Turkey Primer

Even seasoned hostesses could use a refresher course. This is the comprehensive complete guide to the holiday bird.
Turkey Primer

There’s nothing as iconic as the turkey on American holiday tables. Yet few things can be as confusing. Maybe it’s the build-up, the anticipation. Maybe it’s the relatives! For whatever reason, many people are nervous when it comes to the turkey. Have no fear. Buying and roasting a fine bird this holiday is just a matter of keeping tabs of a few basic facts. After that, there’s not much more to it — except waiting for it to get golden brown.

Before you shop
Figure out how large a turkey you need. Use these guidelines. (One note: count children as “people” for these formulas.)

  • For light portions with no leftovers, plan on 1/2 pound per person.
  • For larger portions with leftovers, plan on 1 pound per person.

Simple as that all is, there’s a slight problem. Two, in fact:

  • The smallest turkey you’re likely to find will be seven pounds. Despite being heavier than our smaller formulas require, this little bird — sometimes hidden under the behemoths in the freezer case — is the one you might want, a compromise since there are no five-pounders.
  • The largest turkey you’re likely to find will be around twenty pounds. If you’ve got thirty people, all big eaters, and you still want leftovers, buy two fifteen-pound birds.

Order ahead
Ask the butcher at your supermarket when he or she will start taking orders — usually it's several weeks before the holiday. It won’t cost you any more and you’ll get exactly what you need.

At the grocery store
You’re standing at the case, looking at the birds. Wow, there are a lot of choices. Here’s the run-down:

Basic Turkey Terms

  • Stored at 26°F (which is still below the freezing point of water). That means it hasn't been stored in the deep freeze at or below 0°F. (If the label says neither “fresh” nor “frozen,” the turkey was stored somewhere between 26°F and 0°F.)
  • Buy fresh for convenience. It’s ready to roast.
  • Store it in the fridge on a tray to catch drips for no more than 2 days.
  • For safety’s sake, avoid prestuffed fresh turkeys.
  • Unless you’re at a poultry farm or a farmers’ market, save the money, plan ahead, buy a frozen turkey, and thaw it in the fridge (more below).
  • Older, registered breeds: Bourbon Reds, Jersey Buffs, Narraganesetts and Standard Bronzes. (Most turkeys are Broad Breasted Whites, developed for their plentiful white meat.)
  • Considerably more expensive — at least 50% more.
  • It’s all about the flavor: slightly richer, more complex, not gamy, but certainly more “turkey.”
  • One note: there’s no legal definition of “heritage.” Know your supplier.
  • Processed according to Jewish religious law: killed by hand, not by machine; washed in cold water, never scalded before plucking; and salted to extract blood from the meat.
  • You don’t have to be observant to enjoy a kosher bird. The turkey has, in effect, been brined; the meat will be more tender, more succulent.
  • More expensive than standard varieties, sometimes double the cost.
  • Raised under strict, government-enforced guidelines: fed only certified organic feed under certified farming practices.
  • Never given antibiotics.
  • Farmers must complete a rigorous, three-year process to attain certification.
  • Organic or not, there are no hormones allowed for turkeys in the United States.
  • Injected with solutions containing 1) salt, 2) fat, 3) sugar.
  • The label will tell you what percent of the turkey is made up of the solution (up to 10%, in fact) — and what’s in the solution.
  • The bird is sweeter as well as saltier.
  • The meat can have a depressing sponginess. A kosher bird may be a better alternative.
  • Shot or trapped in the wild.
  • Very high bone-to-meat ratio. Definitely plan on 1 pound per person.
  • A gamy taste and very rich, particularly in the thighs.
  • Also drier because the birds are so low in fat.
  • The most expensive birds you can buy, often over $10 per pound.
  • Watch out for buckshot! It can crack a tooth.
  • Free-range or Free-roaming

    • A wonderful idea but often meaningless. Some farmers allow their turkeys access to pastures, but most large turkey farms put a small door in one end of an airline-hangar barn for access to a tiny concrete pad. The birds can go out; most won’t.
    • A true free-range bird will have a more pronounced turkey taste, even a little earthy in the dark meat.
    • Pay for this sophisticated edge only if you’re sure of the production methods.

    Hens and Toms

    • Once, a hen was the female; a tom, the male. Nowadays, the words indicate size: a bird under fifteen pounds is often labeled a “hen.”
    • There is no set standard definition for the term “young tom.”

    Back at home
    To store a fresh bird, set it in the fridge on a tray to catch any drips, for up to two days before you roast it. Do not refreeze fresh birds.

    Frozen birds have to be defrosted. Here’s how.

Good gadgets
While you’re at the store, look for:

  • A solid, sturdy roasting pan that will reflect heat and hold the bird secure.
  • A roasting rack to lift the bird out of the fat in the pan.
  • An instant-read meat thermometer so you’ll know the right internal temperature (165°F) for the best juiciness.
1. In the fridge
  • The fridge temperature setting should be 40°F or colder.
  • Keep the turkey in its original packaging.
  • Set it on a tray to catch the drips.
  • Plan on one day in the fridge for every four pounds. A 12-pound bird will thaw in three days; a 20-pounder, in five days (that means starting the Saturday before Thanksgiving!).
  • A thawed turkey can stay in the fridge for up to two days.
  • It can be refrozen if something happens and you’re not able to roast it.
2. In cold water
  • Remove the original wrapping.
  • Seal the turkey tightly in plastic wrap so no water can leak through.
  • Set the wrapped turkey in an enormous bowl and fill it with cold tap water, submerging the bird.
  • Set the bowl in the fridge.
  • Plan on 30 minutes per pound. A fourteen-pound bird will take seven hours.
  • Change the water every 30 minutes.
  • A bird thawed this way can be kept on a tray for one day in the fridge.
  • It cannot be refrozen.
3. In the microwave
  • Read the microwave oven’s instruction manual to find out the size of bird that will fit, the minutes per pound, and the appropriate power level for your specific oven.
  • Unwrap the bird.
  • Set it in a microwave-safe dish to catch any drips.
  • Cook the bird immediately after being thawed.
  • Do not refreeze.

And don’t forget: remove those giblets and the neck from the cavities once the bird is thawed! (Check both ends.)

Roasting: 4 top tips

  1. Start the bird breast-side down on a roasting rack for the first hour in the oven to protect the more delicate white meat. Turn it over, using big spatulas and/or silicone baking mitts. But watch those internal juices. They’re hot and can spill out of either end.
  2. A lower temperature for a longer time roasts a better bird — that is, 325°F. There’s no need to start the temperature high and drop it later. An eight-pound turkey can take up to 3 hours; a twenty-pounder, as much as 5 hours.
  3. Use your instant-read meat thermometer to know when the turkey is done. Insert the probe into the thickest part of thigh, in the inside part between the thigh and the body, without the probe’s touching bone — AND insert it into the deepest center of the breast without touching bone. You’re looking for 165°F in both places. If the turkey is browning too deeply, tent it with aluminum foil to continue cooking.
  4. Let the turkey stand at room temperature for 15 minutes before you carve it. The juices will seep back into the meat, rendering the bird luscious at every bite.

And if you forget to thaw the bird?
Don’t worry. You can roast a frozen bird. Unwrap it, then set it on its rack in the roasting pan and shove it in the oven. Nothing’s simpler — except you have to add 50% more cooking time. And remove the giblet package and neck from the bird’s internal cavities halfway through cooking with long, metal tongs.

Food safety

  • Wash all cutting boards, surfaces and kitchen tools that came into contact with the raw bird or its juices.
  • Store any leftovers promptly in the fridge. Don’t let them sit out all afternoon.

The parts are greater than the whole
Remember this: a whole turkey is not your only option. If you have fewer guests at your table but still want that festive turkey experience, consider a whole turkey breast. It will easily serve eight, if not more.

For even smaller tables, look for a split turkey breast (that is, half a bone-in turkey breast), great for four or five.

Finally, there’s no reason to stand on ceremony. Turkey’s great, but what about a couple of roasted whole fish? Or a leg of lamb? Or four trout off the grill? Or a pork loin? Sure, a turkey’s great, but this holiday let your focus be the company at the table, the celebration of the season.

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