How to buy the perfect Christmas turkey

A turkey is the centrepiece of many Christmas dinners on British tables. The UK eats around 10 million turkeys on Christmas Day! But with coronavirus creating challenges for farmers and limitations on the size of Christmas gatherings, there’s concern about the impact on our traditional Christmas meal.

How likely is a turkey shortage this Christmas? What size bird should you get this year? From debunking myths to explaining how to find the perfect bird, we’ve put together a handy guide to take the stress out of planning for the holidays.

Here’s everything you need to know about buying your Christmas turkey this year.

How likely is a turkey shortage this Christmas?

With an estimated four and a half million more people in the country over Christmas this year, there’s worry that there might not be enough turkeys to go around. While it’s true that farms are seeing higher demand this year, with many Brits reserving their turkeys earlier, there’s still plenty available.

There were concerns that farmers hatched fewer chicks or more smaller breeds in an attempt to scale back on birds this year, but this isn’t necessarily true for many farms. Copas Traditional Turkeys, for example, ordered their poults (young birds) around February. This was prior to the pandemic reaching the UK. As a result, they have the same number of turkeys as usual.

One of the biggest potential issues in getting turkeys onto tables was a shortage of skilled poultry workers. The industry relies on seasonal labourers from the EU to process the birds. Travel restrictions would’ve caused havoc for Christmas dinner. Luckily, a new travel rule allowing workers to work while self-isolating means food producers will safely be able to keep up with Christmas demand.

Tips for choosing the perfect Christmas turkey

Stick with your usual size

An estimated seven million tonnes of food is wasted each Christmas, so it’s important to get the right size.

Even if you’ve downsized your gathering this year, we’d still recommend buying your Christmas turkey as normal. It’s a great way to support the UK farming industry during a period of instability, and definitely doesn’t need to mean excess waste. Opting for smaller Christmas Day options can actually create extra waste that’s invisible to you.

“What we’ve got to be really careful of, in terms of sustainability, is when people order what we call ‘more convenient’ products like crowns and breast roasts,” explains Tom Copas, managing director of Copas, and Lord Newborough, owner of Rhug Estate. “With a crown you’re cutting the legs off. You’ve still got to find a home for those legs. If you don’t manage to, they end up getting thrown away, which is terrible.”

Copas is very careful about waste. It partners with food charities like FareShare and gets inventive to ensure everything gets used up. The brand is currently selling its separate turkey legs with a confit recipe. It’s also created a fresh stuffing using leg meat instead of sausage. However, we can’t say the same of all turkey providers, so it’s best to go for a whole bird.

How to find the right size turkey

Worried you’ll be overwhelmed with leftover turkey? The Copas Turkey Calculator helps you figure out the perfect size. This even lets you put in other factors, including your desired amount of leftovers. The brand is also putting together a downloadable recipe brochure. This covers everything from turkey pies to easy home-baked bread for the perfect turkey sandwich. Some are available on the website already, with an updated booklet being sent to customers in time for the big day.

Plus, as Tom explains, a whole turkey is a great way to maintain the usual fun of the festive period, despite the strange circumstances. “It’s a real Christmas centrepiece,” he says. “That’s the money shot, what you’re looking for in that Christmas experience. It’s memories.”

Which breed of turkey is best?

The average Christmas table bird weighs around 5.5kg (12lbs) and the most common breed is now the White Holland (which gets its name due to its snow-white plumage). This bird grows incredibly fast, but this doesn’t mean it’s full of flavour.

For a flavoursome bird, opt for the slower-growing original bronze-feathered turkeys, such as the Bronze or Norfolk Black varieties. These breeds are highly-prized for their flavour and are many organic farmers’ choice. Organic farmers rear birds with greater respect for animal welfare, including better feed and housing.

Buy British

Supporting homegrown businesses is always important, but especially so this year. Many UK farms are facing profit losses due to the pandemic.

Opting for a British bird is a great way to support the country’s economy – and it will probably taste fresher, too. Turkeys imported into the UK from other countries, such as Poland or Italy, will likely have been frozen ahead of transit.

Getting your turkey from a farm or butcher local to you is a fantastic option, if possible. Not only does it help your community, it cuts down on air pollution from travel too.  

Choose truly free-range

Christmas is the season for giving, so invest in the farming systems you want to keep around. Opting for a high-quality turkey is a great way to make a statement as consumer, while ensuring your bird enjoyed a happy life.

When it comes to turkeys, free-range is unfortunately not always enough to guarantee they’ve been well-treated. A bird technically only needs to be free-range for half of its life in order to meet the classification. While there are many excellent truly free-range turkeys available, it’s important to do your research to make sure yours is one of them.

Opt for free-range and organic. If you can, look for farms that are transparent about practices. For example, Copas offers a selection of free-range and organic turkeys, all of which meet high growing standards. Unlike some of their mass-produced counterparts, Copas raises turkeys to 26 weeks or more. As a result of the extra months spent foraging and running around, they develop more muscle. This means they’ll have much more meat on their bones – and greater flavour, too. 

There’s even a 24-hour live-feed Turkey Cam watching the fields the birds call home. You’ll also find two footpaths running past the fields, should you want to check in on the turkeys.

Why you should buy an organic turkey

Organic farmers rear slower-growing breeds that are well suited to free-range farming and growth-promoting drugs are banned.

Visit an organic turkey farm and the chances are you’ll see turkeys free to roam outdoors. See them fly, perch and forage for their favourite snack (acorns!), or bed down on fresh straw, feasting on organic cereals and additive-free feed. These are all important and ensure turkey you eat has the best texture and taste.

Sadly, we can’t say the same of conventional intensive turkey rearing. Factory-farmed turkeys are reared in windowless sheds containing up to 25,000 birds.

What’s the problem with factory-farmed turkeys?

On the wellbeing front, there’s increasing concern about the widespread use of antibiotics in these kinds of intensive poultry units. Due to the large flocks, disease spreads very quickly, so low doses of antibiotics are routinely given in feed and water.

In the long term, low-dose exposure is far more likely to create a dangerous resistance to antibiotics – many of which we rely on for healthcare.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the UK’s 35 million annual turkey production takes place in these intensive sheds. These conditions are similar to those in the intensive chicken industr. Birds suffer from a variety of ailments that stem from overcrowding, a lack of dry litter and aggressive behaviour.

These birds never feel the sun on their backs or the breeze through their feathers. They never roost in trees (as wild turkeys do) and never graze outdoors.

Not only is this kind of meat production unnatural and cruel, it also produces less healthy, less flavoursome meat.

The price of buying a turkey

It’s a commercial reality that organically reared turkeys will be more expensive. They take much longer to rear and their feed, bedding and housing is more expensive for the farmer.

The benefits are worth paying for – on all levels. From animal welfare issues, to environmental impact, health benefits and (ultimately) the taste on our plates.

Organic turkeys are almost always dry-plucked for a better finish and hung for longer, usually between seven to 14 days, ensuring the flavour fully develops before going on sale.

What are the health benefits of turkey?

christmas turkey

Skinless turkey breast has one of the lowest fat contents of all meats. It contains just 155kcals and less than 1g saturated fat per 100g, plus it’s high in protein, which is important for the function and health of body cells.

An average portion of turkey meat (100g/3.5oz) provides 21.9g of protein, approximately half a woman’s daily requirement and almost half a man’s.

It also contains all the essential amino acids in proportions closely matched to our body’s needs. This means that our body can use nearly all the protein in turkey for tissue manufacture and repair.

Turkey is also a good source of vitamins and minerals. The darker leg meat is an excellent source of zinc – needed for a healthy immune system and for healing cuts and grazes. Zinc also makes many enzymes in the body that are involved in fat, protein and carbohydrate metabolism.

Turkey meat also contains phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and – in the dark meat – significant amounts of iron.

As for vitamins, turkey is a good source of the B complex vitamins, especially niacin. The vitamin helps to convert carbohydrates into energy, nerve function and digestion. It’s also rich in vitamin B12, needed for red cell manufacture, preventing anaemia and helping cell development.

Turkey is also one of the best sources of a hormone called tryptophan, which is a precursor to falling to sleep. This is one scientific, bio-chemical reason why we might well nod off in the armchair after our delicious roast turkey meal.

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Words: Tilly Alexander

Wellbeing Wisdom

  • Not only is battery-farmed meat production unnatural and cruel, it also produces less healthy, less flavoursome meat
  • 100g of turkey meat provides 21.9g of protein, approximately half a woman’s daily requirement and almost half a man’s
  • Darker leg meat is an excellent source of zinc – needed for a healthy immune system and for healing cuts and grazes