It’s that time of year… make sure you have your orders placed if you are buying fresh birds from a local retailer, I’ve hard supplies could be a little tight in some areas. My grandpa always told me there were several tricks to picking the right bird for Thanksgiving. Through the years of travel and meeting lots of new friends in farming, I’ve also heard a ton of turkey bird tips. My gramma and grandpa always told me to stick the 16 to 18-pound birds. And, If you’re buying a frozen turkey, make sure you purchase it with enough time to thaw it properly: One day for every four pounds. Buying early ensures you’ll be able to brine the turkey, but be careful with fresh turkeys. After purchasing them, many will tell you they can only be stored up to two days in the fridge. I recently ran across a wonderful article written by Janet Rausa Fuller over at Epicurious. She does a fantastic job of explaining a ton of turkey insights. Below are a few of the highlights:
Frozen vs. Fresh – There is no difference in quality between a fresh and frozen turkey. The difference is in the way the birds leave the processing plant, according to the National Turkey Federation. Frozen turkeys are flash-frozen right after packaging to 0 degrees (or colder). More perishable fresh turkeys are “deep-chilled”—but never below 26 degrees. The “fresh” label can by law only be used on a turkey that’s never dipped below that 26-degree threshold. In other words, previously frozen birds can’t be thawed and sold as fresh.
Self-Basting vs. Basted – A lot of supermarket birds come with a “self-basting” or “basted” label. This means they’ve been injected with a solution of broth, stock or water, melted butter, spices, and other flavorings like wine, juice or maple syrup. The label will list the ingredients and the amount of added solution, which the USDA says can be no more than 3% of the total weight of the turkey. The Turkey Federation says, “it’s also a moisture factor: it boosts the “succulence” of the meat and results in a darker, crispier bird because the solution is directed right under the skin.”
Pastured vs. Heritage – If you buy your turkey at the farmers’ market or directly from a farmer, there’s a good chance it’s a pastured or heritage bird. It also was probably raised according to organic principles, though it may not have the USDA organic seal. A heritage turkey signifies specific breeds of turkey dating back generations. Most will say heritage turkeys have larger legs and thighs and smaller breasts than commercial birds, and richer, gamier-tasting meat. A pastured, or pasture-raised, turkey was raised primarily outside on open pasture. Some say pastured birds are a lot more flavorful than others. With either type of leaner bird, adjusting your cooking approach is recommended. Amp up the fat around the breast meat to retain moisture, for example, by slathering softened butter under the skin or placing a layer of bacon strips over the breasts (this technique is called barding) before roasting. You could also pull the bird from the oven at 160°F—before it hits the USDA-recommended 165°F—and tent the turkey with foil, which will allow for carry-over cooking without drying it out. Or, consider braising instead of roasting.
How About “Kosher” – Birds labeled “kosher” have been slaughtered and processed under rabbinical supervision—and they come pre-brined, which lessens the chance of a dried-out bird.
How About “Organic” – USDA certified organic turkeys are supposedly raised on organic, pesticide-free feed, with access to the outdoors (though how much time they spend outside isn’t clearly defined).
How About “Range-Free” – Means the birds were “allowed access to the outside,” but that’s about as far as the USDA defines it, so again, I’m not really sure how much time the turkeys actually got to spend out there.
What About “Hormones” – Regardless of what you might hear, I’m told it’s illegal to give any Turkey being sold to the public hormones. If you’re concerned about antibiotics, keep an eye out for “antibiotic-free” or “raised without antibiotics” on the label.
When To Buy Your Bird – If you’re buying fresh, ideally you’ll want to buy it as close to Thanksgiving as possible. If you buy earlier than that and you’re not certain your fridge is cold enough (time for a thermometer check—it should be no warmer than 40 degrees in there), store the turkey in the freezer. If you’re buying frozen, buy it now or soon. Just give yourself enough time for thawing—24 hours for every four pounds of meat. It is best to thaw the turkey in the refrigerator, where it’s too cold for harmful bacteria to grow. Use the bottom shelf, in case of drips. Place the turkey, breast side up, in its original wrapper, onto a rimmed baking sheet.
How Big Should You Buy? Small turkeys weigh less than 12 pounds. Large ones are in the 15 to 20-pound range and can go even bigger. Most say you need to figure one (uncooked) pound of turkey per person and 1.5 pounds for generous leftovers. My grandpa always said 16-pound birds were the most ideal for cooking and taste. Smaller birds — 12 pounds or less — have a smaller meat-to-bone ratio, so allow 2 pounds per person.
What’s The Right Temperature? Many commercial turkeys come with a built-in pop-up timer, a spring-like little contraption made of food-grade metal or wax that pops up—or is supposed to—when the temperature of the meat reaches the target 165°F. The USDA, the National Turkey Federation, the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line and pretty much everyone else says NOT to rely on the pop-up timer. Use a meat thermometer to double-check your bird is at 165 degrees. Let the turkey rest, loosely tented with aluminum foil, for at least 30 minutes before carving so the juices can reabsorb.
Stuffing The Bird – If stuffing the turkey, do so just before roasting to prevent unwanted bacterial growth. Many cooks believe stuffing cooked inside a turkey is more flavorful and moist. Because the stuffing will expand as it bakes, fill the turkey’s cavity loosely; this also allows the stuffing to cook more evenly and keeps it from becoming too dense. A 12- to 15-pound turkey needs about 10 cups of stuffing; a 15- to 20-pound bird can hold up to 12 cups.