Nutrition Articles

Thanksgiving Turkey Tips

Selecting, Cooking and Storing this Thanksgiving Favorite

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Is it your turn to host the annual Thanksgiving feast for the entire family? Tackling a turkey—without being traumatized—isn’t that tough. Here are the answers to the most common turkey questions.
 
What size turkey should I buy?
You’ll need about one pound per person, or a pound and a half per person if you have hearty eaters or want ample leftovers.
 
When should I buy the turkey?  
While the quality and taste of frozen and fresh turkey are quite similar, the keeping time is not. A frozen turkey can be purchased months in advance, but a fresh bird should be bought only 1 to 2 days ahead. 
 
What kind of turkey should I buy?
Personal preference usually dictates this choice. There are basically two types of raw birds to choose from at the grocery store:

1.      A pre-basted bird contains ingredients such as vegetable oil, broth and spices.
2.      An un-basted bird has had nothing added. 

USDA Grade A poultry has good shape, structure and fat covering, and is free of pinfeathers and defects, such as cuts and bruises. Grade A is the highest quality grade for poultry and is the most common grade found in stores. 

Should I buy an organic, Kosher or heritage turkey?
The USDA requires all turkeys that are labeled "organic" to be certified by the National Organic Program which ensures that animals are fed an organic, vegetarian diet, have access to the outdoors and aren't treated with hormones or antibiotics. (Note: The USDA does not allow the use of hormones in any turkey production.)

Kosher turkeys are raised in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. They are put through a salting process that keeps the meat moist and makes brining unnecessary.

"Heritage" turkeys are actually any of several older breeds that have not been cross-bred for the larger breast that is favored by most people. These turkeys are trickier to prepare properly but can be more flavorful than grocery-store turkeys. You'll have to special order this kind of bird or reserve one from a local farm. The term "heritage" is NOT regulated by the USDA so make sure you purchase this type of bird from a trusted source.

Is a "tom" better than a hen?
Age, not gender, is the determining factor of tenderness. All turkeys on the market are young, usually 4-5 months old. A hen generally weighs less than 16 pounds and a tom usually over 16 pounds.
 
How long will it take to defrost a turkey?
It is best to defrost your turkey in the refrigerator. The rule of thumb is to allow a minimum of 24 hours for every 4 pounds of turkey:
  •  8-12 pounds defrosts in 2 to 3 days
  • 12-16 pounds defrosts in 3 to 4 days
  • 16-20 pounds defrosts in 4 to 5 days
  • 20-24 pounds defrosts in 5 to 6 days
If you need to speed up the defrost time, it is safe to defrost the turkey in a large utility sink of cold water. Submerge the wrapped bird in cold water. If the wrapping is torn, place the bird in another plastic bag, close securely and then place in water. Change the water every 30 minutes to make sure the water remains cold. With this method, allow 30 minutes of defrost time per pound.
 
Turkeys can be thawed in the microwave oven. Since microwaves vary in what they can accommodate, check with the manufacturer’s instructions for the size that will fit in your oven, the minutes per pound and the power level to use when thawing.
 
Should I brine the turkey?
Brining is a process of soaking the raw turkey in a solution of salt, spices and other flavorings. The salt will cause the meat to absorb more water, which will keep it juicy during roasting. Many people swear by brining, but it adds a significant amount of sodium to the meat. If you're watching your sodium intake, brining may not be a good choice for you.
 
To save time, is it safe to stuff the turkey in advance of cooking?
NO! It may seem like a good idea to save time, but harmful bacteria can multiply in the stuffing and cause food poisoning. Turkeys should be stuffed only at the last minute. Dry stuffing ingredients can be prepared the day before, tightly covered and left at room temperature. The perishable items (butter, margarine, mushrooms, oysters, broth, cooked celery and onions) can be mixed and refrigerated. The ingredients can then be combined just before stuffing and cooking. (Discover safe ways to save time and prep early for your Thanksgiving feast.)
 
How long should I roast the turkey?
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees. Roasting times vary, from roughly 15-18 minutes per pound for an un-stuffed bird, to 18-24 minutes per pound for a stuffed bird. For complete directions, follow this Roasted Turkey recipe.
 
Can the turkey be cooked overnight at a lower temperature?
NO! Because of the low temperature (250 degrees), the turkey and stuffing can take more than 4 hours to reach a high enough temperature to destroy bacteria.
 
Can the turkey be partially roasted one day and finished roasting the next day?
NO! Interrupted cooking enhances the possibility of bacterial growth.
 
Can you roast the turkey the day before?
YES! In fact, more and more people are taking this route. However, for safety reasons, the cooked bird MUST be de-boned before being refrigerated. The carved meat should be stored in shallow containers. The meat can then be reheated in the regular oven the next day for approximately 10 minutes per pound. To prevent the meat from drying out, add the leftover meat drippings, gravy or turkey broth and cover with foil.
 
 How can you tell when the turkey is done?
  • Using a meat thermometer is the most reliable method. Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh muscle without touching the bone. This area heats most slowly. A whole turkey is done when the temperature reaches 180 to 185 degrees; stuffing temperature should reach 165 degrees. 
  • Another test is to press the fleshy part of the thigh with protected fingers. If the meat feels soft, or if the leg moves up and down easily and the hip joint gives readily or breaks, the turkey is done. 
  • Doneness can also be determined by inserting a long-tined fork into the thickest area of the inner thigh. If the juices run clear—not pink—the turkey is done. 
Is deep fried turkey as unhealthy as it sounds?
While frying a turkey will add a little more fat, if the oil is at the correct temperature the bird will brown on the outside quickly and not soak up a large amount of excess oil. To keep the calories down, remove the skin before eating the meat, which will pack enough flavor on its own.

What should I do with the leftovers?
Once the turkey is removed from the oven, you have approximately 2 hours to serve it, eat it and get the leftovers refrigerated or frozen. Leftovers can keep in the refrigerator for about 3-4 days, but use stuffing and gravy within 1-2 days. Check out 7 delicious ways to use leftover turkey!
 
Sources
USDA, "Turkey Raised by the Rules," www.fsis.usda.gov, accessed on October 31, 2013.

USDA, "National Organic Program, Final Rule," www.ams.usda.gov, accessed on October 31, 2013.
 

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Member Comments

  • Love the defrosting guide.......sure will help plan my day better and not have a 1/2 frozen Turkey to stuff. Yes, that actually happened to me a couple of years ago. Think I'd have known better.....I do now!!!!!
  • To be really safe, get a digital thermometer to check internal temps. I prefer cooking dressing in a pan not in the bird, just for safety sake too. Happy Thanksgiving, Sparkers!
  • I'm not so sure about the roasting time of the turkey. You suggest 15-18 min. per pound. That calculated to 5.23 hrs for my 20.93 lb bird. On the Butterball turkey itself it says for a 18-22 lb unstuffed turkey to cook it for 3 1/2 - 4 hours.

    I think I will use what the turkey people say. Sorry Sparkpeople.

    Happy Thanksgiving everyone and good luck eveyrone.

  • Interesting - only I live in Canada and we celebrate our thanksgiving in October (No not because its SO COLD up here - Martin Frobisher celebrated it in 1578).
    I have to question the wisdom of buying a prebasted bird as the ones I am familiar with (ButterBall) are injected with a TON of COCONUT OIL amongst other rather nasty things.
    We got one one time as a gift. Its seems to me to be worht the time and trouble to prepare it all oneself ,mainly because then you have more control over what does and doesn't go into the bird.
  • Thanks for the useful information and I will keep it in a safe spot with my others. I appreciate that you have posted this information, b/c I keep forgetting all this. It will help me on Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. Thanks again. Alaskan
  • Wonderful tips. Thank you!
  • DEVONMARIE
    Hi I am a big 4 foot 6 inches person who needs to lose weight and need all the help I can get. Thank you for your article on Turkey please keep them coming devonmarie
  • Excellent information. Thanks

About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.