Families and friends soon will gather together to celebrate Thanksgiving, so let’s talk turkey.
Selecting a turkey at the supermarket is the first step in getting your holiday meal preparation started. All turkeys sold at retail stores should be inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture or the state’s Department of Agriculture. Inspected turkeys will contain the statement “inspected for wholesomeness by the U.S. Department of Agriculture” on their label. This statement means that the turkey is from a flock of healthy birds, was handled and processed under strict sanitary conditions, is wholesome and is unadulterated. Additional statements that you may see on the label are “free range” “fryer/roaster turkey” and “young turkey.” Free range indicates that the bird was allowed access to the outside either in a fenced-in or open area. Although the term is regulated by the USDA, it does not indicate that the bird offers any nutrition or health advantage to consumers. The terms “fryer/roaster” and “young” are legally defined as turkeys less than 4 months of age and turkeys less than 8 months of age, respectively. The meat from these birds is often more tender than that from older birds and is preferred by consumers and chefs alike.
When deciding what size of turkey to purchase, keep in mind that the average meat yield of a whole cooked turkey is about 53 percent of the uncooked weight. Thus, you will need to purchase about one pound of turkey per person so that each individual can have two 4-ounce portions of meat.
Upon returning home from the grocery store, immediately place the turkey in the refrigerator or freezer. Safe storage temperatures for turkey are 40 degrees or lower in the refrigerator and 32 degrees or lower in the freezer. When you are ready to thaw the turkey, there are three methods from which to choose: thawing in the refrigerator, thawing under cold water and thawing in the microwave. Thawing turkey in the refrigerator is often recommended to ensure that the surface and innermost parts of the turkey do not reach temperatures that promote harmful microbial growth. The refrigerator thawing method, however, will require some advance planning. For each 5 pounds of turkey, you must allow about 24 hours for thawing in a 40 degrees refrigerator. You will need to place the average 15-pound turkey in the refrigerator three days before you plan to cook it.
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If you are running short on time, thawing turkey under cold water or in the microwave can help you quickly get your turkey prepared for cooking. To begin thawing in cold water, make sure the turkey is wrapped well in leakproof packaging. Submerge the entire turkey in cold water. The water should be changed every 30 minutes until the turkey is completely thawed. Microwave thawing is the fastest, most convenient thawing method. Be sure to follow the oven manufacturer’s instructions for thawing turkey as the power levels of microwaves differ by manufacturer and model.
In addition to the turkey featured at the Thanksgiving feast, stuffing or dressing (as we call it in the South), is a must-have side dish for many families. The age old question for many consumers is whether to stuff the turkey with the dressing and cook or to cook the dressing separately. Elizabeth Andress, UGA Extension Food Safety Specialist, and the USDA recommend that you cook the dressing separately from the turkey. The dressing must reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees to be safe for consumption. When the dressing is inside of the turkey, it takes much longer to reach the minimum safe temperature.
Often, by the time the dressing reaches 165 degrees, the turkey has overcooked and may be dry. By cooking the dressing and the turkey separately, you can better control the temperature that each one reaches. If you do stuff the turkey with dressing, do so just before cooking and be sure that the dressing is moist and loosely stuffed in the bird.
For roasting your turkey, the oven should be set at 325 degrees or higher.
Place the turkey in a roasting pan and into the center of the oven. The meat will be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature when it reaches 165 degrees. Use a calibrated food thermometer to check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.
UGA Extension recommends the following roasting times for turkeys cooked at 325 degrees:
4-6 pound breast: 1 1/2 to 21/4 hours
6-8 pound breast: 21/4 to 31/4 hours
8-12 pounds: 2 3/4 to 3 hours
12-14 pounds: 3 to 3 3/4 hours
14-18 pounds: 3 3/4 to 41/4 hours
18-20 pounds: 41/4 to 4 1/2 hours
20-24 pounds: 4 1/2 to 5 hours
8-12 pounds: 3 to 3 1/2 hours
12-14 pounds: 3 1/2 to 4 hours
14-18 pounds: 4 to 41/4 hours
18-20 pounds: 41/4 to 4 3/4 hours
20-24 pounds: 4 3/4 to 51/4 hours
Rebecca Creasy is the Houston County Extension agent for food and nutrition and family and consumer sciences. Contact her at 478-987-2028 or firstname.lastname@example.org.