Turkey tips for your Thanksgiving meal

Mary Ann Lienhart-Cross writes about cooking turkey.
Posted on Nov. 17, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.

Mary Ann Lienhart-Cross

Food & Nutrition

There is just nothing like roasted turkey. I am not sure if it is made so special because we only have it a few times a year or if it is all the food that goes with it. I do know that there is a difference when it is roasted in the oven vs. cooked in the crock pot.

Turkey is a really easy meat to cook and it’s most economical. Some of the challenges include the amount to buy and the safe way to thaw it. These two issues are what raise the most questions.

The amount to buy is really a personal choice. I like all the recipes I can make with roasted turkey. I suggest you’ll need about one pound per person, or a pound and half per person if you have hearty eaters or want ample planned-overs. If you’re having a large gathering you might want to prepare the turkey a day or two ahead, have it all carved and then the day of the meal all you have to do is warm it. If you do this, make sure to put some turkey broth over it and cover it when heating. This will keep it from drying out. The oven doesn’t need to be really hot. Just be sure you use your meat thermometer and bring the meat up to 180 degrees to ensure safety.

While the quality and taste of frozen vs. 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 one to two days prior to roasting. There are basically two types of birds to choose from, a pre-basted bird which typically includes vegetable oil, broth and spices, and the unbasted bird to which nothing has been added. If you’re counting fat grams, cook the unbasted bird in a cooking bag. This should give you really moist turkey that is lower in fat.

USDA Grade A is the highest quality grade for poultry and the most common one in the stores. Grade A poultry has good shape and structure, fat covering and is free of pinfeathers and defects such as cuts and bruises. Age and not gender is the determining factor for tenderness. All turkeys in the market are young, usually 4-6 months old. A hen generally weighs less than 16 pounds and a tom is usually more than 16 pounds.

It is best to defrost your turkey in the refrigerator. The rule of thumb is a minimum of 24 hours of defrost time for every 4-5 pounds of turkey. By this calculation, it can take four to five days or longer to defrost a 20-pound turkey. Once defrosted, a completely thawed bird will last for an additional day or two in the refrigerator. I have always found that it takes longer to thaw the turkey than the guidelines suggest. If you find this is the case, you can safely speed up the defrosting time by submerging the wrapped bird in a large sink of cold water. Check or change the water every 30 minutes to make sure it remains cold. Allow 30 minutes per pound. To me this is a lot of messing with water and keeping track of changing the water as it warms, but it does work.

When roasting the turkey, allow roughly 15 to 18 minutes per pound for an unstuffed bird and 18 to 24 minutes per pound for a stuffed bird. Have your oven preheated to 325 degrees. To determine doneness, use a meat thermometer. Remember the turkey will continue to cook when you remove it from the oven, so don’t overcook it or the meat will become dry. The temperature to strive for when roasting a whole turkey is 165 degrees. The juices should run clear. If roasting a stuffed bird, be sure the stuffing also reaches a temperature of at least 165 degrees.

Keep in mind that cooking times do vary. Every year people wonder why their turkey is done too early or too late. There are many reasons for this such as the oven temperature may not be accurate, the turkey might still be partially frozen in the center, or the roasting pan is too small to allow adequate heat circulation. Please remember to let the turkey sit at least 15 to 20 minutes before slicing so that you will have nice slices that will stay together verses crumbling and falling apart.

I am so ready for a turkey sandwich. I am not sure I can wait for the planned-overs.

Mary Ann Lienhart-Cross is county extension director and an extension educator in health and human sciences at Purdue Extension Elkhart County. Contact her at 574-533-0554 or lienhart@purdue.edu.

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