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Talking Turkey: A Poultry Primer

Nutritious and versatile, poultry is an affordable staple in many omnivore households. Poultry lends itself to a variety of cooking methods—baking, grilling and stir frying, for example—and flavorings from sweet and savory to hot and spicy.

As with other foods, knowing where and how your chicken, turkey, Cornish game hen, and other poultry have been raised can help you choose the products that are right for you (and provides information about animal welfare and environmental impact).

Understanding some commonly used poultry-producing terms can help put you in the know. However, it's important to know that some of the terms are regulated, while others are not. When in doubt about poultry terms or what's offered at your local grocery store, ask for more information at the meat counter.

Poultry Terms

Organic

 Poultry that meets the requirements of the National Organics Program (NOP) has been raised in housing that permits natural behavior, with outdoor access, has been fed certified organic feed (including pasture), has not been given antibiotics or hormones and has been processed organically. The USDA organic label requires producers to follow production and handling practices in accordance with the national standards; certifying agents ensure compliance through annual inspections.

Free-range

This USDA regulation means that the animal has been allowed access to the outside. The government doesn't specify that poultry must go outside, for how long, or the amount or kind of space that must be provided, but the idea is that poultry is free to roam outdoors and engage in natural behaviors (this is the way most poultry was raised before high-density confinement was introduced in the 1950s). And poultry that exercises produces leaner meat.

Natural

USDA allows this label to be used when a product contains no artificial ingredients or added colors and is only minimally processed. The label must explain what "natural" means, so be sure to read on. It might say "no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed," for example.

"No hormones added"

This means just that, but keep in mind that Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in raising poultry, so this term should apply to all poultry anyway. Regulations also require that if a poultry label says, "no hormones added," it must also say, "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones."

"No antibiotics added" 

This means that the producer has provided documentation to the USDA that the animals were raised without antibiotics.

Cage-free

Poultry that's cage-free is allowed to roam, but not necessarily outdoors. This allows poultry to engage in some natural behaviors, such as walking, nesting, and perching. However, this term is not regulated by USDA nor by third-party certifiers for poultry, though it is regulated for eggs.

Pastured poultry

This is a term coined for chickens raised on grass pasture all of the time after the initial brooding period. However, this term does not guarantee that poultry feeds only on pasture.

Fresh

A "fresh" poultry label means that the temperature of the raw poultry has never been below 26 degrees F. (Frozen poultry, on the other hand, has a temperature of 0 degrees F or below.) A turkey could be kept at 27 degrees F for weeks or even months, though, and then sold as "fresh." Buy from a grocer who can tell you how long the "fresh" poultry has been in storage.

To locate local poultry sources (including farms and co-ops), check out the Local Harvest website.

A little turkey tutorial

You might want to keep in mind when shopping for your Thanksgiving turkey that a plump, round shape means an abundance of tender meat. Other tidbits that might come in handy:

  • Fresh turkeys and heritage or heirloom turkeys cook faster than most commercial turkeys and turkeys that have been frozen.
  • A hen is a female turkey (smaller) and a tom or gobbler is a male turkey (larger). Neither is more tender than the other.
  • Brining (soaking) a turkey before cooking adds flavor and moisture. Sometimes brined turkeys have artificial ingredients, but you can also find turkeys that are brined with just sea salt, spices, and water. Or you can brine your own.
  • Heritage or heirloom turkeys typically have denser, moister and more flavorful meat than most commercial turkeys. That's because they have a higher proportion of dark meat, are customarily fed more diverse diets and are more active. It's also because they take longer to reach maturity (about 26 weeks versus 14 weeks for commercial turkeys) and turkeys add fat as they age; heritage turkeys have an additional fat layer under their skin that keeps meat moister during cooking. Individual breeds have specific flavors (chat with your grower or grocer to find out more).
  • Wild turkeys have more dark meat and are more intensely flavored than domesticated turkeys. (Did you know that a wild turkey -- which weighs half what a domestic turkey weighs -- can actually fly?)
  • An "oven-ready" turkey is ready to cook, while an "oven-prepared" turkey is fully cooked and ready to eat.
  • Basted turkeys are injected or marinated with liquid (like broth or water), fat (like butter), and seasonings. Commercial turkeys often include artificial ingredients, but they must be stated on the label, along with the total quantity of the injected solution (3%, for example).
  • What size turkey do you need? The rule of thumb is one to one and a half pounds of turkey per person (this also allows for some leftovers).
  • Find tips on roasting your turkey in Turkey Roasting Tips.
  • For vegetarians, consider purchasing a Tofurky or other "mock turkey," made from wheat protein or tofu.