Do You Know What These 9 Common Turkey Terms Mean?

We’re decoding everything from frozen to free-range to heritage turkeys.


Do you care if your turkey is “all natural,” “free range” or “fresh never frozen”? These words might seem like obvious designations, but most turkey brands are intentionally more confusing – and deceptive – than the contract for a new car. Here’s our no B.S. guide to what common terms really mean.


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1. Frozen

A frozen turkey is chilled to below 0 degrees. It may sound unappealing, but many frozen birds are actually fresher than their non-frozen counterparts (those fresh birds can set on shelves for weeks, while frozen birds are often flash frozen directly after processing). If you’re buying a frozen bird, budget one day thawing in the fridge (never on the counter) for every 4 to 5 pounds of meat.


2. Fresh

Here’s the real kicker in the fresh versus frozen debate: A “fresh” bird is one that is never chilled below 26 degrees. Most purveyors, however, are chilling these butterballs down as close to that number as possible, meaning your bird is basically semi-frozen.


3. Natural

According to the USDA, “the term ‘natural’ may be used… provided that the product does not contain any artificial flavoring, coloring ingredients, chemical preservative… or synthetic ingredient.” God only knows what’s in those non-natural turkeys.

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4. Organic

Organic is a certified designation by the National Organic Program, which conducts on-site audits of companies and farms. Organic birds only eat organic feed (no animal byproducts, yuck!), are raised without antibiotics or hormones, and are generally considered to have a better, cleaner taste.


5. Free-Range

Are you imagining your bird happily frolicking through green pastures, grazing on delicious grasses and such? Think again. Generally speaking, turkeys must have access to the outdoors for more than 50 percent of their lives to be considered “free range.” Unfortunately, just because they had access to the outdoors, doesn’t mean they spent any time outside. While some places do it right, in many cases, the “range” is just a little patch of dirt and gravel. Free range doesn’t regulate what birds are eating, or preclude the addition of hormone and/or antibiotics.


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6. Pastured-Raised

In theory, pasture-raised birds should have access to grass where they can peck and eat. However, the USDA doesn’t tightly regulate the term so practices vary widely. The best way to know what your bird is eating is to go with a small local producer (like the ones here) that can tell you exactly how your bird is being raised. One thing is certain: Expect to pay a pretty penny for a truly pasture-raised turkey.


7. Heritage

It’s the turkey equivalent of your summer heirloom tomato. Heritage turkeys refer to indigenous breeds (i.e. the ones we used to eat before mass-production) that are typically humanely raised. The flavor is considered vastly superior to most supermarket brands. That being said, heritage turkeys aren’t for everyone: They’re expensive, have to be special ordered, the meat can have a somewhat gamey flavor and there’s less white meat (it hasn’t been genetically engineered to have a bigger breast). If you’re looking for your typical turkey, this isn’t it.


8. Kosher

A Kosher bird is raised under rabbinical supervision. They’re pre-salted, which makes them juicier than typical birds (much like brining), especially if overcooked. The downside: You don’t have control over the level of seasoning.


9. Self-Basting Birds

Much like Kosher birds, these babies are pre-seasoned with a salt-and-flavoring solution. Unfortunately, the wet injections often create mushy, washed out meat, and you’re paying for all that extra water weight. 

Related: Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?

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