Thanksgiving is just around the corner. According to the news, this will be the most expensive Thanksgiving in history; and experts predict there will be 20 percent less turkeys to purchase. There are still outs at the grocery store, and I can’t always purchase the dry goods I want or need for a particular recipe. Because of trucking issues, it takes longer for fresh products to reach their destination; and produce just isn’t as fresh and crisp as I prefer. It has never been more important to be a smart shopper.
I have already made a list of the non-perishable grocery items I will need for my Thanksgiving dinner and purchase them when I can. I must admit, I still have things on my list I haven’t been able to find.
Because turkey is the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving celebration, it’s important to select the very best. When I have a choice, 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®. Some years, supermarkets have turkey wars and advertise birds at rock-bottom prices. That isn’t going to be the case this year.
Following is some grocery-insider wisdom about selecting your bird.
Fresh vs. frozen:
This year the debate over purchasing a fresh or frozen turkey may be answered by what is available. But if you have a choice, there are some practical matters to consider: (1) the amount of space you have in your refrigerator for storage, and (2) the time required for safe thawing. If you shop a week or two 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. 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.
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.
Commercially frozen turkeys are flash frozen. This is a process that cools them rapidly to 0 degrees F. Flash freezing ensures 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.
The preferred method for thawing a turkey is in the refrigerator at a temperature of 40 degrees F. 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 the sink 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.
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.
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.
Organic 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, color, or artificial ingredients. The federal government prohibits the use of growth hormones or steroids in any commercially raised poultry.
The term natural indicates the turkey has limited processing, which means the raw product is 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.
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.
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 or online.
Some people like to buy their turkey from local farmers. If you have a small farm near you, this may be a more reliable alternative this year. 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. Some bone-in poultry carry the term “basted”, “self-basted”, or “pre-brined”. 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. If you are a fan of this type of bird, watch how much salt you use when you prepare it. Over-salting can dry out your turkey.
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 is graded 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 also classified. A 4- to 8-pound turkey is called a fryer-roaster. It is usually less than 4 months old. A turkey between 4- to 8-months in age will weigh between 8 to 24 pounds. It is classified as a Young Turkey. This turkey will be the most tender and have the most flavor. A yearling is 12 months old. It will not be as tender and flavorful as a young turkey. Turkeys older than 15 months are called “mature”. Its meat will be tough and not suited for roasting.
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 1 ½ 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.
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.
I learned how to cook watching the women in my family scurry about the kitchen. My Auntie Beryl hovered over her stove poking at the food she cooked, coaxing it to blossom into something spectacular. She taught me to nurture that which nurtures me. My mother, a perfectionist, was a taskmaster at doing it right. She taught me the satisfaction of mastering simple recipes. Following is my favorite recipe for Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing. If you want all my recipes for Thanksgiving, they are available on my website at www.carolannkates.com.
Getting the Turkey Ready to Cook
The night before cooking your turkey, remove the giblets from the cavity. Rinse the 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 the giblets from the wrapper, wash, place in a covered container, and refrigerate.
My Favorite Thanksgiving Stuffing Serves 8 to 10
For the stuffing
12 ounces dried apricots, dice 1 cup Grand Marnier®
In a small saucepan, place apricots and 1 cup Grand Marnier® over medium heat and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and set aside.
½ cup butter 2 cups white onion, chopped 2 cups celery, chopped ½ pound bulk pork sausage 24 ounces Pepperidge Farm® Herb Seasoned Crushed Stuffing 1 cup slivered almonds ¼ cup butter 3 cups canned chicken broth ½ cup Grand Marnier® ½ teaspoon dried thyme ½ teaspoon salt Large grind black pepper to taste
In a large skillet, melt ½ cup butter over medium heat. Add onion and celery and sauté for 10 minutes, or until vegetables are tender. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and set aside.
Cook pork sausage in the same skillet, crumbling with a fork, until sausage is no longer pink. Remove from the heat, drain any excess grease, and add to the onion mixture. In a large bowl, combine stuffing mix, apricots with liquid, and slivered almonds to the onion mixture. Mix thoroughly. Heat the remaining ¼ cup butter and chicken broth in a small saucepan over medium heat just until butter melts. Pour over stuffing mixture and add the remaining ½ cup Grand Marnier®, thyme, and salt. Mix well to evenly moisten stuffing. Season to taste with pepper. Makes enough stuffing for a 20-pound turkey.
For the turkey:
1 turkey (about 20 pounds) ready to cook 2 oranges, cut in half ¼ cup butter, softened to room temperature 1 teaspoon dried thyme Salt to taste Large grind black pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Wash turkey according to above directions. Squeeze juice from oranges evenly over outside of turkey and in neck and body cavities. Spoon stuffing loosely into the cavities. Set aside extra stuffing. Close cavities with small trussing skewers. Place turkey on a roasting rack in a roasting pan, breast side up. Spread butter over the skin of turkey and sprinkle with thyme, salt, and pepper to taste. Cover with aluminum foil, pressing the foil lightly at drumstick and breast ends. Avoid letting the foil touch the top or sides. Roast for 3 hours. Remove the foil and roast, basting occasionally until juices run clear when meaty part of the thigh is pierced with a sharp skewer, about 3 more hours. Bake leftover stuffing in a covered baking dish at 325 degrees F for 30 minutes.
Cooking tip: For a smoother Thanksgiving morning, chop the onion, celery, and apricots the night before. Place them in covered containers and refrigerate celery and onion until it’s time to stuff your bird. Store apricots at room temperature. This stuffing is so good you will want to extract every bite. Try inserting a piece of cheesecloth into the bird’s cavity before stuffing. When you remove the cloth, all the stuffing comes magically out at once.
Tips on roasting a turkey:
Using a food thermometer is the only way to ensure your turkey has reached its proper temperature. Insert the thermometer in a thigh muscle—do not touch the bone. You can test your turkey to see if it is cooked to the appropriate temperature in several different places. Turkeys should be cooked to 180 degrees F between the breast and innermost part of the thigh or 170 degrees F in the thickest part of the breast. Cook thighs and wings until they reach 180 degrees F in the thickest part of the meat. The stuffing inside your turkey should reach 165 degrees F.
Roasting time by weights:
6 to 8 pounds 3 ½ to 4 hours
8 to 12 pounds 4 to 4 ½ hours
12 to 16 pounds 4 ½ to 5 ½ hours
16 to 20 pounds 5 ½ to 6 ½ hours
20 to 24 pounds 6 ½ to 7 ½ hours
During the last 2 hours of cooking, baste the turkey occasionally with pan juices. Before meat thermometers, cooks knew a turkey was done when its drumsticks moved up and down and twisted easily in the socket.
Tips on Carving the Turkey
My husband is always in charge of carving our turkey. It’s his special responsibility every Thanksgiving. If you’ve never carved a turkey before, it’s not a difficult undertaking. While we often see turkeys carved at the table on lavishly garnished platters, my husband prefers to perform this task in the kitchen.
My Uncle Eddie was a butcher. The following is how he taught us to carve a turkey. His advice for making the task easier—always use a very sharp knife and a fork with a guard.
Let the bird stand at least 15 minutes so all the juices can be absorbed. Remove any trussing—skewers and cord. Remove any stuffing from the cavities and place in a serving dish, cover with aluminum foil to keep warm, and set aside. Place the turkey on a cutting board or platter.
Hold the drumstick with one hand, pulling it gently away from the turkey body. Using a carving knife, cut through the skin between the leg and body. Then cut through the joint that joins the leg to the backbone and push the leg off until the thighbone pops out of its socket. Separate the drumstick and thigh by cutting through the ball joint. You can carve the meat off the drumsticks and thighs or serve them whole. We like to serve the drumsticks whole and slice the thighs. To slice the drumstick, hold it upright at a convenient angle to the plate and cut downward. Rotate the drumstick so you get uniform slices. To slice the thigh, hold it firmly on a plate with a fork and cut slices parallel to the bone. To carve the breast meat, hold the bird in place with a fork. Cut into the white meat parallel to the wing. Then make a deep cut into the breast all the way to the body frame. Halfway up the breast, cut slices of white meat down to the cut made parallel to the wing. The slices will fall away from the turkey as they are cut to this line.
Carving tip: Thinner slices of breast meat will dry out faster.
Tips on shopping for onions: Onions should be dry, firm, and shiny with a thin outer skin. Do not buy onions that have sprouts. They will taste bitter. The neck of an onion should be tightly closed. Do not buy onions that have dark patches, soft spots, or black mold.
Tips on storing onions: Onions should be stored in a cool, dark, dry, well-ventilated place. Do not store onions and potatoes together. Potatoes give off moisture that can cause onions to spoil.
Tips on shopping for celery: Good quality celery will have straight stalks and rigid ribs that snap crisply when bent. The leafy tops should look fresh with good green color. Do not buy celery with slimy leaves. When celery is overly large with dark green stalks, it may be bitter or stringy. Tips on storing celery: Keep celery in a perforated bag in the vegetable crisper of your refrigerator. It will keep up to 1 week. Tips on prepping celery: My mother taught me to remove the strings from celery by snapping the rib at the point where the stalk changes in color from green to white. This exposes the strings. Using a small paring knife, gently pull the strings from the stalks. Tips for buying sausage: Sausage is very perishable. Always check the “Sell By” date to ensure your sausage will be fresh when you plan to use it. Sausage should be tightly wrapped and sealed in plastic. Fresh sausage will be soft and pinkish in color.
Tips on storing sausage: Store sausage in the meat and cheese section of your refrigerator. Check the “Sell By” date. If you don’t use it by this date, freeze it for later use.
Carol Ann Kates is the award-winning author of cookbook, Secret Recipes from the Corner Market and Insider 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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