Bring on the turkey

Mary Ann Lienhart Cross

As you all know, we had a very short fall. I don’t think there has been an Indiana summer where I didn’t plant any spring bulbs. I may still try to plant them when it warms up a bit. One of the best American eating holidays is just around the corner. The grocery stores are ready with all kinds of special deals. The turkey help lines are open and grocery store ads are promoting turkey sales.

Some of the most frequently asked questions I receive are how much turkey to buy, what the safe way to thaw a bird is and how to cook it properly without overcooking it. In terms of the size of the turkey you need to purchase, plan for about 1 pound per person or 1.5 pounds per person if you want planned-overs. Take into consideration all the other dishes you will be serving at your meal.

Consider brining, roasting and carving the turkey a day or two ahead of time. Then on the day of the meal all you must do is warm it. If you choose to do this, make sure to add some turkey, chicken or vegetable broth over it and cover tightly when warming. The broth will keep the turkey from drying out. There is really nothing worse than tough, dry turkey.

Some of you have strong opinions about fresh versus frozen turkeys. I will not get into that discussion, but am confident to say very few of your guests would be able to tell the difference. While the quality and taste of fresh versus frozen turkeys 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 two to four days ahead of time.

There are basically two types of birds to choose from. There is the unbasted bird to which nothing has been added to and a pre-basted bird which typically includes vegetable oil, broth, salt and seasonings. A plain roasted turkey can be baked in a cooking bag making it very moist without the added fat.

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

When it comes to defrosting, it is best to defrost your turkey in the refrigerator. I have found that it always takes longer than the rule of thumb suggests which is a minimum 24 hours of defrost time for every 5 pounds of turkey. Thus, it can take four to five days to defrost a 20-pound turkey. Once defrosted, a completely thawed bird will last for an additional two to three days in the refrigerator.

When the turkey has not thawed like you had planned, you can speed up the defrosting time. It is safe to defrost the bird in a large sink of cold water. Submerge the wrapped bird in cold water. Check or change the water every 30 minutes to make sure it remains cold. Allow 30 minutes per pound. The sink, a pan or a bucket are the only safe items to use for faster thawing.

When roasting your turkey, allow roughly 15 to 18 minutes per pound for an unstuffed bird and 18 to 24 minutes per pound for a stuffed bird. You can speed up the cooking time by having the oven preheated to 325 degrees F. To determine doneness, it is best to use a meat thermometer. A whole turkey is done when the internal temperature reaches 180 degrees F. The juices should run clear and the stuffing temperature should reach at least 160 degrees F. If you don’t have a thermometer, use a paper towel or napkin and hold the leg with it. Use another napkin and twist the bone. If the bone slides out, the turkey is done.

Keep in mind that cooking temperatures do vary. Every year people wonder why their turkey is done too early or too late. There are many reasons such as the temperature of the turkey, an inaccurate oven temperature, the turkey being partially frozen in the center or a roasting pan that is too small.

I can’t wait for planned-over turkey! I want a home roasted turkey now. Turkey has unlimited possibilities. I encourage you to cook turkey year-round because it is quite economical. Enjoy good food!

Mary Ann Lienhart Cross is an educator, health and human sciences, with Purdue Extension Elkhart County. She can be reached at 574-533-0554 or

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