Thanksgiving Turkey Survival Guide

Thanksgiving Turkey Survival Guide

If you’re gearing up for Thanksgiving, here’s a good place to start.


Commercial/Standard: Broad breasted white, developed in the 1960s for our love of white meat, count for 99.99 percent of megamart turkeys. They weigh between 16 and 22 pounds at 12-14 weeks. After processing they weigh between 12-18 pounds. National average is $1.50 per pound. So heavy and large breasted birds cannot fly or mate naturally.

Natural: This is not a controlled term. No artificial ingredients or color is added, and they are minimally processed. These birds tend to be drier, which can be remedied with brining. Natural poultry can be given antibiotics.

Kosher: These birds are broad-breasted, white processed birds processed under rabbinical supervision. They are grain fed, have access to the outdoors, given no antibiotics and soaked in salt brine. Salting seasons the meat, improves texture and retains moisture.

Organic: Certified by the USDA (an accredited certifying agency); raised on 100 perfect organic feed, have access to outside and have zero antibiotics.

Self-Basting: Injected with or marinated in a solution. It increases the moisture content for a juicer bird, but masks the turkey’s flavor — do not brine these birds.

Free-Range: Access to outside — doesn’t necessarily mean it has roamed though. Commonly misunderstood as organic or naturally processed, however, this does not refer to the birds feed or handling.

No Hormones Added: Sometimes added to labeling, though this is meaningless as no hormones are allowed in U.S. poultry or eggs.

Heritage Birds: These are turkeys from old-fashioned (heirloom) breeds. Eight varieties are listed in the American Poultry Associations Standards of Perfection: Black, Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, Slate, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White and Royal Palm. Other recognized varieties like Jersey Buff and White Midget, have been accepted by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, but not the APA. Heritage birds are a lot more expensive than commercial birds coming in at $7-10 per pound (commercial averages $1.50 per pound). All heritage birds must meet the following:

– Natural mating and growth
– Long productive outdoor life style
– Slow growth rate (7-8 months, 2x longer than commercial turkeys)
– No antibiotics or other additives (i.e. basting solutions) can be given to heritage birds
– Heritage birds have time to develop an extra layer of fat which is said to add to their deeper flavor. Because they are allowed to run and fly, their meat is firmer/chewier. The meat is darker without being gamey.


1. Look for a bird that’s packaging is damage free, isn’t sticky and is free of any “off” aroma.
2. If you can see the turkey look for plump breast, moist pinkish-white skin, no blemishes or bruises, no off aromas.
3. Size:
– Smaller bird fits better in the fridge
– Larger bird increases the likelihood that the bird will be over cooked
– Consider roasting two medium birds rather than one huge bird

Alton Brown's Thanksgiving Turkey Serving Suggestions


– Store fresh birds on ice or in the fridge for up to four days.
– Frozen birds can be kept in the freezer for up to six months.


– DO NOT defrost at room temperature
– DO NOT cook partially frozen poultry

Alton Brown's Fridge Thawing Times for Thanksgiving Turkey



Add yours
  1. 3

    Sorry, but a 20 pound bird will *never* defrost in a refrigerator in 4 days. I don’t care what butterball or the Internet says. 4 days in a standard 40° fridge… and it will still be rock hard. I’ve been dealing with same for 40 years. The day before thanksgiving when you realize it’s still frozen, make a couple gallons of good brine, unwrap the bird and pop that sucker into an ice chest just big enough to fit, add the brine and fill to cover with ice, adding water if needed to be fully submerged in liquid. Use plates or other heavy dishes to weight the bird down and put the lid on. Check in about 6 hours to see if you can get the giblets, neck, etc out of the cavity. Water will be ice cold, the ice is not likely melted much, but the bird is defrosting. (If you can’t get the giblets out yet try again in a few hours). Once the water can circulate fully it will defrost much faster. That’s when you need to watch the temperature and add ice to keep it chilled and keep the bird’s temp out of the danger zone. (Seems counter intuitive tomdefrost something in ice water, but it works.)

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  3. 9

    I’m in a panic…bought a frozen natural butterball turkey and started brining frozen per your recipe and instructions. It is currently on its 21/2 day brining but still feels frozen. How many days can it stay in this brine and refrigerator. Thanksgiving is in 3 days! HELP!!!!!

    • 10

      I wouldn’t suggest brining a frozen turkey, I don’t think Alton would either. I would take the turkey out of the brine, thaw it in the refrigerator until Wednesday night, then brine the bird. You really don’t want to brine a turkey for 3+ days either, this will make the turkey overly salty and will change the texture of the meat. Ideally you will brine the turkey for around 14-16 hours. Hope this helps.

    • 13

      From AB himself on brining from frozen:
      “The solution (see what I did there) is to thaw the bird by unwrapping it and submerging in a brine contained in a large bucket or cooler or other food safe vessel, covered and tucked away in a closet or garage or … wherever. I slap a probe thermometer in the brine with an alarm set to go off if the temperature of the solution rises above 40 degrees F. That said, I typically go with a 2 day soak and have never had an instance where that temperature has been reached. By the time the bird is thawed, the brine has done it’s job (two jobs actually) and I’m ready to roast.”
      If it’s been in there 2 days, I’d say it’s brined, and to take it out of the brine to finish thawing completely.

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    Thank you for the written information. Some of us need to read it in order to get it into our heads. This information will be in your next cookbook, right?

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