Cooking a turkey? Remember these basic facts for a perfect Thanksgiving meal

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By: Mary Ann Lienhart-Cross
lienhart@purdue.edu

If you have a large pan that you can cover and a working oven, turkey really is an easy meat to prepare.

So what are the challenges? What raises the most questions? Usually the biggest questions are how much to buy, and the safe way to thaw the bird.

You need to plan about one pound of turkey per person, or a pound and a half per person if you have hearty eaters or want ample planned leftovers. Cooks must also consider all the other food that will be served as that can influence how much turkey is eaten at the meal.

A trend the last few years for some cooks is to prepare the turkey a day or two ahead and have it all carved. Then on the day of the meal, all you have to do is warm it. If you choose to do this, make sure to put some turkey, chicken or vegetable broth over the meat and cover it when heating. The broth will keep the turkey from drying out.

A big debate for some is about fresh turkey vs. frozen, but I am confident most of your guests won’t know the difference. While the quality and taste of frozen versus fresh turkey is 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 ahead.

There are basically two types of birds to choose from: the unbasted bird to which nothing has been added, and a pre-basted bird which typically includes vegetable oil, broth, and sometimes salts and seasonings. If you are looking for ways to reduce fat at the Thanksgiving meal, cook the unbasted bird in a cooking bag and it will be very moist without the added fat.

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

The determining factor for tenderness is the age of the bird, not gender. All turkeys in the market are young, usually four to six months old. A hen generally weighs less than 16 pounds and a tom is usually more than 16 pounds.

The best way to defrost your turkey is in the refrigerator. Use this rule of thumb for thawing time: a minimum of 24 hours of defrost time for every 5 pounds of turkey. My experience has taught me to expect it to take longer. It can take four to five days to defrost a 20 pound turkey. A completely thawed bird will last for an additional day or two in the refrigerator.

When the turkey has not thawed like you planned, you can speed up the defrosting time by submerging the wrapped bird in cold water. It is safe to defrost the 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.

If you’re roasting the turkey in the oven, remember that it will take 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. Many turkeys are covered during the first part of cooking and then uncovered during the last part of cooking so the skin browns.

Use a meat thermometer to determine if the turkey is done. A whole turkey is done when the temperature reaches a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees. Check the temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.

The safest way to cook your stuffing is in a casserole dish, but if you stuff the bird, be sure the stuffing also reaches a minimum internal temperature of at least 165 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer, use a paper towel or napkin and hold the leg with that, then use another napkin to twist the bone — if the bone slides out, the turkey is done. The juices should run clear.

Every year people wonder why their turkey is done too early or too late. There are many reasons for this: The oven temperature may not be accurate, or the turkey is still partially frozen in the center, or the roasting pan is too small to allow for adequate heat circulation.

For a one-page download of the USDA’s “Turkey Basics: Safe Cooking” visit the Purdue Extension Elkhart County website.

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