Fresh Vs. Frozen Turkey: What To Know Before You Buy

There's a lot more than defrosting time to consider.

Butter-Basted Turkey

Whether you're buying a turkey for your holiday table or for a large gathering, you have several things to think about when choosing your bird. One of your biggest decisions may be fresh versus frozen.

You may think it's a simple choice, but the fresh versus frozen debate is more than just temperature. It also involves how the turkey was raised, flavor, cost, time, and preparation. There is no right or wrong answer to the debate—it really just depends on what you prefer and what works best for your lifestyle.

Read below to learn more about everything you need to know before you buy your bird.

Fresh Vs. Frozen: The Right Bird To Buy

How They're Grown

As a general rule, fresh turkeys tend to be free-range and often organic. This means that before butchering, your bird was allowed to wander in an area where they had access to grass and other natural foods. Some of these birds were also raised antibiotic-free.

Once butchered, the bird is "deep chilled" to 26°F (anything colder is considered "previously frozen") and then sold in a short time to maximize its fresh state. You'll want to grab your fresh turkey pretty close to the big day though, which may mean a mad dash to the grocery store while you're busy making other preparations.

Frozen birds are generally raised in close-spaced settings. Instead of grass, these birds dine on corn and other grains. Because of their close contact with their feathered friends, frozen birds are often given antibiotics to keep them healthy and to increase their weight (resulting in a larger, plumper bird). For some, bigger is better, and they prefer a fattened turkey for the table centerpiece.

Once killed, these birds are frozen to a temperature of 0°F to -30°F. They can be kept (almost) indefinitely in your home freezer, which means you can purchase your turkey anytime during the year.

How They Taste

Because of the way the birds are raised and what they are fed, there can be a noticeable taste difference between fresh and frozen. Fresh turkeys, with their more natural diet, can have a slightly "gamey" taste and a tougher texture. However, fresh turkeys also retain more moisture, which means more flavor.

Frozen turkeys, fed on corn and grains, tend to be sweeter and more tender. However, deep freezing meat can cause tiny ice crystals to form around the cells, resulting in fluid loss and drier, chewier meat.

To help add moisture back into frozen birds, many processors inject a "basting liquid" of water, oil, and seasoning (usually including a large amount of salt) into the bird before freezing. You may see these turkeys labeled as "self-basting."

How Much They Cost

There is a cost difference between fresh and frozen birds. Because fresh birds tend to be free-range and organic, there are more costs involved in raising them. There is more cost in transporting fresh birds to the grocery store since they have to be moved quickly near the holidays. These costs are passed on to the shopper, which means fresh birds can be more expensive.

Frozen turkeys are often less expensive and can be purchased throughout the year. You can also find frozen turkeys on sale when it's not the holidays. You can save a lot of money by buying your frozen turkey ahead of time and sticking it in the back of the freezer until you're ready to thaw and roast.

How Long They Take To Prepare

Sometimes convenience is the biggest factor when considering fresh versus frozen turkeys. Frozen turkeys can be purchased months or weeks before the big meal, which means less running to the store during some of the busiest days of the year. You will need to factor in time to slowly defrost them, though. The safest way to do this is to place your frozen bird in the refrigerator and let it thaw about 24 hours for every 4 pounds.

Fresh turkeys should only be kept in your fridge for a maximum of two days before roasting. This may mean an extra trip to the grocery store, during an already busy week, causing added stress to your holiday plate. You will also want to make sure to pre-order your fresh turkey well in advance, to ensure there is one available. Fresh turkeys tend to be in more limited supply than frozen.

Bottom Line

Whether fresh or frozen, once properly stored and defrosted, both birds can be brined, smoked, fried, spatchcocked, or roasted. Fresh turkeys tend to cook more quickly than frozen birds (even after they are defrosted).

For the best results, use a meat thermometer to make sure your turkey is cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F; don't rely on time and appearance alone.

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