Turkey Taste Challenge: Fresh vs. Frozen

I came up with the idea of a turkey taste test challenge last year, the day after Thanksgiving. Black Friday. When other people were lining up before dawn at Best Buy, Macy’s and Kohl’s, or more likely virtually at Amazon.com, I was shopping the bargains at Wegmans. And boy did I find some…like fresh whole turkeys marked down to $0.69 per pound. Granted, they were generic, store brand, nothing fancy turkeys, but they were fresh. I had just paid $75 for a 16-pound fresh turkey from the hobby farmer I usually get my Thanksgiving bird from, and here I am at Wegmans looking at a display case full of 20-pound birds with a price tag of $13.50 each. It couldn’t possibly come out as juicy and tasty as the turkeys I got every year from my favorite hobby farm…could it? I aimed to find out.

The sign on the fresh turkey display case said “Limit One” but judging from the number of turkeys it was filled with, and the proximity of the sell by date, I had a hunch that wouldn’t be enforced at the register. I asked the manager if he would let me take two. He gave me a sort of sad and resigned look and said “Mister you can buy them all if you want. In fact, please do. We over ordered this year and whatever doesn’t sell by the end of the day gets tossed.” I bought three, because four wouldn’t fit into my cart. I tried.

As I was driving home with three fresh turkeys from Wegmans in the back of my vehicle, I wondered what in the hell I was going to do with 60 pounds of turkey. I cook for two people, and one of them (me) has a surgically reduced stomach that holds at most a cup and a half of food. When we go out to dinner I’m a cheap date…I order off the appetizer menu. I don’t even like turkey all that much. I mean, I don’t dislike it, but honestly turkey is pretty tasteless. How was I going to cook up that much turkey and keep it interesting to eat? I probably should have thought of that before I bought three of them.

That’s when the idea of a turkey taste test challenge hit me. How does turkey that was originally sold as fresh taste after sitting in a freezer for a couple of months? I decided to keep one of the turkeys fresh to cook it up straight away and use as a baseline, and then tossed the other two into my freezer. My plan was to cook them months down the road and compare my tasting notes.

I roasted one of those 20-pound monsters the week after Thanksgiving and compared it against the leftovers I had from my $75 hobby farm bird. No comparison…the Wegmans generic store brand, nothing fancy turkey tasted better, and it was juicier. But how would the other two birds turn out? Surely spending months in a freezer would render them dry and tasteless…well, more tasteless than usual for turkey. It didn’t. I cooked the second turkey in February after it spent two months in the freezer, and it was every bit as good as the fresh bird. The third turkey, after eight months in the deep freeze, wasn’t quite as juicy as the first two, but it was still surprisingly moist and every bit as tasty. How could that be?

The Myth of Fresh Never Frozen

As anyone who has read my food posts knows, I am a food nerd. When I tackle a project like this turkey taste test challenge, I immerse myself in research, learning everything I can about what I am about to cook, and what I learned this time was a real shocker. Grocery stores lie. It turns out there is no such thing as a turkey that is fresh, never frozen.

All turkeys are frozen at some point…if they weren’t we’d all die from food poisoning. It takes several weeks to get a turkey from slaughter to the grocery store to your kitchen to be cooked. Considering how much salmonella poultry is infested with in the processing plant that’s too long to be safe. Instead, the USDA allows the food industry to sell turkey as fresh never frozen so long as the internal temperature never dips below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. I don’t know about you, but I call that frozen. A turkey at that temp, and even ten degrees warmer, is rock hard frozen solid.

I’m glad the standard exists so we can safely enjoy several weeks old poultry, but just don’t mark the price up and sell it to me as something it isn’t. A more accurate label would be “thawed for your convenience” because that’s what you get when you buy a “fresh” turkey. I’ve been down this road before with frozen beef. As long as it is vacuum sealed and flash frozen, it is every bit as fresh when thawed as it can possibly be and still be safe to consume. Turkey is the same way…my own test kitchen challenge proved it.

One important caveat: I always brine my turkey before roasting it. Nothing fancy, just a big plastic brining bag with a ziploc seal, a jar of Bell’s Turkey Brine, and enough tap water to cover the bird. Mix it all together, toss in the bird, seal the bag and pop it in the fridge overnight. I get the Bell’s brine mix from Amazon because Thanksgiving is the only time grocery stores stock it. You’ll never get the same amount of juicy flavor in your turkey if you don’t steep it in a wet brine for at least 12 hours before roasting it.

I don’t think I’ll ever bother with a fresh hobby farm turkey again. I might try to find a wild turkey, or one of those heirloom breeds just to see if they have more flavor than the usual broad breasted white, the breed that accounts for 98% of all turkeys sold in this country. Heritage breed turkeys cost even more than my $75 hobby farm turkey…is it worth paying that much for a once-a-year holiday meal where the most tasty dishes are the sides? I don’t know, but I do know if I ever see $0.69 “fresh never frozen” turkeys in the Wegmans display case again I’m buying four. I’ll get two carts if I have to. They’ll be good even after a year in my freezer, but something tells me we won’t see prices that low ever again. If I do…I’m ready! And now, I hear a drumstick calling my name.

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