The Thanksgiving Turkey Debate: Fresh Vs. Frozen

Food & Drink

Thanksgiving Day is right around the corner and that means you might have a little angst if you are hosting the holiday meal this year.

This anxiety was coined “turkey trauma” by the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line when it began in 1981. It opens every year for the all-important turkey feasts in November and December. The toll-free hotline is answered by trained turkey experts and in keeping with the times, you can get answers to your questions via text and even by asking Alexa.

This time of year is nostalgic for me as my first job was managing PR for the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line and it made me a forever uber fan of Thanksgiving. It is my favorite holiday and to this day, friends and family start texting me around mid-November to ask that all important question of how to buy a turkey and specifically, should they buy a fresh turkey or a frozen turkey?

When I answer the question of fresh vs. frozen, I always start by saying that I am answering based on what is available in your local grocery store or online. This answer doesn’t pertain to a local farm or specialty butcher and you should take into consideration what you have purchased—and liked—in the past.

Since Thanksgiving is all about tradition, I feel strongly that you should stick with tradition. So, if your tradition is a fresh turkey, stick with it. And if your tradition is buying a frozen turkey and thawing it in the fridge for days leading up to Thanksgiving, stick with it. If you veer from what you’ve always done and been happy with and associate the big day with, it won’t be the same. For most people this is a sentimental holiday filled with memories and that is what is at the root of the emotion-fueled turkey trauma.

So what kind of turkey should you buy? In general, I am a fan of frozen turkeys because they are frozen just after processing. That means—like frozen vegetables—they are frozen and preserved at their peak. However, I recently tried—for the first time—a deeply chilled alternative from Diestel Family Ranch and it is the best of both worlds.

Deep chilling or super chilling food like turkey means that it is chilled just before freezing so it technically keeps the bird “fresh.” This temperature keeps the turkey cold enough that it “reduces bacterial activity but at a high enough temperature to avoid significant levels of ice crystal growth that can cause structural damage,” according to New Food magazine—a multi-media resource for the global food and beverage industry.

Anyone who has thawed a frozen turkey knows that when you thaw it in the refrigerator, you have to thaw it on a sheet pan or tray because a lot of those frozen ice crystals (which were the natural juices of the turkey before thawing) defrost and collect in the tray. The juices that turn to ice are never reabsorbed by the bird.

The deeply-chilled Diestel turkey that I thawed in my refrigerator and grill-roasted was the cleanest and driest bird that I have ever cooked. No extra juices were on the tray or puddled in the original packaging after it sat in my refrigerator for two days.

Fourth generation family farmer Heidi Diestel told me that they also deep chill for convenience. “At Diestel, we send a deep chilled turkey instead of a frozen turkey to make the holiday a bit easier on folks. A frozen solid turkey will require consumers to defrost in their refrigerator at home for several days, which is inconvenient, time-consuming, and takes up a lot of space in the fridge. A deep-chilled turkey will be soft and oven-ready [more] quickly, helping to ensure a successful, even roast and a delicious dinner. ”

The advantage of a fresh turkey is that you don’t have to thaw it. When you buy a fresh turkey that hasn’t been super or deep chilled, it is ready to roast immediately. That is the major advantage that I see. Some people argue that it is more tender and juicier but in my experience, that part is mostly up to the cook and maybe a brine.

Once you have decided whether to buy a fresh, frozen or deeply-chilled bird, the next question is how big a bird to buy. If you want leftovers, plan on 1-2 pounds per person. That means a 14-pound turkey will feed about 7-8 people with leftovers. If you are having a crowd of 10 or more and want leftovers, buy two smaller turkeys (14-16 pounds) or a whole turkey and a turkey breast. My reasoning is that a large (20-28 pound) turkey takes forever to thaw and cook, and it is big and awkward to handle.

Once you’ve figured out what you want, it’s time to place your order. Don’t wait until the last minute or you may be left with that 24-pound turkey or no turkey at all.

Depending on when you buy your turkey, you will put it in your refrigerator or freezer. The thawing rule-of-thumb is that it takes about 24 hours for every 4 pounds of turkey that is solidly frozen meaning a 12-14 pound turkey takes 3 solid days to thaw, and at that it may still have some ice crystals in the cavity.

If you are behind schedule and don’t have 3-4 days to thaw your turkey in the refrigerator, remember that you can thaw it—in its packaging—in the sink or the bathtub under cold running water. This is a thawing method that takes about 25% of the time as thawing in the refrigerator.

Diestel turkeys are sold nationwide in select stores or you can buy them direct through their website. Every turkey that comes direct from them is shipped deeply chilled in a well-insulated box that is 99% compostable. The company recommends placing your order by November 17th in order to receive your bird in time for the holiday. And, if you are partial to smoked turkeys, they also sell ready-to-eat fully-cooked smoked turkeys that are smoked the old-fashioned way in smokers with either pecan or hickory wood.

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