Having Enough Turkey: Size Matters

The frozen turkey bin in the supermarket might seem a little intimidating. You will find turkeys of all different sizes. Each turkey has its weight printed on a tag. How much turkey do you need? Plan on allowing one pound of a whole turkey per each dinner guest. Does your family relish leftovers? Then allow at least 1.5 to 2 pounds a person. If you are having a smaller group but still want extra for scrumptious turkey dishes later, why not bake two smaller turkeys? You will have plenty to share. These handy guidelines should give you a good idea of how many people a specific weight of turkey will feed:

4-6 people: 8 pounds
6-8 people: 12 pounds
9-10 people: 14-15 pounds
11-12 people: 16-18 pounds
13-14 people: 20 pounds
14-15 people: 22 pounds
16-17 people: 25 pounds
18+ people: Bake two turkeys, and figure 1 to 1.5 pounds per guest.

Which Is The Best Turkey For Me?

Like other types of meat, turkeys are sold by the pound. While you can usually find quality frozen turkeys inexpensively around the holidays, expect to pay a premium price for more exclusive turkey options. Try to purchase the best quality bird that will fit your budget. Let’s talk “turkey” about standard options, and the price range (from least to most expensive per pound):

Basted, Self-Basted, Or Butter Injected Turkeys: Cheapest Option: These are the birds with which most people are familiar. They are sold in freezer endcaps around Thanksgiving and Christmas. You may find just about any size you need at a reasonable price—often discounted further when you spend a certain amount in the store. The reason self-basting turkeys are such a bargain is that they are raised in factory farms. Unfortunately, many of these industrial turkeys live short, miserable lives, and often are not treated humanely. If you are concerned how farm animals are treated, you may decide against buying a self- basted turkey. When these turkeys are processed, they have vegetable oils, and saline solution injected into the white meat, to make them tender and juicy. This is the reason they are called “self-basting.” Some of the ubiquitous ingredients they inject into these birds may have artificial butter flavoring or preservatives. Self-basting turkeys have already been pumped with salt, so these are not a good option for brining. These turkeys have a decent flavor and texture, and they are a good buy for a tight budget.

Naturally-Raised Turkeys: People who are concerned about the additives and growth hormones that many industrial farm turkeys get might consider a “natural” turkey. The USDA certifies that the birds get no hormones or animal by-products in their feed. The only antibiotics they receive are for parasite control. Still, living conditions for these birds may not be the best. Natural turkeys are humanely slaughtered and minimally processed, which means they are not injected with artificial ingredients or salt. They do not cost too much more than a self-basting turkey. Plus, you have the option to brine them, for superior tenderness and flavor.

Kosher Turkeys: To be certified as Kosher, the turkeys’ feed cannot contain by-products or antibiotics, and the birds must be allowed to roam freely. Their processing follows strict rabbinical guidelines for humane slaughter, and the turkeys must be brined in salt. Currently, there are no set rules as for how the birds must be treated on a Kosher farm. These turkeys are already brined, so the meat is usually tender and flavorful. However, you may prefer to save a little money and buy a natural bird to brine. Since you control the salt, you might have juicier meat.

Free-Range or Free-Roaming Turkeys: Some turkey farmers realize that many consumers are concerned with the humane treatment of farm animals. When you buy a free-range (or free-roaming) turkey, it must have lived at least half of its life roaming free in the outdoors. This label may be a little deceptive, because it only means that the turkey has “access” to an outside door. If the label says “pastured,” it is your guarantee that the bird actually walked around freely outside for most of its life. However, some free-range turkeys get hormones and antibiotics. They are usually processed humanely, and do not have additives. Lots of cooks favor free-range turkeys because they have leaner meat and finer texture.

Organic Turkeys: To ensure that your Thanksgiving turkey has been given food without any chemical, animal, or GMO alteration, you may purchase an organic turkey. These turkey farms are free-range, and the birds get no antibiotics or growth hormones. They are slaughtered humanely and have no additives or preservatives. Organic turkey fans say that although the flavor may vary according to the brand, an organic turkey is usually quite delicious.

Heritage Turkeys - Most Expensive Option: Picture how turkeys were raised in the past century before industrial farms. Heritage turkeys are vintage breeds that have been raised on small farms for many years. These turkey farms offer the best life for the birds. They get to roam freely, and most of the farmers genuinely care about their turkey's welfare. Heritage turkeys are at the top of the price range, because of their superior taste and lean meat. It is worth the price, if you can afford one. They have less fat and will roast quicker than other turkey breeds. Since these are purebred, they have deeper flavor nuances that regular birds.

Should I Buy Frozen Or Fresh Turkey?

Frozen - These birds are the most common in grocery stores. After they are processed on the farm, they are flash-frozen below zero degrees F. To properly thaw a turkey, keep it in the package and set it in a pan in the fridge. Figure that you need one day of thawing for every 5 pounds of turkey. Are you in a hurry? Thaw it in cold water; however, you must change the water every half an hour. This method only takes 30 minutes per pound of turkey. Never set a turkey out to thaw at room temperature. Sometimes, you can purchase thawed turkeys that are labeled “previously frozen.”

Fresh - You will often find organic and heritage turkeys in this category. A fresh turkey has only been refrigerated at 26 degrees F after processing. Be careful of the label, because some turkeys have quite a journey from farm to the store. If you choose a fresh turkey, buy it a couple of days before the holidays for optimal freshness.

The Benefits Of Brined Turkey

A turkey’s muscle fibers contain moisture, so there will be some of it lost during the cooking process. It is common for meat to weigh 30% less after it is cooked due to moisture loss. A salt water (brine) soak can cut the water loss by half. As muscle fibers absorb the brine liquid, they are enhanced and juicier. While some liquid will still evaporate in the cooking process, the meat will retain more through brining and will be more tender and juicy. It breaks down some of the protein that makes meat tougher.

How To Brine A Turkey

The main ingredients for brine are salt and water. These guidelines will help you get the proper salt/water ratio: Whole turkey: 1 ½ cups of Kosher salt per gallon of cold water.

For a subtle touch of flavor, you may add some dried herbs to your brine, or rub them directly on the turkey. Some people use apple cider instead of water for a delicious brined turkey. There are many recipes for turkey brine—but salt is the main component.

An easy way to brine your turkey is in a roasting bag that is big enough for the bird to be completely submerged in the brine. Place the turkey in the bag and put it in a large, non-reactive bowl. Count how many measuring cups of water you add until the turkey is covered. Add the correct amount of Kosher salt for each cup. Close the bag tightly and put the whole thing in the refrigerator to marinate for up to 24 hours. Never let it sit at room temperature, and be sure to discard the brine afterward for food safety.

When it is time to cook the bird, rinse it thoroughly under cold water to remove salt from the surface. The whole idea of brining is not to make the meat saltier; instead, it should just produce a juicier bird. You probably will not need to salt the turkey anymore when you cook it.

How To Cook Your Turkey

No matter which turkey option you choose, most will have a giblet packet on the inside for stuffing or gravy. Remove it for later use, and rinse the bird well under cold running water. Pat it with paper towels until it is dry.

Prepare your favorite dressing recipe, and stuff the turkey with about 3/4 cup of stuffing for every pound of meat. Use a meat brush to apply melted butter all over the turkey and tie the drumsticks together with baking twine. Do not trust those little “pop-up” thermometers in some processed turkeys. Put a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the bird’s thigh, without touching bone.

If you are using a roasting bag, place the turkey in the bag before you insert the thermometer. Place it on a rack in a large roasting pan and put it in a preheated oven at 350 degrees F. Some cooks prefer to roast a turkey without a bag. If so, let the bird cook until the skin is golden brown, then cover the breast part with a tin foil tent to lock in moisture. Take the foil off during the last 45 minutes of the roasting so that the white meat can brown properly. While basting is not necessary, it does make for uniform browning.

How Long Should My Turkey Roast

This is one of the most frequent questions from newbie Thanksgiving cooks. It all depends on the turkey’s weight, and whether it is stuffed or not. These are generally-accepted guidelines:

10 to 18 pounds: 3 to 3-1/2 hours (unstuffed) 3-3/4 to 4-1/2 hours (stuffed)
18 to 22 pounds: 3-1/2 to 4 hours (unstuffed) 4-1/2 to 5 hours (stuffed)
22 to 24 pounds: 4 to 4-1/2 hours (unstuffed) 5 to 5-1/2 hours (stuffed)
24 to 29 pounds: 4-1/2 to 5 hours (unstuffed) 5-1/2 to 6-1/4 hours (stuffed)

Are you preparing a boneless turkey breast? Roast it in a pan with a tin foil tent at 325 degrees F. Allow for 25 minutes per pound. During the last half hour of baking, check your turkey for doneness. While it is not safe to undercook it, an overcooked bird is dry, chewy, and unpleasant. Take it out of the oven when the internal temperature reaches 180 degrees F or 165 degrees F in the breast.

Presentation

As meat cooks, it loses a lot of juices. After you take your turkey out of the oven, let it rest for 20 minutes. It will continue cooking, and will reabsorb much of its flavorful juices. Carefully place the bird on a platter and garnish attractively for presentation. If your Thanksgiving feast is buffet style, you may carve the turkey in advance. Make neat slices of white meat, and place the dark meat on the other side of the platter with the drumsticks. Enjoy your turkey and all the trimmings with the ones you love!

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