Turkey Talk: Picking the Right Bird

Choosing the right turkey for your festivities can be confusing. Here are a few tips and must-have tools to make planning that much easier.

Related To:

Roasted Turkey


Turkey with Onions and Lemon on a White Dish

Choosing the right turkey for your Thanksgiving dinner can be confusing. Here are a few tips and must-have tools to make planning that much easier.

Fresh vs. Frozen

The National Turkey Federation claims that there is no quality difference between fresh and frozen turkeys. Both versions have pros and cons, but the ultimate choice is up to you. If you don’t have much freezer space, fresh is a good option. The downside is you need to buy it a few days before you use it since it will only keep for a couple days in the fridge. If you find a good deal on a frozen bird and have the space, go for it! Frozen birds will keep for up to six months, but don't forget to plan ahead for defrosting.

Defrosting a Frozen Bird

Get your bird out of the freezer at least three days before you plan on cooking it. Make room in the refrigerator and leave the turkey in there on a tray to catch any juices as its thaws out. It takes about three days to completely defrost a 20-pound turkey -- smaller ones may need less time. If you didn’t get your bird in the fridge in time and it's still bit frozen (that's just a bit -- not completely frozen), you can continue defrosting it by running lukewarm water over it for a few hours. Make sure the water isn’t hot or it will start cooking the meat.

Many folks forget to defrost their turkey until the day before and leave it on the counter-top overnight for speedier thawing. Don't! This is enough time for bacteria to grow to high enough amounts that you may make your dinner guests sick (and you can forget about hosting next year).

Still skeptical about the quality differences between fresh and frozen, check out this Food Network article for buying tips.

How Big?

One key factor to having a tasty bird is its size. Smaller turkeys are usually more tender, so if you’re planning on having a large group, you may want to get two smaller turkeys instead of one large one.

Estimate six ounces of raw meat per person -- this amount of cooked meat will shrink down to four ounces, the appropriate serving size. Don’t forget to account for leftovers as well. For example, if you're hosting a dinner for 10, calculate out 6 ounces per person (10 x 6 = 60 ounces). Assuming you want leftovers for everyone for two meals, triple that number (60 x 3 = 180 ounces). To convert ounces to pounds, divide your total ounces by 16 (180/16 = 12 pounds when you round up).

Cooking Time

Most folks forget that the time for cooking a turkey depends on how many pounds you’ve got. Cooking time also depends on if you started with a fresh or frozen bird. For a defrosted turkey, plan on cooking it at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes per pound. Fresh turkey's cooking time is 10 to 15 minutes per pound. So, if you have a fresh 12-pounder, your cooking time would be 120 to 180 minutes (that's two  to three hours); a frozen turkey of the same size would need to be cooked for 240 minutes (or four hours).

Important Tools

To outfit your kitchen to prepping the big bird, we suggest you keep these tools on hand:

Meat Thermometer: Turkey should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Once you think it’s done, check the temperature; if it’s not hot enough, pop the turkey back in the oven. Check out this list of cooking temperatures if you plan on cooking different meats during the holidays.

Roasting Pan: Make sure your roasting pan is large enough to fit your bird. I prefer All-Clad for roasting — you can read more on about types of cookware in our previous post.

Fat Separator: This handy gadget helps easily separate the fat from the pan drippings so you can make the perfect gravy every time.

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