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Thanksgiving Guide - The Bird

Updated on August 20, 2014

Thanksgiving - When It's All About the Bird!

As Thanksgiving approaches, cooks around the country are rustling up recipes, making lists and fussing over who's going to sit where around the table. You can find favorite dishes galore around the Internet (and in Aunt Mabel's cookbooks). But there's more here than just terrific food. As the countdown begins, we'll be talking about how to choose the right bird, what wines go with poultry, and how to plan the best day ever!

If you want tips about planning for the big day, visit the first segment in our series here. Then, hop over to the last section for tips and recipe links for side dishes, desserts and wine pairings (plus some fizzy drinks for kids).

In this second section, it's really all about the bird - with tips for selection, how to judge size and more. Lastly, we'll help you get to the bird to the table, all golden brown, and ready for serving!

Live Turkeys
Live Turkeys

What Type of Bird are You? Domesticated or Free-Ranging?

The turkey industry loves the Thanksgiving season - and we love the turkey industry. Most of us will sift through the frozen section, looking for the perfect bird. The ideal specimen will be hard as a rock and ready to be of service. We can't inspect the flesh, but we know that after it has thawed, it will be cooked and reach its final resting place - a pretty platter or carving board.

Those familiar rounded mounds of birds are referred to as "factory" fowl and will always command the largest segment of sales. They are bred and raised for size and carefully tended for health. Big, plump white breasts and a low price make them a beautiful sight. Some receive broth and butter injections, which makes it easy for both first-time and seasoned cooks to produce a tender, juicy turkey.

Organic, Free-Ranging

Other types of turkeys are receiving a boost in popularity. These fall into the organic, free-ranging, and heritage categories. They are more expensive and harder to find, but many people enjoy the taste and benefits of a true farm-raised bird.

Bear in mind that these are not "wild" turkeys. The taste is rich and satisfying and there is a greater ratio of dark to white meat. Many claim that the flavor is more intense as the birds are slow-growers compared to the traditional whites of supermarket fame. The profile is different - breasts are not as plump.

Labeling may be confusing, however. Little oversight is required for most non-standard turkeys, with the exclusion of those that are organically raised. To receive an organic label, producers must have been approved by USDA standards for meeting stringent requirements in many areas. The birds and their surroundings are monitored while alive as well as during processing and packaging.

Free-ranging birds are allowed outdoors, but there are no specifications as to how much fresh air they must receive each day. Nor is there a guarantee that access is under ideal conditions with regard to quality and size of space.

Heritage Birds

Heritage birds are also receiving attention. These are bred from "heirloom" breeds, many of which became extinct decades ago. Their revival is exciting. Heritage varieties are also free-ranging and typically receive no growth hormones or antibiotics.

You may also see birds labeled as "natural." That can be a bit misleading. This indicates that the turkey is free of preservatives and coloring that alter the appearance. Nothing more.

When you are ready to walk on the wild side of Thanksgiving traditions, be sure to visit a trusted vendor. He or she will be familiar with the history of the turkey during its gobbling days and its journey from farm to market.

Note: This photo courtesy Morguefile; other photos in this lens are copyright Cindy Kennedy.

How Fresh is That Turkey in the Freezer?

Turkeys are piled high in cold storage bins at groceries during the month of November. You won't have any way of knowing how long it has been in this state and it really isn't important. The quality of a well-frozen bird remains the same for at least a year and it is reasonably consumable for up to three years. That is under deep-freeze conditions, however, and not a typical side-by-side or other fridge/freezer combo.

Frozen or Hard-Chilled Turkeys

Those in the know have discovered there are many levels of "frozen." Even a refrigerated and thawed turkey may have been previously frozen, but it must be labeled as such.

To become an officially frozen bird, the turkey must be flash frozen at 0º F. immediately after slaughter. The USDA standards require this for consumer safety. A flash deep-freeze means the bird should have the same qualities as a fresh turkey by the time it reaches your refrigerator and thaws. Sometimes, these birds are allowed to thaw and acquire the aforementioned "previously frozen" label.

"Hard-chilled" birds are maintained between 0º F. and 26º F. They, too, must be labeled to indicate the process. Treat them the same way you would a fresh turkey.

Fresh Turkeys

Fresh turkeys release a cook from the worries of thawing. They are pricier and often a little more difficult to obtain. Be sure you purchase through a trusted source. It is important that these birds be treated with kid gloves from the producer to the vendor.

Before they begin their journey, fresh turkeys are kept at a cool 26º F., which is the point at which they will begin to freeze. Upon arrival at the local market, they must be kept at temperatures below 40º F. Labels will state either "fresh" or "refrigerated." Adhere to the listed "use by" or "sell by" date. You can also freeze these turkeys for later use, but cut them into sections first.

Tips for buying frozen or fresh fowl

-- Avoid birds that are piled high in freezer cases. They must be stored within the confines of the case itself - and not above - to maintain proper temperatures.

-- Always inspect the packaging for tears and leaks.

-- Purchase a fresh turkey no earlier than two days before cooking and preferably only one day prior to preparation.

-- Fresh turkeys typically require a special order.

Grading the Turkey and Choosing a Size

Planning the right amounts of food for a family gathering is not easy. One of the worst fears of hosting a Thanksgiving dinner is running out of the important food groups: turkey, dressing, gravy, and pumpkin pies.

You can't have too much turkey - that's the great part of purchasing a supersized model. Whatever is left over will be reincarnated in numerous ways. In fact, many of us purchase a larger bird so we can look forward to those post-holiday meals, including an endless lineup of sandwiches and soups.

Our recommendations for quantity are based on uncooked turkey. The average person will consume about three-quarters of a pound. If a few heavy eaters are at the table, plan on one pound per person. Raise the calculations to one-and-one-half pounds per person when a) you don't know how much dark meat, if any, will be consumed, and b) you really want leftovers.

When you begin picking through the overflowing turkey bins, read the labels. They'll list the weight, the age of the turkey, and its quality grade. What you won't know is if it is a tom or a hen as there is no difference in taste or texture between the two. Usually, it is the toms that are processed for other products.

For intimate dinners, choose the more expensive fryers and roasters. They weigh less than 8 pounds and are no older than 16 weeks. You can easily serve four people with an 8-pound turkey.

Young roasters are the most commercially popular. They can weigh as much as 24 pounds and are no older than 8 months.

Those are your two choices for roasting. Older birds, labeled "yearling" or "mature," are tougher, more economical, and fine for soups and stews.

Turkeys are A, B, and C graded. When you want a pretty presentation, choose only an A grade. A lower grade won't affect the taste of a bird, but the skin may exhibit blemishes along with random, intact pinfeathers.

Out of the Freezer and Into the Fridge: Thawing the Big Bird

You are just a few days away from Thanksgiving when it becomes crucial to make space in the refrigerator for that rock-hard bird. Before you can envision a golden-skinned turkey on the table, it has to thaw. Depending on the bird, this may take several days, especially if you want to do it safely.

The days of thawing or even baking a turkey overnight at an unsupervised room temperature are long gone, as is baking it overnight at 200ºF. With an eye to food safety and keeping many millions of dangerous microbes away from your dinner, a long, slow refrigerator-cold thaw is the preferred method.

Place the bird in a secure plastic bag to prevent any random juices from flowing onto other foods. If you have room, place it in a pan in the bottom part of the fridge.

For refrigerator thawing, count on:

-- 3 days for about 12 pounds

-- 3-4 days for up to 16 pounds

-- 5+days for up to 20 pounds

-- 6+ days for up to 24 pounds

Even so, you may find a few ice crystals in the cavities. Once the poultry is out of the package, spend a few minutes running cold water inside the bird and it will be ready in no time.

After thawing, rinse the bird thoroughly and pat dry with paper towels. For larger birds, enlist some assistance with maneuvering. Add salt and pepper in the cavities. You may also wish to add onions, celery, carrots, and oranges for flavoring, unless the bird will be stuffed. Discard these when the turkey is done.

Remove the plastic packets that contain poultry parts. Some brands also include a gravy pouch. Tie, or truss, the turkey's legs and wings. The legs can be tucked into a ring of fat at the nether end. Use toothpicks to pin the wings to the sides.

Coldwater Thaws

Sometimes we forget to thaw the bird in time. The cold-water method can be used, but is best for smaller birds. Larger birds can require up to 12 hours with a water change every half hour. As you can see, this is a direct invitation to bacterial growth. Even a smaller turkey - under 12 pounds - may take as long as six hours.

Defrosting in the Microwave

Microwave thawing is an alternative, with certain drawbacks. Parts of the bird may actually begin to cook before the thawing is complete. Times required will vary per microwave. Check the labeling on the turkey package for best results.

Keep the Bird Contained with an Oven Roaster

This rectangular pan with rack can handle even the biggest birds.

Turkey on the Table
Turkey on the Table

Golden Brown and Juicy Roasted Turkey: the Perfect Poultry

Cooking your first, second, or any Thanksgiving bird can be a nerve-wracking experience. Many of us continue to proudly volunteer our kitchens for this annual family gathering. Even cooks who have packed poultry into many a roaster pan can claim missteps along the way. Armed with a few tips, the proper oven temperature, and time to baby-sit the bird, it becomes easy as (pumpkin) pie.

Whether you stuff the bird or leave the cavity empty, a trusty temperature gauge and aluminum foil will be your best friends. Many turkeys are fitted with a pop-up timer - it's a bright little button-on-a-stake that will alert you when a certain heat level has been reached inside the bird. This is a great resource, but should be "second-guessed" with your own gauge. If you don't have a gauge, prick the thigh and the breast with a toothpick. Clear juices mean the bird is (probably) done; pinkish liquid means it needs to roast longer.

Internal Temperatures

The internal temperatures should be checked at three points: the thigh (recommended 180º F.), thickest part of breast without touching bone (170º F.), and the cavity if stuffed (165º F.). Remember that the bird will continue to cook when it comes out of the oven, so if the temperatures are five or so degrees lower, they'll rising while resting. You can also place a layer of foil - like a tent with gaps - over the bird while it's waiting for the carving knife.

For moister meat, slit the skin in several spots and slide pats of butter in between skin and meat. Basting the skin itself will not affect the interior. It will, however, crisp up the outer layer, which will help hold in moisture.

Use a shallow roasting pan, if possible. Those with higher sides can prevent the lower part of the bird from cooking at the same temperature as the parts that are more exposed.

You can cook other dishes in the oven at the same time as long as they are not crowded. Raise the temperature to 350ºF. to adjust for the lack of heat circulation space. Cooking times will vary based on the size of the bird and oven as well as whether it is stuffed or not. As a rule of thumb, plan on 3 hours or so for a 10-pound bird, up to 4 hours for birds weighing 12-14 pounds, and 4+ hours for birds up to 20 pounds. Again, let the temperature gauge be your final guide.

Keep the Bird Moist

The overall challenge is to keep your turkey from drying out. The breast will be done before the thighs as white meat typically cooks faster. You can slow the process by covering the breast with a small blanket of foil and removing it in the latter part of the cooking process. As an alternative, cover the roasting pan with foil for the first few hours of cooking. Leave gaps for steam to escape. Remove in the last 30-60 minutes of cooking time to allow the skin to turn that beautiful golden brown.

It does not really matter which side of the foil faces outward (unless it's non-stick foil - the coated matte side should have contact with the food). Contrary to popular belief, the heating properties are the same. The shinier side is the one that meets the rollers, creating a reflective finish.

Get Your Bird to the Grill (Step Away From the Kitchen)

Get Your Bird to the Grill (Step Away From the Kitchen)

Grilling outdoors on Thanksgiving can be a fun alternative to the tradition of roasting. It delivers some unique flavors to the table - as long as a little snow or ice won't cause interference. Even better, you'll have more space in the oven for cooking up a host of delicious side dishes.

A turkey is a wonderful choice for grilling, although you may discover a few challenges in placing an entire bird over a bed of hot coals. Smaller cuts of meat typically perform better, but it is possible to have it all - charred turkey complete with drippings for delicious gravy.

Tips for grilling a better bird

-- Use indirect heat. Keep the coals burning hot on one side of the grill and place the bird on the other half. This allows you to slow-cook with less chance of drying out. Use indirect heat on a propane or charcoal grill or use a smoker. Indirect heat will require more briquettes; plan to feed extra coals throughout the cooking time.

-- Leave the skin on during the grilling process and remove when done, if desired.

-- Basting is critical for grilling. Turkey tends to dry out and this will keep the skin moist. For the early part of the process, use an unsweetened marinade as sugars will caramelize and burn.

-- Purchase a smaller bird and make sure there is some space between the sides, lid, and turkey. You can also consider sectioning the raw turkey for easier grilling.

-- To capture the drippings, use a foil pan under the bird (and on top of the grill rack) until the last hour of cooking. Carefully remove and return the turkey to the bare rack.

-- Avoid piercing the skin when rearranging or transporting. This will keep the juices inside.

-- Never stuff a turkey that is going on the grill. The insides cannot heat up to an appropriate temperature at a safe rate.

It is difficult to predict a cooking time. There are so many variables: temperature, wind, size of bird, and the grill itself. A 10-pound bird may require 2 ½ hours and a 15-pounder can be done in 3 hours. The best gauge is a trusty thermometer.

The same rules apply for smoking a turkey. Be sure to use approved hardwoods; never sap woods or treated lumber.

You can serve all the traditional side dishes with a grilled or smoked Thanksgiving turkey, or venture out with these recipes. Grilled foods give you more options for bold flavors that will pair well with the aroma of the great outdoors.

Find more details here for a non-traditional grilled bird.

Calling All Fowls for the Fryer

Deep-frying a turkey is an exciting outdoor experience. Many who try it for the first time discover they would not have a Thanksgiving feast any other way. The process may be considered more "Cajun" or "Southern," but kits, or rigs, are available almost everywhere. Indeed, these large pots that sit on short, stubby stands with attached burners can also be used for shrimp boils, so they are not exactly a one-hit wonder.

With the frying process, you're creating a bird with perfectly crisp skin encasing succulent meat. Sound delicious?

Getting started

To start, you'll need a propane tank and an outdoor spot protected from wind. The fryer rig should be equipped with a turkey lifter and a base on which the bird will sit while it's bubbling in hot oil. Peanut oil is typically used because it has a high smoke point.

Your turkey will be cooking at a steady temperature of 350ºF. and at a rate of:

-- 3.5 minutes per pound for birds weighing 13-15 pounds

-- 3 minutes per pound for weights of 10-12 pounds.

Birds should be no larger than 15 pounds or they will become crispy critters around the drumsticks before the breast is done.

Most cooks inject the birds with a marinade or spice mixture. These are delivered deep into the meat and not rubbed on the skin. Any surface coating will simply boil away with the hot oil.

Other supplies include thermometers for both oil and meat, long gloves, plenty of paper towels, and a fire extinguisher.

You do not want to fill the container with oil. When the bird is gently lowered into the pot, the level will rise. Most instructions will state placing the bird in an empty pot and then filling with water to a level of one inch above the bird. Alternatively, you can use oil instead of water. Drain well before removing the bird and you're ready to go. With method one, you have to dry the pot and the bird thoroughly before frying. Oil and water, as we have all heard, really do not mix. That also means the turkey must be thoroughly defrosted as well.

Safety precautions

Always set the stand on solid, level ground. If you must place it on concrete, use newspaper to protect the surface from splashing grease.

Wear old clothes, including a long-sleeved shirt. The oil will splatter.

Lower the turkey slowly into the hot oil and be sure it is securely mounted on its stand with drumsticks facing up.

Keep children and pets away from the cooking area.

Allow the oil to cool afterward for several hours. You can return it to the original container after straining. Keep cook, or refrigerated, for a second use and then discard.

Get More Fried Turkey Tips Here

Carve the Turkey with Alton Brown

He may not come to your table, but let’s go to his for a lesson in turkey carving!

Give Thanks for the Bird and Basic Food Safety

On Thanksgiving Day, it is more important than ever to think about food safety. With guests gathering, you have a crowd to protect from all that nasty bacteria.

It's important to remember you're dealing with poultry - and typically a larger bird than the average chicken. That means more surface space that will be in contact, including the sink, faucets, and handles.

Even more critical is the fact that your kitchen is going to endure an overrun of strangers. They'll certainly pay less attention to cleanliness and more to chatting and bustling about. As you're setting out the appetizers, whipping up mashed potatoes and gravy, and adding liquids to the dressing, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

-- Keep a container of anti-bacterial hand soap available at the sink. Next to that, a roll of paper towels. Set an example for your guests and wash your hands frequently.

-- Place all raw turkey parts in a double plastic baggie or separate trash bag. Don't use the regular trash for these or the liquids, and discard outside as soon as you are finished. Once a piece of raw skin or juice has brushed against the side of a trashcan, bacteria will follow.

-- Rinse the sink with hot soap and water after the turkey is in the roaster.

-- Use separate boards for each food type and place in dishwasher when finished to avoid cross-contamination.

-- Do not partially cook any food in the microwave unless it is going straight to the oven or the grill.

Stuff the Stuffing Last

Do not place dressing inside a turkey until just before it goes in the oven. Never over-pack the cavity, as the dressing will expand with baking. It will also be the last to cook thoroughly - adjust time in the oven accordingly.

When reheating stuffing, use a meat thermometer to be sure it has reached an internal temperature of at least 165º F.

No Picky Eaters Allowed

The olden days of allowing Aunt Mabel and Uncle Fred to linger at the feast-laden table are gone. The rules are very strict - no more than two hours at room temperature and then everything goes into the fridge. The timer starts when the turkey comes out of the oven - resting time before carving counts, too.

Enforce the two-hour rule for all foods from the appetizers to the last dollop of whipped cream on top of the pumpkin pie.

The Thanksgiving Table: Recipes and Decorating Ideas

This cookbook sure to be a "classic" - it includes traditional and not-so-traditional recipes

The Day After: Takin' Turkey Down to the Bone

Once the Thanksgiving repast is just that, it's time to give all those leftovers their due. While you may be saying "no thanks" to turkey on Friday morning, by Saturday you should be planning on what to wrap and freeze for optimum safety – and further feasting sometime in the near future, preferably within 60 days.

While your family may groan over thoughts of gobbling up six weeks of turkey sandwiches, don't worry. Here are a few ideas to make delicious meals with the remains from "that bird."

Disguise it

There are plenty of ways to tame the taste of turkey. While we don't claim you can turn it into mystery meat, you may choose to avoid the excesses of Thanksgiving - no "straight" turkey, in other words. Mix it with hamburger, beef, or chicken, for instance, to dilute the flavor.

However, if you're truly fond of the old bird and don't want to wing it without a little guidance, here are a few of our favorite suggestions.

Make it Ethnic

With a little exploration, you can elevate leftovers to international cuisine status. There's a certain appeal in calling a dish "Creole" or "Curry" as opposed to just plain leftovers, don't you think? Let your turkey travel!

Make it Healthy

You have had your day of anything goes – calories do not count on Thanksgiving, right? You may step on the scales and find they were there all along. This is a wonderful opportunity to turn leftovers into a healthful aftermath. Just refrain from including gravy and pumpkin pie.

After the Carving's Done

Don't let that carcass go to waste. Sure, it looks a little sad and bare, but there is plenty of life left. Make a delicious stock and then enjoy terrific soups for the next few months. (Remember to leave a little meat on the bone and add some veggies. Toss out the liver, though, or your stock will have a bitter taste.)

The "Other" Foods

-- Breads, rolls, cranberries, mashed potatoes, and vegetables also deserve rescue for later nibbling. Here are a few tips for serving that will disguise the wear and tear they may have received on Thanksgiving.

-- Cranberries can be pureed and used as a jam.

-- Incorporate mashed potatoes in soups to act as a thickening agent.

-- Bake or pan-fry mashed potatoes to make crisp patties.

-- Cube dried breads and rolls, season, and bake on low heat in the oven for croutons.

-- Blend vegetables into a casserole, top with potatoes and cheese, then bake.

Now, you can say "thanks" for what has been left behind!

Here, it's all about the bird. But, we also feature other sections our Complete Guide to Thanksgiving Dinner. Check out the planning section here. and then hop over to our featured section on Sides and Desserts.

Let's Talk Turkey!

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      6 years ago

      Great looking bird.


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