Turkey Buying and Cooking Tips
With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I thought you might enjoy talking turkey including some tips on choosing a bird and how to cook it. You would think cooking a turkey is not that big a deal but looking at all the articles in the current November issues of cooking magazines, you are suddenly faced with a whole bunch of choices.
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For example, first you have to decide what kind of turkey you’re going to buy – fresh, frozen, free-range, natural, self-basting, kosher, with or without a pop-up thermometer. Then you have to decide how to cook it – roast, grill, barbeque, covered, uncovered, breast up, breast down, feet first, brined, stuffed, how long, what temperature, so on and so on.
When I was a kid back in the 60’s, I don’t remember having that many choices, at least I didn’t think we did. My mom bought a great big frozen turkey at our local supermarket. She tossed the turkey filled with stuffing into the oven and when the little red popper popped up it was done and I mean really done. Over done!
We did have a local butcher where she bought most of our meat and cold cuts, (I used to love when the butcher handed us kids a slice of rolled up baloney) but I don’t remember her buying our Thanksgiving turkey there. No one heard of organic, free range turkeys back in the 60’s. At least I didn’t.
So where do we start – fresh, frozen, or somewhere in between?
“Fresh” has been defined by the USDA as never been chilled below 26° F or never frozen. Turkeys chilled below 0 degrees F must be labeled as “frozen”. And then there are those between 0 – 26° F that are labeled “hard-chilled”. So which is better?
Some experts will tell you that freezing affects the taste of the meat because it alters the cell structure causing a loss of moisture thus a loss of flavor. That may be true, but in my many years of eating turkey, fresh, frozen and I image had a few of those in between “hard-chilled” turkeys, I’ve never been able to taste that much difference between them.
I think the quality and taste has more to do with the age of the turkey, how it is handled before it is frozen, how it is defrosted, and then how it cooked.
Let’s face it, you could buy the most expensive fresh, free-range, organic turkey and overcook it, it’s going to be dry and lacking flavor. I’m going to go out on the limb here, but in my opinion, turkey is more of a conduit for great turkey gravy and cranberry sauce than something to be eaten by itself. How many of you eat turkey without any of the accompaniments?
Let’s look at some of the choices you have to decide from. How old is the bird. A fry-roaster is considered to no older than 4 months old. A young hen (female) or young tom (male) is between 5 – 7 months old and a yearling is 1 year old or older. The younger the bird, the better the taste.
There are “organic” turkeys but not many of them because of the strict certification criteria imposed by the USDA and they are very expensive. And what makes a free-range turkey? According to USDA, any birds that have access to the outside can be considered “free-range”.
Because these birds can move freely, they supposedly grow more slowly thus allowing more time to develop flavor and texture. Then there are “natural” turkeys, but that only means no artificial ingredients have been added and minimal processing done to the birds.
Kosher birds have strict specifications. They must be processed under the supervision of a rabbi, grain fed with no antibiotics, allowed to roam free, and soaked in salt brine before packages which I have read is great for adding flavor.
One year I tried brining my turkey in my tiny New York kitchen and it turned out to be very difficult and I made a huge mess. I’m not sure the results were worth the effort so I’m happy to learn you can purchase a pre-brined turkey.
So what to buy?
I guess that depends on how much money you want to spend and how particular you are about your bird. And if you don’t buy your turkey until the day before Thanksgiving, you might think about a non-frozen turkey because of the time it takes to defrost.
Now that you’ve decided what kind of bird to purchase, let’s look at a few cooking tips that should help you serve up a tasty turkey diner. It seems every cookbook and every cooking magazine has a plethora of tricks and secrets to making a better turkey.
I’m going to leave it up to you to decide whether you want to use bacon to bard your bird or what herbs and spices you want to use to season it and so forth, but I would like to look at a few basic tips.
The Reluctant Gourmet’s Top Ten Turkey Tips
1. If you purchased a frozen turkey, defrosting your bird is an important event prior to cooking. You want to thaw your turkey in the original wrapper in the refrigerator. A 12-pound turkey takes approximately 2 days to defrost and 24 pounder takes approximately 3-4 days.
2. You will want to clean the bird well in the sink with cold water the same as when cooking chicken or duck.
3. Season the inside of the turkey well with salt and pepper and whatever other herbs and spices your recipes call for. Don’t skimp. Seasonings help add flavor.
4. Remember to remove the giblets (heart, gizzard, and neck) from the cavity of the bird before cooking and be sure to make delicious giblet gravy with them. · Coat the exterior of the turkey with butter for a crisp skin.
5. Disposable aluminum roast pan vs. heavy duty roasting pan
6. I don’t own a fancy heavy duty-roasting pan with 2-inch sides big enough to hold a good size turkey (hint-hint to my wife) but I’ve read that there are advantages to owning one. First they prevent the drippings from burning because of the heavier bottom.
Two, they are easier to handle when placing the bird in and out of the oven. Have you ever had one of those aluminum pans bend on you when trying to remove a hot turkey from the oven?
Third, they are easier to deglaze and make gravy in. I never liked the feel of whisking on those cheap aluminum pans. The two negatives to an expensive roasting pan – cost and where to store them.
7. Stuffing – my favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal. Whether it’s a favorite family recipe or one you grabbed from your latest cooking magazine, here are a couple of tips that might help.
My Grandma always used stale bread for making stuffing and bread pudding. She said it stands up better to the moisture. Cut the bread into smaller cubes to match the other chopped ingredients included in your dressing.
8. Roast the bird at 325° F. with the legs pointing to the back, the hottest part of the oven. 2/3’s of the way through, tent the bird with foil to prevent the skin from over browning. A 16 to 24 pound stuffed turkey takes approximately 12 to 15 minutes per pound.
9. Use a thermometer! Whether it’s an oven thermometer you poke into the turkey leg or an instant thermometer, forget about those pop-ups. The only thing they tell you is when the turkey is over-cooked. My mom taught me to wiggle the leg to see if it’s loose to determine if the turkey is done.
That works as well as those pop-ups with the same results. I’ve looked at several cookbooks to find the correct temperatures to tell when the bird is done.
It’s a little confusing because they ranged from 165° F to 180° F. registered from the inner thigh. I usually remove the bird at 165 – 170° F, cover it with tin foil, and let it stand until the temperature registers 180° F.
10. Carving the bird – for years I always carved the bird with my favorite chef’s knife with ok results but all that changed when we bought a new couch and the store gave us an electric knife as a bonus gift.
I thought an electric knife was a throwback to the 60’s when I was a kid watching my dad carve the turkey but after that first Thanksgiving I employed it, I was converted. Much easier and neater.
There are many more tips and techniques out there for cooking a turkey. There may even be whole books written about the subject. Many of these tips may not be new to you but I hope you can find something useful from them. I welcome your own personal favorite tips and techniques for future newsletters to be posted on my web site.
I’ve always found Thanksgiving can be overwhelming especially if you’re cooking for a large crowd. Growing up, my mom worked so hard to put out a great meal only to be wolfed down by us kids so we could go out and play with our friends or watch a football game.
Try to prep as much as possible the week before Thanksgiving. Get everybody involved including the kids. It’s a great way to teach them some cooking skills and show them that the turkey dinner doesn’t magically arrive at the dining table.
If you are not cooking for a big crowd, keep it simple. If you are cooking for a big crowd, try to delegate some of the dishes to your guests. It gives a communal feeling and takes some of the pressure off the host.
And most important, give thanks and enjoy yourself. Happy Thanksgiving. RG