Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday: tantalizing odors oozing from the kitchen, the laughter and gentle buzz of family gathered around the dinner table. It is a meal I prepare with loving care.
The centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal is turkey. You want to serve your family the very best.
Fresh Versus Frozen
The debate over whether to purchase a fresh or frozen turkey can best be answered by the amount of space you have in your refrigerator for storage and the time required for safe thawing. If you shop ahead of time, it is safer to purchase a frozen turkey. If you purchase your turkey 1 to 2 days before cooking, you can feel safe purchasing a fresh bird.
A fresh turkey has never been held at a temperature colder than 26 degrees F. Even though water freezes at 32 degrees, turkey meat will remain pliable at this temperature. Fresh turkeys will cost more than frozen because their temperature needs require special handling. Your supermarket should keep fresh turkeys between 38 to 40 degrees F.
When shopping for a fresh turkey, check for indications that it has been stored at the proper temperature. Apply gentle pressure to check for signs of freezing. A fresh turkey will feel pliable. Examine the turkey for signs of ice crystals. Avoid fresh turkeys that have ice crystals. Supermarkets sometimes mound turkeys in refrigerated coolers above safe refrigeration levels. Select turkeys that have been stored at least 2 to 4 inches below the top of the cooler.
Commercially frozen turkeys are flash frozen. This is a process that cools them rapidly to 0 degrees F. Flash freezing ensures that the turkey will have the same level of freshness as the day it was frozen. There is, therefore, no difference in quality between fresh or frozen. Flash frozen turkeys will keep up to 1 year. They will maintain their quality better than turkeys frozen at home. If your supermarket has a sale on turkeys and you want to purchase several for later use, it is best to purchase flash frozen birds.
Frozen turkeys should be rock hard and show no signs of freezer damage. Avoid packages that have ice crystals, which may be an indication that the turkey has been stored at too cold of a temperature. Again, be sure your supermarket has stored frozen birds below the cooler’s freezer line, which is usually 2 to 4 inches below the top of the freezer. Frozen turkeys stored above this line will begin to thaw and may be kept at inadequate temperatures, allowing bacteria to form inside the bird.
Turkeys are Graded
The USDA inspects most turkeys and grades them A, B, or C. You will know your turkey has been inspected if its wrapper bears a USDA shield. If a turkey isgraded A, it is plump, has good body shape, and all its pinfeathers have been removed. It also lacks cuts, bruises, broken bones, and has no missing parts. Turkeys not graded A are safe to eat but their overall quality will be inferior. Natural turkeys are inspected but not graded. If you are buying a natural turkey, give it a good feel to be sure it has all its body parts. Nothing like putting a one-legged turkey on your table, especially when two members of the family are fond of drumsticks.
Turkeys are Classified by Age
Fryer-Roaster A fryer-roaster is usually less than 4 months
old and weighs between 4 to 8 pounds.
Young Turkey Weighing between 8 to 24 pounds, a young turkey is between 4 to 8 months old. This turkey will be the most tender and have the most flavor. US supermarkets, for the most part, sell young turkeys.
Yearling A yearling is 12 months old. It will not be as tender and flavorful as a young turkey.
Mature Turkeys older than 15 months are called mature. Their meat will be tough and not suited for roasting.
Raised on small farms, the heritage turkey resembles the turkey our ancestors ate. These breeds have a longer body, smaller breast muscles, and are a bit leaner than commercial birds. Heritage turkeys require 2 to 3 more months to grow to proper size for processing, making them more expensive than commercially raised birds. Most heritage birds are purchased from small farms, specialty food markets, or online.
Some people like to buy their turkey from local farmers. Turkeys grown on local farms are raised with tender, loving care, are free-range, and fed a higher quality of feed than mass-produced turkeys. If you order your turkey from a small farm, the best turkeys are the Broad Breasted Bronze, also called the Bronze, or the Broad Breasted White, also called the Large or Giant White.
I personally prefer to purchase a name brand fresh turkey the day before I plan to use it. I have had good luck with Butterball®, Honey Suckle®, and Red Bird® brands. Many supermarkets advertise rock-bottom specials on turkeys at Thanksgiving. Be extra careful when purchasing really cheap birds because often times they are defective. I prefer to stick with well-known brand names to ensure a quality turkey.
Basted or Self-Basted Turkeys
Some bone-in poultry carries the term “basted” or “self-basted” on its label. I prefer to avoid these products because they are injected or marinated with a solution that contains butter or some other edible fat, broth, stock, or water plus spices and other flavor enhancers.
How Many Pounds Do I Need?
So, you’ve decided what type of bird you are going to purchase. The next question: How many pounds do I need? When calculating how much to buy, plan to purchase between 1 to 11/2 pounds per person, depending on the amount of leftovers you’d like to have. If you’re feeding 12 people, plan to purchase a 12- to 16-pound bird.
Labeling on Turkey Products
The decision to purchase a free-range, natural, organic, or kosher turkey is one of personal preference. Following is some information to help you understand their subtleties.
This label means the turkey is fed only organic feed and is allowed to roam outdoors. In order to be classified organic, it can never receive any antibiotics and must be processed without any added flavorings, coloring, or artificial ingredients. The federal government prohibits the use of growth hormones or steroids in any commercially raised poultry.
The term “natural” indicates that the turkey has had limited processing, which means the raw product was not altered during processing. In addition, no artificial ingredients, colorings, or chemical preservatives have been added. A “natural” turkey may or may not be free range, depending on the farm, and can be given antibiotics if it becomes ill.
Free range means the bird has been allowed to roam outdoors, which is considered to have a positive effect on the flavor of its meat. Opponents of free-range birds believe that unless their environment is strictly controlled, they will scavenge on whatever they find. If buying a free-range turkey is important to you, look for third party verification from either “Animal Welfare Approved” or “Certified Humane.”
Pasture-raised turkeys are given the opportunity to roam on green, grassy pastures. If buying a pasture-raised turkey is important to you, look for third party verification from either “Animal Welfare Approved” or “Certified Humane”.
Turkeys are not raised in cages, so all turkeys are cage free.
Kosher means the turkey is raised and processed following strict guidelines and under rabbinical supervision. A kosher turkey is free range, fed only grain, and never given any antibiotics.
Storing and Using Turkey at Home
Storing Fresh Turkeys
If you purchase a fresh turkey, store it in its original wrapper in the coldest part of your refrigerator, which is usually the bottom shelf near the back. Use a fresh turkey within 1 to 2 days of bringing it home. Fresh turkeys are readily available around the holidays but should be cooked within a few days of purchase.
Storing Frozen Turkeys
Frozen turkeys are available year-round. If I’ve bought a frozen turkey on sale, I never keep it in my freezer more than 2 months. Mark your purchase date on the wrapping with a black marker.
Thawing Frozen Turkeys
Turkeys must be thawed before cooking. The preferred method for thawing a turkey is in the refrigerator at a temperature of 40 degrees F or lower. Allow 24 hours of thawing time for every 5 pounds of turkey. A 16-pound bird will take a little more than three days to defrost.
Turkeys can also be thawed in cold water. Place the bird, breast-side down in its unopened wrapper, in your kitchen sink and fill it with enough cold water to cover the turkey. The water must be changed every 30 minutes to ensure it remains cold. Allow 30 minutes per pound if thawing in cold water. A 16-pound bird will take 8 hours to defrost using this method.
Tips on preparing turkey: The night before cooking your turkey, remove giblets from the cavity. Rinse the thawed turkey thoroughly, both inside the bird’s two cavities and the outside skin. During rinsing, remove any pinfeathers or loose skin that might have been missed in processing. Scrape any remaining innards from the cavity. Pat the bird dry and place it in a roaster, cover with damp paper towels, and refrigerate until ready to stuff. Remove giblets from the wrapper, wash, place in a covered container, and refrigerate.
When you are ready to stuff the turkey, lightly salt the large cavity. Gently spoon in the stuffing, lightly filling both cavities to capacity. If the large cavity has a band of skin across the tail, push drumsticks under the tail. It is not necessary to fasten the opening. If there is no skin, close the opening by placing skewers across it and lacing it shut with a cord. Tie the drumsticks to the tail. Dental floss works well for lacing.
Roasting time by weights:
6 to 8 pounds 334 to 4 hours
8 to 12 pounds 4 to 434 hours
12 to 16 pounds 434 to 534 hours
16 to 20 pounds 534 to 634 hours
20 to 24 pounds 634 to 734 hours
Carol Ann Kates is the award-winning author of cookbook, Secret Recipes from the Corner Market and Grocery Shopping Secrets. She’s an expert in how to shop, select, and store produce for maximizing home cooking outcomes and minimizing time and money spent. As a former supermarket and deli operator, Carol Ann shares grocery-insider wisdom—the same expertise you used to receive when patronizing a mom-and-pop establishment. Contact her at CarolAnn@CarolAnnKates.com and explore her website, www.CarolAnnKates.com.
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