thanksgiving turkey

Buying a turkey

13 November 2012

Thanksgiving is early this year – November 22 is the earliest possible date for the fourth Thursday of November – and I have some serious catching up to do. If I were a real food blogger, I would have cooked Thanksgiving in July so I could have rolled out a series of turkey day specials starting late October for the super-planners who lock their Thanksgiving menu by Halloween. But I’m here to assure the scramblers among us that nine days is plenty of time to get ready for the biggest meal of the year.

First thing to plan for is the bird.

Ordering a turkey – Ordering a fresh turkey in advance has two advantages: 1) you get exactly the type and size turkey you want and 2) you can take delivery just when you need it (no frozen turkey taking up your whole refrigerator). We may be a little late for ordering – call today! – depending on your local markets. Still there are plenty of options to buy a bird off the shelf.

Fresh vs frozen – Be warned that it takes a long time to defrost a frozen turkey – three full days for a 12 pound bird, five days for a 20-pounder. At this point you can buy a fresh prepackaged turkey that will keep for Thanksgiving; just check the sell-by date. Trader Joe’s, for example, gets all their fresh turkeys at once, so there’s no advantage to waiting except you don’t have to store the turkey as long. But selection dwindles as Thanksgiving nears.

What size? – For a whole turkey, plan on one to two pounds per adult, depending on heartiness of eaters and amount of leftovers desired. One pound per adult is enough for light eaters that don’t want much left over. Add a half-pound per adult for big eaters and another half-pound per adult for leftovers. A half-pound per child is plenty. Butterbell has a handy portion calculator (and a calculator for frozen turkey thawing time) if you don’t want to do the math.

Is bigger or smaller better? – A bigger turkey has a higher meat-to-bone ratio. Hens (female turkeys) top out at 16 pounds, so larger turkeys are toms (male). Depending on who you ask, hens have more white meat and smaller bones. But turkey breeders will say that age has a greater impact than gender on tenderness of meat, and all the commercial turkeys you will find these days are young. You need two ovens to cook two turkeys, however, so most people will simply buy the size turkey they need, regardless of gender. Just make sure your oven can fit the turkey you buy.

Natural vs free range vs organic – Fresh turkeys can vary greatly in price from $1-6 per pound. The USDA does not allow hormones to be used on poultry, but better turkeys are also antibiotic-free. Natural turkeys have no artificial additives. A turkey can be deemed free range if it has access to the outdoors, but it’s unlikely to have been roaming free on the range. Vegetarian feed labels generally indicate turkeys have been fed corn and soy. Organic turkeys have been fed organic, non-GMO feed.

Brined vs basted vs kosher – All these terms indicate salt has already been added to the turkey. Basted turkeys such as Butterball have been injected with a solution that includes salt and other unspecified flavorings. Brined and kosher turkeys have been soaked in a salt solution, which helps the bird stay moist when cooked. Brining at home isn’t hard, and you can customize your brining solution, but it is kind of a mess and takes up a lot of scarce refrigerator space. For the time-constrained, a brined or kosher bird is an excellent option.

I have a fantastic pecan pie recipe (no corn syrup!) to share with you this week. In the meantime, check out some of my past Thanksgiving-appropriate recipes:





This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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