The temperatures are cooler, the leaves have changed color and started to drop, many of the crops are harvested, and most vegetable gardens have ended, so we all know that one of the best American holidays is almost here, Thanksgiving. The turkey help lines are open and now the grocery store ads are promoting turkey sales. I know many of us cook and eat turkey year-round, but there is nothing like the Thanksgiving turkey and the planned-overs for turkey sandwiches.
Many of you have challenges figuring out the amount to buy, and for sure the safe way to thaw the bird and cook it properly without overcooking. I suggest you plan about one pound per person, or a pound and half per person if you have hearty eaters or want ample planned-over’s. An important consideration is all the other food that you are preparing as that can influence how much turkey one eats at the meal.
A trend the last few years for some cooks is to brine the turkey as well as prepare the turkey a day or two ahead, have it all carved, and then the day of the meal all you have to do is warm it. If you choose to do this, make sure to put some turkey, chicken or vegetable broth over it and cover it when heating. The broth will keep the turkey from drying out. We all know that dry turkey is tough and not very tasty.
There is always discussion about fresh verses frozen, and while I will not get into that discussion, I will say I am confident that very few of your guests could tell the difference. While the quality and taste of frozen versus fresh turkey is quite similar, the keeping time is not. A frozen turkey can be purchased months in advance, but a fresh bird should be bought only 2 to 4 days ahead.
There are basically two types of birds to choose from, the un-basted bird to which nothing has been added, and a pre-basted bird, which typically includes vegetable oil, broth, and sometimes salts and seasonings. Now don’t laugh, but if you are looking for ways to reduce fat at the Thanksgiving meal, cook the un-basted bird in a cooking bag and it will be very moist without the added fat.
The most common turkey in the stores is USDA Grade A, the highest quality grade for poultry. Grade A poultry has good shape, structure, and fat covering, and is free of pinfeathers and defects such as cuts and bruises. A turkey fact to know is that age, and not gender, is the determining factor for tenderness. All turkeys in the market are young, usually 4-6 months old. A hen generally weighs less than 16 pounds and a tom is usually over 16 pounds.
When it comes to defrosting, it is best to defrost your turkey in the refrigerator. The rule of thumb is a minimum of 24 hours of defrost time for every 5 pounds of turkey, although I have found that it usually takes longer. It can take four to five days to defrost a 20-pound turkey. Good to know information is that once defrosted, a completely thawed bird will last for an additional day or two in the refrigerator.
When the turkey has not thawed as you planned, you can safely speed up the defrosting time by submerging the wrapped bird in a large sink of cold water. If you don’t have a large enough sink, you can use a large pan or bucket, but those are the only safe places to use for faster thawing. Check or change the water every 30 minutes to make sure it remains cold. Allow 30 minutes of thaw time per pound.
An additional turkey fact that you need to know is about roasting the turkey. Allow 15 to 18 minutes per pound for an un-stuffed bird and 18 to 24 minutes per pound for a stuffed bird. You can speed up the cooking time by preheating the oven to 325° F. If you choose to cook your turkey without a cooking bag, cover your turkey during the first part of the cooking process and then remove the cover during the last part of the cooking so the skin browns.
Keep in mind that cooking temperatures do vary! Every year people wonder why their turkey is done too early or too late. There are many reasons, such as the oven temperature may not be accurate, the turkey was still partially frozen, or maybe the roasting pan was too small, prohibiting proper heat flow.
To determine doneness, it is best if you use a meat thermometer. A whole turkey is done when the internal temperature reaches 165° F as measured in the thickest part of the inner thigh. The juices should run clear and the stuffing temperature should reach 165° F. If you don’t have a thermometer use a paper towel or napkin and hold the leg with that and use another napkin and twist the bone; if the bone slides out the turkey is done.
Plan not to overcook the turkey, as this will make it dry, and for nice slices, plan to let the turkey rest a full 20 minutes before carving.
All that's left is to enjoy your Thanksgiving with family and friends.