Image courtesy of Whole Foods Market.

Everything you need to know to prepare the perfect turkey this Thanksgiving

When it comes to preparing Thanksgiving dinner, no course requires more knowledge and care than the table’s indisputable main event – the turkey. A number of factors separate a passable turkey from a legendary one, including how the bird was raised, what it was fed, how the turkey made its way to your grocery butcher counter, and then — to top it off — how to prepare it to maximize juiciness and flavor.

At Whole Foods Market, you can always be sure of your turkey’s quality thanks to its rigorous quality standards, which include Farm Animal Welfare and Meat Standards as well as an Animal Welfare Certified rating. Before a fresh turkey — or any fresh beef, pork, chicken or lamb — can be sold in a Whole Foods Market Meat Department, the farm or ranch of origin must be certified by Global Animal Partnership (GAP), a third-party nonprofit alliance of producers, retailers, animal advocates, and scientists dedicated to farm animal welfare as well as improving conditions for sellers. GAP’s Animal Welfare Certified program certifies producers’ animal welfare practices to more than 100 animal welfare standards for beef, pork, chicken, lamb, and turkey – including Thanksgiving Day turkeys! Beyond giving customers peace of mind, the system rewards ranchers and farmers who make strides towards improving their welfare practices

At the center of Whole Foods Market’s Animal Welfare Standards are the grocer’s Global Meat Coordinator, Theo Weening, and GAP’s Executive Director, Anne Malleau. The staff at Mic recently spoke with Malleau and Weening about Whole Foods Market’s Animal Welfare Standards as well as everything you need to know to serve a perfect turkey this Thanksgiving, from knowing the bird’s diet to helpful tips on preparing it for the big day.

Know your turkey

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For starters, you will want to know what kind of turkey you intend to cook. While the nuances may seem subtle, knowing the differences between each type of turkey will give you helpful clues as to the quality of the meat as well as how to cook it. At Whole Foods Market, they sell a wide variety of turkeys including organic turkeys as well as kosher turkeys, and both turkeys can be bought as heritage turkeys or heirloom turkeys, with the option to have your turkey pre-brined. Weening describes the differences as a matter of preference:

“Organic turkeys get organic feed (which also means non-GMO), and the birds are given access to fresh air and the outdoors. Kosher turkeys are rubbed with kosher salt inside and out and are checked by specially trained rabbinical inspectors to make sure they’re processed in accordance with kosher standards. The kosher salt preseasons the bird and gives it extra flavor. Heritage turkeys are leaner with a smaller meat-to-bone ratio and can be very flavorful. Heirloom turkeys are a little bigger than heritage turkeys, but they’re still flavorful [and often contain more] dark meat... Pre-brined turkeys are hand-brined the old-fashioned way, using a blend of salt and spices. For Christmas, when I fry a turkey, I go brined.”

Read the fine print

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Once you’ve settled on the type of turkey you want, it pays to read the fine print. Details, such as a bird’s diet, will change how you cook it, and affect the quality of the final product. Organic Turkeys in Whole Foods Market’s Meat Department are GAP Animal Welfare Certified, which you can read on the packaging. Kosher Turkeys do not have to be GAP-Certified, though they do have to meet more than 100 animal welfare standards. Malleau and Weening have been to every farm where Whole Foods Market sources their turkeys, and these farms are regularly audited by third-party inspectors to make sure they comply with Whole Foods Market’s Animal Welfare Standards.

At Whole Foods Market, you can be sure that your turkey has been raised with no antibiotics, ever. When turkeys are fed a healthy diet and given enough space, antibiotics aren’t necessary. Turkeys living on GAP-certified farms are treated with antibiotics if they become ill, but when that happens, the meat cannot be sold to Whole Foods Market. While some turkey suppliers may advertise their turkeys as “antibiotic free,” Malleau stresses that consumers must read the fine print, which may include a line about being given antibiotics “only when necessary.” With Whole Foods Market’s turkeys, you can be sure no antibiotics were used, ever.

Whole Foods Market's Animal Welfare Standards also require that their turkeys are raised on a strict vegetarian diet with no animal by-products in feed. If a turkey’s feed includes animal byproducts — like feather meal or rendered fat — it will grow quicker. If the birds are raised well, however, stimulating growth isn’t necessary to produce a high-quality product. “We should let nature do its thing,” Weening says.

A GAP Animal Welfare Certification also means that the turkeys at Whole Foods Market were given appropriate space to grow up, so all of Whole Foods Market's turkeys are given fresh air and outdoor space for comfort and to satisfy the animal’s natural foraging instincts.

Know what “fresh” really means

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Once cleaned and cut, turkeys are sent directly to regional Whole Foods Market stores, where they are immediately sold rather than stored or frozen for an extended period of time. “Our Thanksgiving turkeys are processed close to Thanksgiving, whereas in the conventional industry the USDA allows you to call a turkey ‘fresh’ even if it’s processed in January or February and held at a temperature of 27 degrees Fahrenheit,” Weening explains.

During this sitting time, the “fresh” turkeys sold at many competing retailers develop ice crystals. When cooking, the crystals cause the turkeys to lose moisture and this change affects the overall quality of meat and how long you need to cook them. Turkeys at Whole Foods Market don’t have the chance to develop such crystals.

Talk to your butcher

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When purchasing a fresh turkey, be sure to talk to the butcher behind the counter in a Whole Foods Market Meat Department about preparation, because there are significant differences between the cook times and in-oven procedures when cooking recently processed turkeys versus those processed months ago and cooled or frozen.

More than just turkeys, Whole Foods Market butchers can also offer professional advice for all kinds of meat. Many have gone through an 18-month apprenticeship program and will happily share tricks of the trade when it comes to marinating and preparation. Plus, if you’re too busy making pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving or simply want to keep your hands clean, they’ll even debone, stuff a bird, and tie it back together. All that’s left to do is follow their instructions and put in the oven!

Don’t fear the brine

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Of the many strategies employed to make mouth-watering turkeys, the dry brine is perhaps one of the most flavorful. Dry brining is a tried and true method for getting the most natural moisture out of your turkey. A vocal dry brine fan, Weening suggests the following method:

“Start with one 12 to 14 pound turkey (thawed), 4 tablespoons kosher salt, and 2 tablespoons brown sugar. Add one tablespoon of any of the following (up to ½ cup total): whole cloves, cumin seeds, fennel seeds, star anise, peppercorns, garlic cloves, smoked paprika, red pepper flakes, nutmeg, bay leaves, fresh thyme, fresh rosemary, fresh sage and citrus zest. Toast any whole spices in a dry skillet, crush coarsely with a mortar and pestle and mix with sugar and any fresh herbs, zest and ground spices. Rub the turkey inside and out with spice mixture, including some of the mixture under the skin. Refrigerate, uncovered, on a rack set in a rimmed baking sheet for 24 to 72 hours — allow at least one hour per pound of turkey.”

For an alternate yet equally mouthwatering take on brining a turkey, Weening suggests this brown sugar method.

Get creative with leftovers

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Remember, there is no such thing as too much turkey! Leftovers are a Thanksgiving tradition as essential as the day-of meal. When trying to figure out the amount of turkey you want to buy, use this handy servings calculator to figure out exactly how much. But if you want those repeat meals in the days to follow — turkey and gravy sandwiches, anyone? — go for more.

Weening recommends buying 1.5 to 2 pounds of meat per person. “Keep in mind that a 30-pound bird might not be as tender,” he says, “so consider two smaller ones if you have a large group.”

To inspire you in the leftovers game, check out Whole Foods Market’s guide for leftovers. While any and all Thanksgiving leftover dishes are delicious, make this the year you get creative enough to wow your friends and family yet again.

This article is sponsored by Whole Foods Market.