Hello and welcome to this, the first ever issue of Thanksgiving FYI. I’m so happy you’re here. This week we’re going to be going over some turkey basics but before that you’ll find three lists — the things you must do this week, the things you should do, and the things you might consider doing. This is going to be an ongoing feature of the Monday newsletter and the idea is to help you sort out what you need to accomplish to help make Thanksgiving not just a success but one that you are proud of and hopefully less stressed about. As always, please send any feedback to email@example.com
One last bit of housekeeping: I’ve created a fundraiser page on Feeding America, an absolutely wonderful organization with a 97% rating on Charity Navigator that aims to end hunger in America. It’s absolutely shameful that anyone in the richest country on earth goes hungry, please consider donating. I’d love to blow past our modest $500 goal.
If you’re anything like me, planning for holidays is a rather single-threaded affair and it’s frankly just a challenge to be thinking about turkey and whether or not to invite grandma’s boyfriend this year when you haven’t even carved your Jack-o’-lantern. That’s part of the reason I embarked on this project, to make it as simple as possible to know what to do and when. So consider these lists a rough guideline to help you plan your own dinner.
Decide what kind of dinner you want to have. I know, smartypants, you want to have a Thanksgiving dinner, but Thanksgivings, like families, come in every form and, unlike families, you actually have some say in how they function. Here are a few dynamics to the big meal — I would encourage you to think of these (as many things in life!) as spectrums, not binaries, and figure out where your Thanksgiving falls. Thanksgiving is, first and foremost, an opportunity to gather with the people you love most and share what you are grateful for. Everything else can flow from that.
Family / friends — in my twenties, living on the opposite coast from where I grew up, I hosted many a Friendsgiving and they are some of my most cherished gatherings. With a family of my own, and now much closer to where I grew up, I appreciate the opportunity to bring generations of family together. Plus, no one is stopping you from having a second dinner on Friday.
Traditional / unconventional — look, I’m writing a newsletter about Thanksgiving, I’m pretty much onboard with an according-to-Hoyle holiday. I also agree with Somerset Maugham’s invitation to treat traditions as “a guide not a jailor,“ so use this as an opportunity to create new traditions, welcome in new ideas (or flavors), and maybe even experiment with the occasional side dish. Last year, I went completely off-script with a Mexican theme including mole colorado and a ceviche appetizer.
Formal / shared — one of the first Thanksgivings I ever helped host was a multi-course, seated affair for over a dozen friends, cooked in a kitchen that was not my own. It was, improbably, a huge success that attendees still mention fifteen years later. If you think of Thanksgiving as a slightly bigger, maybe more formal dinner party, you can absolutely pull off one or two cooks making all the decisions and handling all of the cooking. For larger crowds that veer more towards a family get-together, I recommend a more hybrid approach — take the lead on the big ticket items like the turkeys, the marquee sides, and at least one pie, then let Uncle Ed show up with his famous greenbean-sturgeon casserole.
Send out the invitations. Depending on the kind of dinner you’re hosting, this may either already be decided for you or coming much too late, especially if folks are traveling. Don’t stress, the goal here is to establish where dinner is going to be hosted (don’t assume!), get a rough headcount, and make sure no one is left behind. Look for allies — your once-weird cousin who finally found himself at culinary school or your fun aunt who makes an amazing pie dough and always springs for the good bourbon — to help with the heavy lifting.
Start the living document. I really can’t stress how important is to write down a plan and the invitation list is a great place to start. I’ve seen and used all manner of arcane project planners, from multi-tabbed spreadsheets to literal kanban boards and I have to say: either a simple Google Doc or (my preference) a note in Apple Notes works best for me. As you get busy in the kitchen, you are really going to want something you can just pull up on your phone rather than hauling out your laptop. Share it with your select co-conspirators but don’t let it go too far and wide.
Order a turkey. More on the specifics of this below, but this is probably the week that your local butcher’s shop, farmer’s market, or fancy grocery store has started taking orders for fresh turkeys. It may well involve a non-refundable deposit and will certainly involve knowing how many turkeys and at what size. All of that will be covered below. Don’t dawdle on this, good turkeys sell out!
Inventory your kitchen. Make a list of the equipment you’ve got on hand — pie plates, casserole dishes, cutting boards, potato ricers. Put your eyes on them, don’t just assume they’re still on the top shelf when it turns out grandma’s boyfriend didn’t actually return your gravy separator.
Start to work out place settings. This will get more fixed as the invitations roll in, but get a rough idea of how many place settings you’ll need, auxiliary (don’t-call-it-a-kids’) tables, servingware. If you need more table cloths, napkins, or to borrow silverware, this is the time to start to figure that out. I’ll be honest with you, I’m terrible at this part, but fortunately my wife is both amazing at it and really enjoys it. You can’t have her though, you gotta find your own.
Plan guest activities. My focus is almost entirely in the kitchen the entire week of Thanksgiving, but I like to think I’m going to come up with the perfect activity for over-energized kids in itchy sweaters or conversation starters that will heal every heart. I’ve never really pulled this off, but maybe you have this gift?
Donate to Feeding America. I promise I won’t do this every week, but I am adding a link to the footer template of these emails.
If you are not yet ready to read 1,500 words about turkeys, here’s my top of the line suggestion on buying a bird: look for a fresh, not frozen, turkey that was raised outside and allowed to forage on insects and acorns and not given antibiotics. Heritage breed turkeys fit these definitions, are smaller, and have a uniquely turkey taste; they are also much more expensive, often 2-3 times as much as a frozen supermarket bird. Don’t get a turkey bigger than about 16lbs; go for two smaller turkeys rather than one giant one. Budget for 1.25 - 1.5 pounds per person. Buy as local as you can, I’ve got a few mail-order options near the end.
If you do want more details, well read on.
As you’ve no doubt surmised, I really love Thanksgiving, and that includes the much-maligned centerpiece fowl. I have no idea when it became so fashionable to hate on this majestic bird, but around a decade ago I started noticing every food writer I followed just had to get a dig in. “We all know Thanksgiving is just about the sides, but if you have to cook a turkey, here’s something you could try. I guess.” Turkey’s great! It’s a lean, versatile protein that roasts beautifully and accompanies just about anything. Stop hating on turkey, people!
All that said, I do understand where some of the ambivalence comes from, namely it can be a challenge to roast a whole turkey so that the legs are done and the breast meat isn’t dried out. We’re going to get to that, today we’re here to talk about what to look for when you purchase your bird.
I don’t want to get all into the genetic history of genus Meleagris but I do want to point out that the turkey is, in fact, native to North America and was even domesticated in pre-Columbian times. The turkey you are almost certainly most familiar with, however, was actually exported to Europe, selectively bred, then re-imported to the then-colonies where it was further selectively bred with wild North American turkeys, and then subsequently churned through the industrialized food production machine that has come to dominate the American diet since the mid-20th Century. All of which is to say, the turkey is even more American than apple pie, but it’s complicated.
The most common turkey you will encounter, by far, is the Broad Breasted White, a descendant of the Broad Breasted Bronze that dominated the early 1900s but without the dark pin feathers that were a bit of a turn-off to image-conscious home cooks. The Broad Breasted White is truly a product of industrialized agriculture, where every bird must be artificially inseminated because they are too top heavy to breed naturally and mostly don’t live to breeding age due to inbreeding anyway. Pass the drumstick!
Given this rather grim reality, and with a renaissance of interest in where our food comes from, the Broad Breasted White is not the only turkey available for your table. Heritage breeds are increasingly common, both mail order and locally; common breeds include Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Black Spanish, and White Holland. Confusingly, there is also a Bronze heritage breed that is not to be confused with the Broad Breasted varietals. I’ve sought out heritage birds as often as I can over the years, here are a few things to know about these birds:
They’re typically smaller than the Broad Breasted White you are used to and the ratio of leg (dark) to breast (white) meat is much higher.
The flavor is what I would call more assertive — not gamey, exactly, but definitely not as neutral as what you might be used to.
They can be fattier as well. One year, I was preparing my turkey and discovered a layer of subcutaneous fat between the meat and skin, like on a duck. That was a damn fine turkey.
Perhaps this is obvious, but heritage birds are going to be more expensive given all of the above — they’re smaller, take longer to raise, and require more care, all of which adds a premium.
Heritage turkeys have an actual definition that states they must be a) naturally mating b) live long lives outdoors and c) have a slow growth rate (roughly six months)
In addition to the breed of bird, here are some other qualities you can look for. This gets a bit confusing as the labels can be hard to parse and may even seem contradictory; for example, you may think your organic bird is, by definition, also a heritage bird, but organic just means it was (probably) raised according to the USDA’s organic standards, which has nothing to say about the breed. It’s entirely possible to buy an organic, free-range, antibiotic-free, Broad Breasted White that was the product of artificial insemination.
Fresh — for a turkey to be considered fresh, it can be deep chilled to 26º F, which limits the amount of time between when it’s butchered and sold, meaning it was most likely slaughtered fairly recently. Fresh turkeys are often organic or free-range, but not always. If you’re looking for a place to start, a fresh turkey is almost always going to be better than a frozen one.
Frozen — these are the most common turkeys sold in America and are the end state of all those Broad Breasted Whites. Frozen turkeys are often raised in small enclosures, fed processed corn and soy, and frozen to a temperature between 0ºF and -30ºF; this allows them to be slaughtered and frozen basically whenever and kept in a deep freeze pretty much indefinitely. Frozen turkeys are often injected with a sugar/saline brine that will affect the taste of the final bird. The reality is, you’ve almost certainly eaten one of these birds before, it was likely fine but nothing great. Frozen turkeys will also, obviously, need to be defrosted, in the fridge or a cooler; count on a full 24 hours for every 4lbs.
Organic and free-range — the unfortunate reality of American food production is that labels like “organic” and “free-range” or “free-roaming” are not terribly helpful. The rules that govern how these apply are pretty loose and rely on a lot of industry self-regulation. Which is unfortunate because people increasingly want to know more about where their food comes from and the labeling is terribly confusing. In short, if you trust a producer is raising their birds in the open air and feeding them what turkeys actually eat (bugs and seeds and acorns, not corn and soy), it’s probably worth paying the premium.
Hormone free — you’ll see a lot of turkeys, even the chonky frozen boys at the grocery store, advertising they are “hormone free.“ What they fail to mention is every turkey raised in America is hormone free because hormones have been banned from turkey farming for decades. Same goes for cage free as it’s illegal to raise poultry for meat in cages.
Antibiotic free — unlike hormones, antibiotics are allowed, in order to prevent disease. Look for “antibiotic free” if you want to avoid this.
Kosher — for a turkey to be certified kosher it must be prepared in accordance with Jewish dietary laws, which specify how the animal is to be slaughtered and handled during preparation. Kosher turkeys are also salted as part of the preparation process, but the salt is rinsed before it truly brines the bird; I’ve found it can be hard to know how much salt to use when preparing a kosher turkey. A kosher turkey doesn’t necessarily mean it’s of a particular breed or that it was raised in a particular manner, such as free range or organic.
Self-basting or brined — these are turkeys that have been injected with a mix of salt, sugar, seasonings, fats, broth, and/or water and the label must include the percentage of solution. Fresh turkeys do not include additives.
When sizing your turkey, count on about 1-1.5 pounds per person. If you know there are going to be a bunch of kids, you can get away with the low end of the scale, but I always aim for plenty of leftovers.
You may be tempted to buy the biggest turkey there is — RESIST. A giant turkey takes longer to cook, is more likely to cook unevenly (underdone dark meat, dried out white meat), and is just unwieldy. I suggest keeping the bird to under 16 pounds; if you’ve got a crowd, get two and either roast them together or experiment with one.
Finally, there is the question of where to buy your turkey. I really have a hard time recommending any supermarket birds — I’ve tried and taste tested a bunch of fresh and frozen ones and the quality is just sub par. If you care about the turkey, seek out a better option.
A local butcher is a great first stop, especially if you know they have a relationship with a farm. They will often have heritage options available if you’re interested.
Local farmers and speciality markets are another great option and you’ll often be talking directly with the farmer who raises them. Local Harvest is a good resource for finding local markets.
And of course, there’s mail order. Likely the most expensive option, if you want to just lock something down now, try one of these:
(If you’re searching for a heritage turkey to buy, make sure you’re ordering one to eat not to raise!)
And there we have it, quite possibly more than you want to know about turkeys and somehow there are still topics to address (what even is a giblet?). We'll be back at this again soon and then once Halloween is past, it'll really start to feel like time to get to work.