What Size Turkey to Buy and What the Labels Mean

When turkey is the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving feast, you want to make sure you choose the right one for the job. After all, there’s a lot to consider: what size you need, if should it be fresh or frozen, and how to decode all the turkey labels you might find in the market. Here’s what you need to know before you buy a turkey.

Thanksgiving Dinner

Photo by Meredith

How to Buy a Turkey

What Size Turkey to Buy

These amounts are based on the number of adult guests you’re planning for, and whether or not you want leftovers. If your guest list includes a lot of kids, lean towards a smaller size turkey. If your guest are big eaters, lean towards a larger size turkey.

Adult GuestsTurkey (with Leftovers)Turkey (no Leftovers)
2 to 43 to 6 pounds2 to 4 pounds
6 to 89 to 12 pounds6 to 8 pounds
10 to 1215 to 18 pounds10 to 12 pounds
14 to 1621 to 24 pounds14 to 16 pounds
18 to 2027 to 30 pounds18 to 20 pounds
22 to 2433 to 36 pounds22 to 24 pounds

 

  • Allow approximately 1 pound of turkey (whole, bone in) per guest if you don’t want leftovers OR if you’re going to have lots of substantial side dishes.
  • Allow approximately 1½ pounds of turkey (whole, bone in) per guest if you do want leftovers OR if you’re expecting big eaters.
  • Consider cooking two smaller turkeys instead of one large turkey.
  • You can purchase turkey parts such as breasts or legs if you don’t need a whole turkey.

Fresh or Frozen?

Buying a fresh turkey or a frozen one depends on your time and resources:

  • A fresh turkey usually costs more but doesn’t need thawing.
  • Frozen turkeys are less expensive, but need enough time to thaw before cooking.

Related: Learn 3 ways to safely thaw a turkey.

What Kind of Turkey?

Here are a few of the labels you might find when you go turkey shopping:

Self-Basting: The meat has been injected with a flavored solution that adds moisture during roasting. While this can free you up from brining and basting, you won’t have complete control over how the meat tastes.

Natural: No added flavors, brines, rubs, or salt. You get to choose exactly how to flavor your bird.

Kosher: The turkey has been brined with kosher salt during processing. This helps the meat retain moisture, but it also means you should not use a salted brine or dry rub when you cook it; that will only make it saltier.

Free-Range or Cage-Free: Turkeys are raised in a facility where they are allowed to roam for some part of the day.

Heritage: This term is used to describe turkey breeds that meet standards set by the American Poultry Association. In general, heritage turkeys are closer to the wild indigenous breeds the pilgrims might have feasted upon back in the day. And yes, they’re a whole lot pricier than commercially bred turkeys. But many turkey-fanciers say they prefer the deeper flavor of heritage turkeys.

To learn more about where your turkey came from and how it was raised, you can talk to your butcher or contact your turkey farmer. If you’re interested in specialty turkeys such as heritage breeds or those raised on organic farms, you may have to order those a month or more in advance.

Gobble, gobble!

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