There's No Turkey Shortage. But You Still Should Start Your Thanksgiving Prep Now.
Preorder your turkey for the pick of the pasture and expect to pay more this holiday
In July, Shady Brook Farms, a major turkey producer in the U.S., announced that it would be in short supply of small fresh turkeys by November, causing “turkey shortage” to trend on Google.
But don’t panic. Our experts assure us that if you want a bird, you’ll get a bird this Thanksgiving.
While the production of fresh turkeys is expected to be down 1.4 percent compared with November 2020, a spokesperson from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that calling this a turkey shortage is an overstatement. You might have a harder time finding a fresh turkey smaller than 16 pounds because demand is up due to smaller holiday gatherings. (These little ones sold out first last year.) But frozen turkeys in all sizes will be in abundance.
Where to Get a Small Turkey for Thanksgiving
Your best bet for getting a small fresh turkey is to order one from a local turkey farm today. Larger local farms, such as White Oak Pastures, and companies that partner with local farms, such as Heritage Foods USA, have been less affected by the labor and transportation problems hitting meatpacking plants right now, according to Andrew deCoriolis, executive director of Farm Forward, a nonprofit consulting group that promotes conscientious food choices and reduced farmed animal suffering.
“We’re kind of immune and a little bit isolated from the greater market forces,” says Tim Ring, a marketing associate at Heritage Foods. “We’re not in the big leagues, where they’re seeing a lot of disruption in the supply chain.”
Ring says his company has the same amount of small heritage (pasture-raised) birds as usual, but last year started selling out around mid-October to early November. This year, the birds are about $10 more, or $139 for an 8- to 10-pound turkey.
If a heritage bird isn’t available near you or in your budget—the difference is $12 to $13 a pound vs. an average of $1.30 per pound for commercial turkey—you can probably snag a small frozen turkey at a supermarket if you shop now. Lempert says small independent grocers tend to have more reliable stock. “During the pandemic, these stores have not had empty shelves because they work with local suppliers that they’ve dealt with for decades,” he says.
But first make sure you have room for a frozen bird. A small turkey will probably take up a space that’s 12x9x8 inches. That’s about the size of an entire shelf in a side-by-side freezer.
The Difference Between Fresh and Frozen Turkey
Fresh turkeys are slaughtered up to two weeks before they’re sold, while frozen turkeys could have been slaughtered up to a year ago, flash-frozen, and kept in deep-freeze until they’re sold. When it comes to quality, our turkey experts say you probably won’t notice much of a difference. Convenience—specifically storage space and thawing time—is the big differentiator here.
According to Amy Keating, CR’s resident nutritionist, the best way to thaw a turkey is in a refrigerator set to 37° F. You’ll need to budget 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds of meat. That means a 16-pound bird will take about four days to thaw. Keating suggests keeping the turkey wrapped and placing it on a rimmed tray on the bottom shelf of the fridge. If juices leak out, this will limit the amount of bacteria that gets on other foods and surfaces.
If you forget to pull the turkey out of the freezer, you can thaw it in cold water, according to the USDA. Leave it in its wrapping and then submerge it in a large container or sink filled with cold water. Allow about 30 minutes per pound—so about 8 hours for a 16-pound bird—and change the water every 30 minutes. Cook the turkey immediately after it has thawed.
Turkey Alternatives to Try This Thanksgiving
If you can’t find a turkey, you don’t want to pay the premium price, or you just can’t be bothered this year, there are other centerpiece options.
Roerink says many consumers were more willing to try turkey alternatives last year to accommodate smaller gatherings. She expects the same thing to happen again this holiday season. “We’ll likely see more high-end meat items on the Thanksgiving menu of smaller gatherings, such as prime rib, ribeye, pork roast, or a combination of turkey breast with a beef roast,” Roerink says. Turkey legs and breasts are other solutions for consumers who are celebrating in smaller groups.
“There are also some premade plant-based products on the market that are made to fill that special niche, like a celebration loaf,” deCoriolis says. Celebration loaves can be made of lentils, beans, alternative meats, bread, and vegetables, and they often come with mushroom gravy. He and his partner usually opt to just make a more involved dish, like a veggie shepherd’s pie or baked squash.
And let’s be real: While turkey is the tradition, the side dishes are the true stars at most Thanksgiving dinners. You can go all-out with extra-special brussels sprouts, cornbread dressing, mashed potatoes, and mushroom gravy. Buy canned ingredients early—like pumpkin purée, cream of mushroom soup, and cranberries—if you’ve got the pantry space. Lempert says transportation and labor shortages mean supermarkets are getting only about 50 to 70 percent of their orders filled.
Cooking Gear for a Successful Small Thanksgiving
Whether you’re cooking a small turkey, turkey parts, or something entirely different, here are some top-rated products that will set you up for an awesome Thanksgiving.
Clarification: A previous version of this article, originally published on September 28, 2021, mistakenly attributed the climate change impacts of increased feed costs to Anne-Marie Roerink instead of Phil Lempert and has been updated.