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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 bird for the job. There's a lot to consider: what size of turkey do you need? Should it be fresh or frozen? What do terms on the turkey labels means? Here's what you need to know before you buy a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.

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 turkey.

Adult Guests Turkey (with Leftovers) Turkey (no Leftovers)
2 to 4 3 to 6 pounds 2 to 4 pounds
6 to 8 9 to 12 pounds 6 to 8 pounds
10 to 12 15 to 18 pounds 10 to 12 pounds
14 to 16 21 to 24 pounds 14 to 16 pounds
18 to 20 27 to 30 pounds 18 to 20 pounds
22 to 24 33 to 36 pounds 22 to 24 pounds

 

Leftovers or No Leftovers?

If you don't want leftovers OR if you're going to have lots of substantial side dishes, allow approximately 1 pound of turkey (whole, bone in) per guest. If a whole turkey is more than you need, you could also buy turkey parts, such as turkey breasts or turkey legs.

If you do want leftovers OR if you're expecting big eaters, go with approximately 1½ pounds of turkey (whole, bone in) per guest. You could also cook two smaller turkeys instead of one large turkey. Or cook one large turkey and maybe a turkey breast. Check out these tasty ways to give your Thanksgiving leftovers a global spin.

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.
 

Thanksgiving Turkey

Photo by Meredith

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.


Check out our collection of Thanksgiving Turkey Recipes.


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