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Thanksgiving taste test: Which bird reigns supreme?

When you're cooking a turkey, you've got one shot to get it right. To help you select the best bird this Thanksgiving, Epicurious roasted six turkeys and compared their flavor, texture and appearance.
/ Source: Epicurious

Recipes are important, but the raw ingredients can make or break the meal, too. And when you're cooking a big hunk of protein — like a turkey — for a group, you've got just one shot to do it right. To help you select the best bird this Thanksgiving, or whenever you eat turkey, we roasted six whole turkeys from widely available brands according to a classic recipe, Simple roast turkey with rich turkey gravy, and conducted a blind taste test.

The simple recipe we selected is purposefully devoid of tricks to impart flavor or improve texture: no basting, brining, slathering in butter, or injecting with spices. To provide unbiased results, we made sure our turkeys were not delivered by mail (or PR firm) but rather purchased at supermarkets. All of the turkeys were fresh except the Butterball, which we could only purchase frozen during the time of our test. They are all widely available in the U.S. and are relatively inexpensive, ranging in price from $1.49 to $4.49 per pound. (Prices may vary depending on season and geographic location. The prices listed below indicate what we paid.)

Nine of our editors compared the look, flavor, and texture of the turkeys and ranked them using our four-fork rating system. We tested a total of six birds: One conventional, one kosher, and four free-range or natural. Read on to see how they stacked up.

  • Weight: 13 lbs. (2.99 per lb.)
  • Average rank: 3 1/2 forks

Pros: This free-range turkey was the highest ranking of the bunch, winning our Epi Top Pick. "It actually tastes like turkey," said one editor. The dark meat fell right off the bone, and the white meat was moist and had a bold taste. "It's got a pronounced and well-balanced taste that would work with oniony sides without getting overwhelmed," said one judge. This turkey, with an attractively shiny and crispy golden outer layer, was part of a flock that's bred to grow at a slower pace, which makes for broad breasts, according to Bell & Evans. We're sold.

Cons: They are only available east of the Mississippi.

  • Weight: 11.17 lbs. ($3.99 per lb.)
  • Average rank: 3 forks

Pros: Sold by the first company granted permission by the USDA to use "Animal Friendly" on its labels, this turkey was described as "tender, moist, and balanced in flavor." Said another taster: "The gamy flavor and aroma give it that free-range style." One editor even stated that she would sacrifice buying her heritage turkey this year knowing that a cheaper, comparable turkey is truly an option.

Cons: A full, fatty flavor was a turnoff for some tasters. "Better for dark-meat fans," opined one critic. This was the second-most-expensive turkey we tested.

  • Weight: 10.57 lbs. ($4.49 per lb.)
  • Average rank: 2 1/2 forks

Pros: These birds are raised in the countryside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and are marketed as 100-percent natural, minimally processed, preservative- and artificial-ingredient-free. One editor said it "tasted gamy, but in a good way — kind of lingered on the palate, like duck."

Cons: "Tough, dry texture and minerally flavor; not a good way to impress the in-laws" proclaimed one judge. Priciest of the bunch.

  • Weight: 11 lbs. ($2.29 per lb.)
  • Average rank: 2 1/2 forks

Pros: According to the purveyor, these all-natural birds come from the rolling hills of Central New York and are heart-healthy (30 percent fewer calories and 70 percent less fat than standard USDA turkeys), but at first glance you wouldn't think of this as a low-fat bird. "Its rotund and stocky stature, combined with its golden crispy skin, makes it appear very appetizing," said one taster.

Cons: "Mushy," complained one eater. A majority of the editors concluded that the "flavor was better than the texture" after taking a nibble of this bird. Yet it lacked real turkey flavor — it was mild and bland, but overly salty. One judge even believed the turkey had been injected with a saltwater solution.

  • Weight: 10.16 lbs. ($1.29 per lb.)
  • Average rank: 2 forks

Pros: "Dark, tan, young, and lovely," one taster rhapsodized. This turkey would be the winner were it entered in a beauty pageant; the flesh appeared white and juicy, too. It's the least expensive of all the turkeys we tried.

Cons: Don't judge a turkey by its cover. This Butterball was dry, chewy, and "chemically tasting," according to several judges. Ultimately, the meat's unusual shade (bright white) belied the fact that this turkey did not live a free-range life.

  • Weight: 9.66 lbs. ($2.29 per lb.)
  • Average rank: 1 1/2 forks

Pros: This turkey bronzed nicely and showed porcelain-colored white meat. It's also a good value — the second-best bargain of the roundup. And, of course, if you keep kosher, it has a selling point there.

Cons: The testers unanimously agreed that this bird was the least desirable of the bunch. It had a "chalky texture," according to one editor, and tasted "toasty" to another." The peculiar flavor is not objectionable, but I'm not sure it's natural either," said yet a third. All agreed that off flavors lingered, leaving an unforgettable and unfortunate aftertaste.

For more recipes and tips, visit Epicurious’ Ultimate Thanksgiving Package.