This post from a couple of years ago has been getting a lot of traffic this week so I thought I would bring it, and maybe a couple of other Thanksgiving posts, up front for everyone to see. This is a timely topic of course, but can be applied to your choice of turkey or chicken year round.
Like many people, we only have whole roasted turkey 2 or 3 times a year and always between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. As I am not a hunter, the lady on the left is safe this year, (at least from me). I do my hunting at the grocery store! For as long as I have been cooking the bird, (don’t ask, it’s a long time!), I have always looked for free-range turkeys. I discovered years ago that free range turkeys do indeed taste better. I suspect this is because of two main reasons. First, the birds are out walking around all day, getting exercise and developing leaner, less fatty meat. And second, being outside, they eat all kinds of vegetation, bugs, worms, etc. Just like the eggs of chickens that eat lots of natural food taste better, turkeys that have a more natural diet taste better.
One caveat to the above is that some free range turkeys do very little ranging at all. If a grower raises the kind of turkey that has an unnaturally large breast of white meat, they can be top heavy and have difficulty walking. “Free Range” is not a guarantee of a healthy, humanely raised turkey. Many large turkey producers just provide a little access to an outside environment for some of their birds so they can label them free range and get a higher price. Organic turkey growers avoid this deceptive practice. I think some organic turkey growers also stay away from the bird varieties that have the heavy breast problem. That, and the avoidance of hormones, might be one of the reasons organic turkeys are not easily available in weights over 14-16 pounds.
Although free-range birds have been available forever, in recent years growers have marketed the organic methods of raising these birds. Free range does not always mean organic, so read the label closely. Sometimes being certified organic is a costly process for small growers. If you purchase a locally grown turkey, (the best method), even if it does not say “organic”, take a close look at the label. A local grower might label their birds as free-range, with no hormones, antibiotics, or chemicals. I have asked small local produce growers in our area why they don’t market their produce as organic. The reply is usually that although they use organic growing methods, they can not afford the cost of the certification process. The same thing can be true with smaller meat and dairy farms.
If I plan far enough ahead of time, I prefer to get fresh turkeys. This year, I was late and had to get a frozen, organic, free-range bird. The main advantage of fresh birds is moisture preservation, but I have been able to get around this issue by following a couple of steps. When thawing a frozen bird, always leave it in its plastic wrapper until completely thawed. Then, try the reduced basting method of cooking. After preparing the bird for the oven, I completely cover it with a sealed tent of heavy duty foil. I leave the foil in place until the last 30 to 60 minutes of cooking. I do baste during this last bit of cooking time, but mainly for looks, to get a nice brown bird.
If you are wondering why you should get a free range turkey, all you have to do is learn how some conventional turkey farms operate. If you are a fan of Mike Rowe and his Dirty Jobs TV show, he had an episode on turkey farms. The crowded conditions on these farms are incredible. Workers have to regularly walk through and pile up sick, dying and dead birds for disposal. They are fed sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics to ward off infection. They are fed hormones to increase their growing speed and eventual size. Many of these turkeys are so sick and heavy they can’t walk. Turkey farms, like most huge, industrial farms are often big polluters of their local environment.
Organic, free range turkeys are healthier, taste better, don’t contain hormones and antibiotics, and have a less adverse impact on the environment. There are reasons some people say they can’t get a healthier turkey. Because growth hormones are not used, it can be difficult to find organically produced turkeys over 14-16 pounds. Also, organically produced turkeys do cost more, but they are well worth it.
I have followed up this article with another discussing why the healthy turkeys cost more, and why, within reason, they are well worth the extra price.