Turkey How-To: Buy, Prep and Cook the Perfect Bird
Americans consume about 46 million turkeys each Thanksgiving. That’s a lot of birds to produce all at once, and mass production can mean a relatively dry, flavorless turkey, often raised on antibiotics. But there are a gaggle of options. Below see Choosing a Turkey, Preparation, and Delaying the Feast. But first:
Cooking a Turkey
Many people have their preferred method for cooking the perfect Thanksgiving turkey — ranging from in an oven bag or not, or in the microwave, or in a vat of boiling oil. Just be sure to to cook it thoroughly. The temperature should reach 165 degrees in the innermost part of the thigh and wing, and the thickest part of the breast, as well as in the stuffing, according to the USDA. Here are some great resources you can refer to and argue about:
- Times & Techniques: Thawing & Cooking-Method Basics (USDA)
- ‘Perfect Turkey’ Tips: AllRecipes, Food Network & A Fork’s Tale
Choosing a Turkey
Experts say you should plan on about 1 pound of turkey per person.
Fresh vs. Frozen Opinions on this range like wild turkeys, and there’s no clear-cut advice. But if you want to get your bird home more than a few days advance, frozen is the best option, and some argue it’s a fine way to go.
“With today’s freezing methods, there is no significant difference in quality between a fresh turkey and a frozen one,” according to the University of Illinois Extension. Ashlee Mortimer, of Mortimer Family Farms in Dewey, agreed. Frozen turkeys are “just as delicious,” she told In&Out.
Still, some culinary experts argue that any frozen meat will tend to be drier. To compensate, frozen supermarket turkeys are often injected with a solution (typically water, salt, oil and seasoning) that can be high in sodium; To identify these birds, look for a label that says “basted” or “self-basting.”
If you buy a fresh (non-frozen) turkey, it must be refrigerated and should be cooked within two days of the sell-by date, according to the USDA and other food safety experts.
Tipsy Turkeys The most common supermarket turkey, by far, is the Broad Breasted White, bred to have oversized breasts that provide more meat for the dollar. They grow so large, however, that the birds sometimes fall over trying to walk, and can no longer procreate naturally. They are typically raised in a large shed with tens of thousands of other birds. Antibiotics are often used to control disease fostered by the buildup of manure.
Better Breeds Separate taste tests were conducted by Bon Appetit, epicurious.com, the Washington Post and the L.A. Times. The consensus: Pasture-raised and free-range turkeys taste better than popular supermarket varieties. Heritage breeds, which are genetically closer to wild birds (and more costly), were rated the most flavorful. Heritage birds are usually raised to move around freely. They have more dark meat and can be more oily. Heritage breeds include: Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Jersey Buff, Slate, Black Spanish, White Holland, Royal Palm, White Midget and Beltsville Small White.
Size Matters Smaller birds tend to be more tender, according to the Food Network and others who talk turkey. Male turkeys (toms) grow bigger than females (hens), but two turkeys of the same size will be similar in tenderness and flavor.
Nutritional Value Turkey is similar nutritionally to chicken. A 3-½ ounce serving of skinless breast meat (about the size of a deck of cards) has around 30 grams of protein and 4 grams of fat. Despite many studies, there’s no consensus on whether organic food has more nutritional value than non-organic.
Look at the Label
Some labels are confusing or deceiving. Here’s what they really mean:
- Organic Turkeys fed only organic feed (non-GMO, no pesticides, no chemical fertilizers), not routinely given antibiotics (exceptions can be made for treating sick animals, however), and have some access to outdoors.
- Animal Welfare Approved or Certified Humane Birds were raised humanely, including established minimum space requirements or access to outdoors.
- No Antibiotics Must be documented to USDA that antibiotics were not used routinely. Says nothing about the conditions in which the animals were raised nor what they were fed.
- Fresh Never been below 26 degrees (the temperature at which poultry freezes). You should be able to depress the flesh easily with your thumb. Don’t be surprised if a “fresh” bird feels nearly or partly frozen; They’re often refrigerated right down to the threshold.
- Free Range The animals must have access to the outdoors, but there’s no guarantee they’ve ever actually been outside, and many never have, according to Consumer Reports and other third-party groups that analyze farming techniques.
- Young or Fryer-Roaster Turkey less than 16 weeks old. Most store-bought turkeys are slaughtered at about this age anyway, so pay more attention to size.
- Natural Contains no artificial ingredients or added color and is minimally processed. Generally true of most turkeys anyway.
- Premium Hollow marketing term.
Cage Free Meaningless for turkeys, as they’re almost never raised in cages.
Hormone Free Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones to raise poultry, so this claim is a marketing gimmick.
Preparation: Don’t Rinse!
The U.S. Department of Agriculture strongly warns consumers against trying to wash their turkey—or any raw meat—before cooking it. The USDA described it as “virtually impossible” to clean your turkey this way. In fact, sink washing increases the risk of cross-contamination; The fine spray of water bouncing off the turkey can spread germs all over your sink, hands, clothes, forearms, fixtures and nearby dishes and counters.
Instead, simply open the packaging over the sink, let the juices drain, then move the meat directly to the pan or tray it’s going to be cooked in. Discard packaging immediately.
The only way to truly sanitize your turkey is to cook until its internal temperature reaches at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Allow the bird to touch or drip on as few surfaces as possible before then.
Wash hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after handling.
To prevent cross-contamination from raw meat or poultry juices, wash counters and sinks with hot, soapy water. For extra protection, sanitize with a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water.
Delayed Feast? Don’t Panic.
Thanksgiving dinner; an exercise in multitasking, scheduling, communication and stress management. All of which can be easily thrown by car trouble, a flight delay, family drama or waiting in line for a doorbuster deal. If a last-minute call disrupts your plans, don’t worry.
Delay: One to Three Hours
- Don’t let perishables linger between 40 degrees and 140 degrees for more than two hours.
- If the turkey is in the oven, leave it there until guests arrive; after getting it to the safe 165 degrees, keep the center as close to 140 degrees as possible.
- Cover hot foods to keep moist.
Delay: Three Hours to Four Days
- If you know guests will be this late, refrigerate and reheat when they arrive. Food kept hot for too long will dry out.
- When turkey is done, remove from oven and let sit 20 minutes. Remove the stuffing, legs, thighs, and wings, (carve completely, if desired).
- Transfer hot food to shallow containers to cool quickly. Leave lids at an angle for a few minutes before sealing to avoid excessive moisture from condensation.
- Don’t worry if food is still hot when you put in the fridge; Refrigerators are built to adjust.
Delay: Rescheduled Within Four Months
- If it’s just not happening this weekend, freeze the meal. It will keep until Christmas, and should even be good until February or March. Or just enjoy it yourself. There’s always next year.
Parts of this article were adapted from previous In&Out Magazine articles. Research & writing by Robert Roy Britt and Sydney Marsing.