Food & Nutrition: How to serve the perfect Thanksgiving turkey

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By: Mary Ann Lienhart-Cross

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In my opinion, 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 because of all the food that goes with it. Of course, the family and friends that come together to enjoy all the delicious food is another reason it is so special.

There is a difference when it is roasted in the oven verses cooked in a slow cooker. Turkey really is an easy meat to cook and even if the prices are higher this fall, turkey is most economical. I like having planned-over turkey for all the recipes I can make. That said, I suggest you’ll need about one pound per person, or a pound and half per person if you have hearty eaters. 

While the quality and taste of frozen versus 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 or 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 un-basted bird to which nothing has been added. If you’re counting fat grams, cook the un-basted 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 is the determining factor for tenderness. 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.

It is best to defrost your turkey in the refrigerator. The general rule is a minimum of 24 hours of defrost time for every 5 pounds of turkey, which is why it can take four to five days 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 it takes longer to thaw the turkey than the guidelines suggest.

To 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. 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 un-stuffed 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 it will be dry.

The temperature for a whole turkey being done is when it reaches 165 degrees. The safest way to cook the stuffing is in a casserole dish outside the turkey. If you do cook a stuffed bird, be sure the internal temperature of the stuffing reaches at least 165 degrees.

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

For more recipes and tips from Purdue Extension Educator Mary Ann Lienhart-Cross, subscribe to the Food & Nutrition email newsletter.
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