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I know this is about buying, not cooking, but gathering your ingredients is the first step, and right now this is the one worrying me most.

I'll be cooking the Thanksgiving bird this year, due to my wife's work schedule. I know that in the past she's had issues with getting to the store after the entire selection is picked over, and having trouble finding any left that are the right size.

The tempting thing to do is just go buy one now and stick it in the freezer, but this early I'd worry about it getting frostburn in the intervening month.

So when is the best time to go pick out a turkey?

  • If you have any farms near you, ask around. You order the bird well in advance (so they have a cutoff when they've allocated all of the birds). The only problem is that 'right size' issues -- you don't know exactly what size you'll end up getting. (I think my step-dad was trying to get a 20lb turkey. As he was one of the last to pick up, what he got was a 28lb turkey. Luckily, he was smoking it, as I'm not sure if it would've fit in the oven.) – Joe Oct 25 '16 at 23:39
  • @Joe - There will only be 4 of us this year, but we are all serious turkey lovers, and look forward to leftovers, so I don't think its possible to get "too large". Well...it does have to fit in the freezer and fridge I guess... – T.E.D. Oct 26 '16 at 13:10
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    There are a few very good reasons to buy a frozen turkey for Thanksgiving. According to Alton Brown, "Since a frozen bird is about as pliant as a bowling ball, it doesn’t get bruised on its way to the supermarket." In addition, as turkeys are generally frozen shortly after slaughter, they are often actually "fresher" than fresh birds. Finally, frozen turkeys are usually much less expensive than fresh birds. See also: cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/51751/… – Jolenealaska Oct 27 '16 at 9:50
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Most turkeys sold in the United States for Thanksgiving are frozen. It simply is not feasible for meat processors to process the huge spike in turkeys for the holiday and provide everyone a fresh turkey. Expect to pay a premium for a fresh turkey over a frozen one.

If you buy a frozen turkey, from a quality standpoint it does not matter whether you buy a turkey a month out from Thanksgiving (now) or wait to buy the turkey later. You will basically get the same product.

  • Thank you. This is the information I was looking for. I guess I'll go get one this weekend at the latest then. – T.E.D. Oct 26 '16 at 13:12
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It all depends what you want:

  • Best quality: Fresh, organic, heritage turkey. Order now, pick up maximum 1 week beforehand
  • Good quality, reasonable price: Frozen organic turkey. Buy now
  • Good quality, normal price: Fresh turkey. Order now, pick up maximum 1 week beforehand
  • OK price: Frozen turkey. Buy now
  • Best price: Buy a large chicken and tell everyone it's a small turkey! :-)

When buying fresh, store in the coolest part of the fridge.

  • I don't know if I'd say organic is the distinguishing factor - it's certainly associated with a lot of good farms, but it's not the only thing. Organic certification requires ticking a lot of boxes, and a farm might use a lot of the good practices without getting the certification, so a free-range non-organic turkey from a good farm might well be as good as or better than an organic one from a less-good farm. – Cascabel Oct 26 '16 at 2:46
  • @Jefromi: sorry, forgot the word "heritage"... ;-) – Fabby Oct 26 '16 at 11:07
  • Upvoted, because this is all very good info. Since this will be my first crack at cooking one myself, (thus I'm likely to screw up a bit), I don't think spending extra for a better quality bird would be sensible, but I do hope to get there one day. – T.E.D. Oct 26 '16 at 13:06
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    Side note: for all fresh turkey: order now, pick up later ;-) – Stephie Oct 26 '16 at 15:24
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    +1 for pointing out that you can order/reserve a fresh, fresh organic, or heritage turkey. I go for frozen, but someday when money if falling out of my ears, I'll pay $50 for a heritage bird to see what the difference is. – PoloHoleSet Oct 26 '16 at 20:21
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Beyond what others have already mentioned, I'll add to it that I've worked before at cold storage (warehouses) in the United States where they quite literally spend all year adding inventory of frozen turkeys just to prepare for Thanksgiving. The vast majority of Thanksgiving turkeys are frozen, and those aren't just magically processed in the weeks coming up to the season either; it takes all year to build up that inventory.

For that reason and in addition to what was already stated, when you buy it is much more of a question in convenience to you of when you buy a frozen turkey. If you want a fresh turkey, that of course you should pre-order and pickup no earlier than a few days before you plan to prepare it.

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You can eat turkey any time. Buy the proper size frozen now. Look for a fresh turkey a few days in advance. If you don't find a fresh turkey the proper size then put the frozen the fridge to thaw.

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