Thanksgiving 101

The Essential Turkey Handbook

By EAT SMARTER
Updated on 27. Dec. 2018
Roast turkey: The centerpiece of any Thanksgiving meal
Roast turkey: The centerpiece of any Thanksgiving meal

Hosting the Thanksgiving meal this year? Whether it's your first time or fourteenth, there's always something new to learn--or something old to tweak (say, subbing in a gingersnap crust for the usual pastry dough in making a pumpkin pie). Planning the holiday meal usually starts and ends with (what else?) the turkey. When it comes to the Thanksgiving turkey, there are a host of questions that usually pop up: What type of turkey should you buy? Should you brine the turkey before cooking? What are the pros and cons of stuffing the turkey? EatSmarter! talks about these issues and all things turkey.

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Talking Turkey

The turkey is hands-down the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal, so it deserves your careful consideration. There are just so many choices that have to be made, and seemingly differing opinions on practically each stage of the game: Turns out basting doesn't help keep the turkey moist at all, and can even prolong the cooking time (or shorten it, depending on who you turn to.), and it definitely creates a streaky appearance rather than a uniform golden brown (and that can be good or bad depending on your own preferences). Think of this handy guide as your go-to source for all things turkey this Thanksgiving and beyond. 

Buying the turkey

For many, Thanksgiving is all about the turkey (for others, it's the sides or desserts ). To make the glistening, crispy turkey of your dreams, you need to start with the bird itself. Know the types of turkey you can buy as well as how to figure out how much turkey you'll need, and then buy the best turkey for your particular preferences.

Get the right size 

Besides your guest count, there are other considerations for choosing a 12- or 20-pound bird. You'll need to have room in the refrigerator to store (and brine, if desired) the turkey, and in the oven during cooking.

  • Plan on 1 pound of uncooked, unstuffed bird per person, or 1 1/2 pounds with leftovers.
  • Larger birds (over 18 pounds) have a greater meat-to-bone ratio, so you can go with 1 pound per person.
  • If you are feeding a sizable crowd, consider cooking 2 smaller turkeys instead of a larger one; or if you are a big fan of leftovers, cook one bird for the meal and another one for the remains of the day.
  • If you are having a smaller gathering, you may want to cook a whole turkey leg (for dark-meat fans) or whole breast (for white-meat lovers), or one of each; you can buy them bone in or butterflied, for stuffing and using to make a roulade (click here for a recipe).

Learn the jargon

Organic, natural, free-range...these are just a few of the terms that are a continual source of confusion among those looking to buy a turkey these days. There's no right or wrong when it comes to choosing one type of turkey over another, except for your personal preferences.

  • Fresh: All turkeys bearing the "fresh" label must never have been held at a temperature below 26 degrees, which is the freezing point for the meat. That means any turkey that is fresh will never be "previously frozen." Always check the "use by" date, and buy within 1 or 2 days of cooking.
  • Frozen: For this to be on the label, the turkey must have been flash-frozen at or below 0 degrees. Be sure to buy frozen turkeys well in advance to allow sufficient time for thawing.
  • Hard-chilled: This means the turkey was kept between 0 and 26 degrees, making it more perishable than frozen. Treat these the same as fresh, buying as close to Thanksgiving as possible.
  • Self-basting: Mass-produced birds that are injected with a questionable cocktail of fillers and other unidentifiable ingredints, these bear little of the characteristic taste of turkey (and should be avoided).
  • Natural or all-natural: There's no verification required of producers who put "natural" on their products, which only means that there are no artificial additives--but there can be other additives, so read the label carefully.
  • Organic: There are much more stringent requirements for turkeys to have the organic label, primarily the absence of antibiotics, pesticides, and growth hormones, which is why the folks at Consumer Reports recommend only buying organic turkeys.
  • Kosher: This label refers to the way the turkeys are processed, which is according to rabbinical law, and as such they are always brined in a salt solution, which some cooks like since it eliminates the need to brine the bird themselves.
  • Free-range or free-roaming: Since turkeys are never raised in cages, this could mean that the birds had acess to the outdoors for as little as 5 minutes a day. Better to choose turkeys that are "pasture-raised."
  • Heritage breed: These birds are based on heirloom varities that were once the norm, before commercial farming took hold, and are typically free roaming and humanely raised. They are prized for being leaner and more flavorful than standard turkeys. They can be hard to find and pricey, but worth the splurge for the exceptional taste and texture.

Consider the source

If you've only ever bought the shrink-wrapped turkey from the supermarket, you're in for a revelation: There are plenty of other options for buying a turkey, especially if you plan ahead.

  • Farmstands or greenmarkets are excellent sources for fresh birds, including heritage breeds, and most often those that are organic and/or humanely raised.
  • Specialty markets and butchers: It's worth checking with your local gourmet food stores and butcher shops, since they will often provide many fresh options that they get directly from their providers.
  • Supermarkets: Nowadays, even standard grocery stores offer more than the familiar Butterball variety, in a range of prices. Some locations of national chains (including Whole Foods and Wegman's) will let you order the bird in advance for pick-up on a specified day; you can even opt to have them brine the bird for you.

Prepping the turkey

Thawing, brining, stuffing...oh my! There's lots to do before the turkey even goes into the oven, and getting those steps right is just as important to the final outcome as the cooking method itself. Here's a concise guide to help you navigate the process with confidence--and ease.

Thawing a frozen turkey

Rule number 1: Never thaw a turkey at room temperature (or in the microwave). See below for other rules (food safety first!). There's no way to tell if the interior is fully thawed, so be sure to follow the suggested guidelines for time based on weight.

  • To thaw in the refrigerator: This is the recommended method. Plan on 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey; that means about 4 days for a 20 pound bird. Leave the turkey in its original packaging and place on a rimmed baking sheet to catch any leaks.
  • For a quicker thaw: Place the turkey, in its packaging, in a sink or large-enough container and cover with cold water. Plan on 30 minutes for every pound of turkey, or 6 hours for a 12 pound bird. You'll need to change the water every half hour to maintain the temperature, so this method works best for smaller birds.

The case for brining

The challenge in roasting a whole turkey lies in its sheer size, which makes it easy to overcook the breast meat before the dark meat is cooked through. Just think: Even smaller turkeys are about four times the size of an average chicken. Good news! There's a simple solution to ensuring a succulent turkey every time: Brining (wet or dry) uses salt to plump up the meat, for turkey that is moist and flavorful through and through. 

  • Does it really work? Actually, yes, though there are differing opinions about HOW it works. But one fact is agreed upon: Salt has a denaturing effect on the proteins in meat, or in other words it breaks down the muscle fibers, so rather than contracting when exposed to heat (and squeezing out water), some of these fibers dissolve and retain more moisture. The result: Rather than losing as much as 30 percent moisture during cooking, the meat only loses about 15 percent.
  • How do you do it? There are two types of brining: wet and dry. Wet brining involves submerging the turkey in a saltwater solution (typically 5 percent salt by volume); the turkey soaks up some of that brine over time (usually overnight). Some people find that this method dilutes the flavor of the turkey and prefer to use a dry brine, or salt rub, which also helps promote a crispy, golden brown exterior. It's easier by far to do, too: Just rub salt (and other seasonings, as desired) over a patted-dry turkey and refrigerate for a matter of days.
  • Do I have to brine the turkey? Absolutely not! Many home cooks have perfectly fine results without brining their turkeys. Some find that rubbing the turkey with salt and refrigerating for as little as 2 hours works just as well; others find as long as you monitor the temperature with a probe thermometer, never a risk of overcooking. And of course you should never brine a kosher turkey (which is already brined), nor would you necessarily choose to wet-brine a heritage breed turkey), young turkeys (check the label) or those smaller than 12 pounds, which have less risk of overcooking as standard birds.

To learn more about brining, click here.

Stuffing the turkey

There are two camps of cooks when it comes to stuffing a turkey: either you do or you don't. Which camp you fall into probably depends on what you grew up eating, and many cooks never even give their familial tradition a second thought. Here's the case for and against:

Pros of stuffing:

  • The stuffing imparts moisture to the turkey, so the meat is juicier when cooked with the stuffing inside.
  • The stuffing also soaks up the tasty juices that drip off the turkey during cooking.
  • It makes an impressive presentation.

Cons of stuffing:

  • Because it takes longer for the stuffing to reach the proper temperature (165 degrees), the turkey will be woefully dry (the breast should only be cooked to 145 degrees).
  • There are too many safety concerns when putting stuffing in a raw bird (hence, the above).
  • You often end up having to bake extra stuffing in a separate dish, or remove the stuffing from the bird to finish cooking, so you may as well start it off in a baking dish.
  • The stuffing is too soggy when cooked inside the cavity.

The take-away:

  • If you decide to stuff the turkey, to avoid overcooking the bird, you can heat the stuffing before putting in the bird, but you'll need to take some precautions. Check out the method on Serious Eats.
  • If you decide not to stuff the turkey, you'll have one less thing to worry about--and you'll satisfy those who prefer their stuffing all golden and crisp on top.

For more about stuffing a turkey, click here.

Roasting the turkey

Roasting is by far the most traditional method for cooking a whole turkey, and for good reason: It's a relatively hands-off process, excepting for the occasional basting; done properly, it produces more consistent, predictable results. The only limitiations are the size of your oven and also your patience in making sure the turkey is cooked through.The basic method is the same, regardless of the size of the turkey, and whether or not it has been brined and/or stuffed.

But there are a couple other options that have become popular in recent years:

Grilling: If you happen to live where it's warm enough to be outside on Thanksgiving day, you may want to give this method a try. Advocates tout this method for producing turkeys that are extra-burnished and crispy on the outside, with that distinctive smoky flavor that can only be achieved on a hot grill. Click here for a first-hand look at how to do it. 

Deep-frying: This method has many devoted fans, especially in the South. There are many safety guidelines (after all, you are working with extremely hot oil and a very large bird). If you are intrigued, check out this how-to by the National Turkey Federation.  

Carving the turkey

It's hard to perfect your turkey-carving skills when you only use them once or twice a year, but if you've ever carved a roasted chicken (or are so inclined to do so to get some experience under your belt before the big day), it's pretty much the same process: Remove the legs and wings, then carve off the breast meat from each side of the bird. Separate the thighs and drumsticks, slice the thigh meat and breasts and serve. Click here for more instructions.

Storing the leftovers

The concern about food-borne illness doesn't stop with the turkey being cooked to the recommended internal temperatures. Once it has been allowed to cool, the risk for spoilage pops up once again. To make sure you are able to enjoy the remains of the day, click here.

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