Fresh Turkey vs. Frozen Turkey
What are the differences between fresh and frozen turkeys?
Free-range and organic? Basted and non-basted? Boy, there're more choices out there than you might believe!
Long gone are the days when mom or grandma would wring the turkey's neck and start a-pluckin' in the backyard for the big day! And, depending upon your age, chances are you've never had a fresh turkey and might not like its somewhat gamier taste. If you're say, age 50 or under, all these years you've probably been enjoying a frozen, plump breasted bird, with a fairly mild, sweet taste, and a lot of moistness. The thing to remember, though, is that there's no right or wrong, only what you and your family like best.
Fresh turkeys are becoming increasingly popular. According to a survey conducted by an industry trade group, the National Turkey Federation, 40% of respondents purchased a fresh turkey last Thanksgiving, and 60% of those surveyed purchased a frozen turkey.
So, what's the difference anyway?
A fresh turkey is just that---an unfrozen bird that is chilled to 26F. after being processed, and then sold quickly thereafter. Often these birds also are free-range and/or organic. Rather than being raised in barns, free-range turkeys have access to the great outdoors---generally in range pens--- with the ability to roam and access to a variety of flora and fauna, and usually supplemental feed corn as well. These environmental factors are what give the turkey its more fibrous texture and wild taste. Organic turkeys, which often are free-range, eat only costly organically grown feed and also are free of antibiotics, which are used to promote growth.
Fresh turkeys should be cooked within 1 to 2 days after purchasing. However, if you buy your turkey farther in advance, store it in the coldest part of your refrigerator (usually the back, bottom corner), where it should be safe for up to 3 days before cooking. Should your fresh turkey feel frozen, never fear---it still is fresh! Since Federal regulations require that fresh turkeys be quick-chilled to 26F. what often happens is that the water in the cavity has frozen, not the meat.
Frozen birds on the other hand, are immediately flash frozen after processing at about 30 degrees below zero, and held at 0 degrees or below. Keep in mind, however, that freezing draws out moisture, so the longer your bird is frozen, the more it will dry out upon defrosting. Don't keep your frozen bird longer than a couple of months or the texture will suffer and become drier when you do cook it.
Often turkey processors inject or marinate turkeys with extra juices before freezing to counter dryness. This liquid solution equals between 3% and 12% of a turkey's weight and labels list the percentage of the solution. Common ingredients include turkey broth, water, some sort of fat like vegetable oil or butter, seasonings, and salt or brine. Producers generally baste turkeys only in a few spots, usually the breast, and the process imparts a perception of moistness.
So, what does all that mean anyway?
From a quality standpoint, there is no difference between a fresh or frozen turkey. Again, it's a matter of personal preference, from a texture, flavor or even a political standpoint---get what you and your family will most enjoy.
Fresh turkeys require no defrosting, only careful handling before roasting. Just buy your fresh bird a day or two before it will be cooked and be sure to store it in the coldest part of your fridge.
Fresh turkeys are slightly more expensive than frozen due to perishablity and necessary special handling.
Frozen turkeys must be completely defrosted before roasting. Once defrosted, if the turkey has been handled properly, the meat is practically as fresh as the day it was processed.
How to safely defrost that frozen turkey?
There are two safe ways to defrost a frozen turkey, and the best way is to:
(1) Keep your turkey in its original packaging, then place it in the refrigerator, inside a larger container to avoid drips that could contaminate other food items
Allow 1 day in the refrigerator for every 5 pounds of meat. (For instance, a 15-pound bird would require 3 days of refrigerated defrosting.) The bird is ready to roast when a thermometer inserted into a thick portion of meat reads 40F.
Least preferable, yet still safe:
(2) Keep your turkey in its original packaging, then place it in the kitchen sink under cold running water for 30 minutes for every one pound of meat. Yes, this wastes water, but when you're caught short, it could be your only method
Turkeys defrosted in the microwave may cook along the edges during the process. Be careful if you go this route!
Thawing Time In The Refrigerator
8 to 12 pounds 1 to 2 days
Thawing Time In Cold Water
12 to 16 pounds 2 to 3 days
16 to 20 pounds 3 to 4 days
20 to 24 pounds 4 to 5 days
8 to 12 pounds 4 to 6 hours
12 to 16 pounds 6 to 9 hours
16 to 20 pounds 9 to 11 hours
20 to 24 pounds 11 to 12 hours
And, yes, we've all done it before---thawed turkeys at room temperature---and we're lucky not to have been poisoned! Just remember that the key to safe thawing is to keep your turkey cold during the process. Bacterial growth flourishes between 60 and 125F.