Fresh, frozen or brined: Talking turkey with Williamsburg experts

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Turkeys in the wild
Before the turkey gets near the oven, there are a lot of decisions to make this Thanksgiving, including fresh or frozen. (Photo courtesy D’Artagnan Co.)

Thanksgiving is in a week, but as many home cooks know, now is the time to get serious about planning, shopping and cooking for the event.

Below are some critical factors in how and when you choose your bird.

Will you brine?

Brining is a prolonged soak – from 24 to 48 hours – of a thawed turkey in salty water, often with herbs and spices added. The process works best when the turkey is minimally processed and does not contain any salt solutions or preservatives, information home cooks can find on the label of their turkey.

Brining adds flavor to the bird and prevents drying out during cooking, but it takes advanced planning and room in the refrigerator, which can be hard to come by around Thanksgiving.

“I do like to brine sometimes,” said Ian Robbins, executive chef for Williamsburg Winery. “But it all depends on the space.”

Along with water, sugar and salt, an array of spices and fresh herbs can go into a brine, including rosemary, thyme, garlic, sage, cinnamon, allspice, star anise and black pepper, Robbins said.

For his brine, he is partial to simplicity: sage, rosemary, lemon and bay leaf.

“That’ll give you that classic Thanksgiving flavor,” he said.

Another brine enthusiast is Eric Ramos, owner of Williamsburg’s Center Street Grill, 5101 Center St.

He lets his turkey brine overnight in a mixture of salt, white onion, black peppercorn and garlic.

“It’s just an added flavor for the turkey itself,” he said.

Fresh vs. Frozen

While the National Turkey Federation claims that “flash frozen…is virtually the same freshness as the day it was processed,” even flash-freezing can create drier turkey. This is because freezing creates water crystals that rupture the cell membranes in the muscle tissue of the turkey. When these cells thaw, moisture can escape.

To compensate for this, many poultry producers will inject turkeys with a solution of salt, water and spices. These turkeys – often labeled ‘basted’ or ‘self-basted’ – can include artificial preservatives and flavoring, which can cause a turkey to taste overly salty. Preservative and flavoring also mask the actual flavor of the turkey and prevent a cook from choosing what flavors he or she wants to add to the turkey.

Fresh turkey does, however, have a very short shelf-life and can be more expensive than frozen turkey.

“You pay a little bit more for it,” said Ramos. “There’s nothing wrong with a frozen turkey. I’m just partial to fresh ones.”

Still, a full-sized bird can take four days to defrost — figure 24 hours for every five pounds of turkey — and two days to brine, so if you’re using a frozen bird and planning to brine it, start defrosting now.

Organic vs. All-Natural vs. Free-Range vs. Local vs. Heritage

These labels can be confusing and occasionally misleading.

“Free range” and “cage free” mean that the birds have access to an exterior yard which, in general, allows for healthier birds. Free-range birds develop in size through exercise rather than over-feeding. However, the label serves as no guarantee of quality of life, hygiene, diet or processing.

“Organic” means that the no antibiotics or chemical pesticides were used on either the turkeys or their feed and that the turkeys were given free-range access to outdoor spaces. However, organic labeling costs farms money because the inspections and certifications are done by third party businesses, not the government. These means that many smaller farms cannot afford to label their product organic, even though they are abiding by the same high-standards of production.

For Ramos, what matters is whether the turkey has been given a diet with additives, such as antibiotics or steroids. He opts to buy his free-range bird at a grocery store, which sources them from a farm in North Carolina.

“I just try to find products that are grown in their natural state,” he said.

While “natural” has no FDA-recognized meaning for the majority of food products, meat and poultry labeled “natural” or “all-natural” must obey certain restrictions: no artificial flavors, coloring, ingredients, chemical preservatives or any other artificial or synthetic ingredients. Natural turkeys, unlike organic ones, can contain antibiotics.

“Local” can also be a confusing label, although with a little research it is rarely misleading. There is no official definition of ‘local’ – some stores and producers use a 500 mile radius, or the state boundaries, or other rubrics – but home cooks should be able to find a local farm with a little research.

For Robbins, the primary consideration is how the turkey is raised, not whether it has a particular label, such as organic. He prefers fresh, not frozen, to avoid the extra headache of finding room in the refrigerator while the turkey defrosts.

He also recommends buying a bird directly from a producer at a farmer’s market, not from a grocery store. He orders his free-range turkey from Beaver Creek Farms in King George County.

“I think it’s a much better option,” he said. “You’re supporting the local economy.”

Picking your turkey is just step one. Check back with WYDaily throughout the week for more Thanksgiving tips and information.