has moved its farm to another state, and though they are using the same breed, there is no guarantee that the turkeys will taste exactly the same.
Almost as Good
Just to confuse us even more, Kimball's tasters and testers also liked the Butterball frozen basted turkey ($1.49 a pound) and the Jennie-O fresh basted bird (also $1.49 a pound), though not as much as their aforementioned two top choices.
The million-page Gourmet Cookbook recommends using a kosher turkey, though it did not specify a brand. It should be noted that the most widely distributed kosher bird, the Empire Kosher brand, was only recommended with reservations by the Cook's Illustrated folks.
So what's a Serious Eater to do?
I'm going with the Eberly Farms organic turkey. According to Eberly Farms's literature, they're raised humanely and all that good stuff. And I've gotten terrific results using them in previous years. I'm considering it my own traditional Thanksgiving choice.
I would be curious about the Rubashkin's Aaron's Best kosher turkey. It's priced right, that's for sure.
And if you can't find either of the above where you live and you are not concerned about organic or other ethical issues surrounding your Thanksgiving turkey, Kimball says you could do a lot worse than a Butterball.
What turkey does Kimball himself roast for his family's Thanksgiving dinner? He gets one from his neighbor's farm in Vermont. That's what I call a hyper-local Thanksgiving bird. Unfortunately hyper-local is not an option for me here in New York, unless I switch to pigeon. I don't think my mother-in-law would like that.