By Vicki Hayman – UW Extension
As the holidays approach, some are wondering how to cook the perfect Thanksgiving turkey. Most people love turkey for Thanksgiving, but are getting bored with the same recipes. There are many ways to cook a turkey; it depends on your preference. I will share some turkey-cooking trends as well as some important facts and precautions.
First decide on either a fresh or a frozen turkey. There is little to no difference in the meat, but a frozen turkey must be thawed in one of three ways.
1. In the refrigerator, which takes about 24 hours per four to five pounds.
2. In a running cold-water bath, which takes about 30 minutes per pound.
3. In the microwave, following the manufacturer’s instructions, and immediately continuing cooking in the oven, on the grill or in the fryer. The thawing process is critical to cooking time and method. It is not recommended to grill, smoke or fry a frozen turkey.
Those who procrastinate should either buy a fresh turkey or thaw a frozen one in a running cold-water bath. It should never be defrosted on the counter! This can lead to the growth of bacteria that causes foodborne illness.
It is important to purchase the right amount of meat to feed everyone. Prepare at least one pound of uncooked turkey per person, when purchasing a whole turkey.
The most crucial decision is how to cook the turkey. There is the traditional roasting method, but some unique methods have become popular in recent years. These include smoking, grilling and deep-frying. In addition, marinades and seasonings can help to improve flavor, tenderness and texture of the poultry.
Brining is a pretreatment in which the whole turkey is placed in a salt and water solution known as brine. This pretreatment produces a moist and well-seasoned bird. Brining should be done in the refrigerator at 40 °F or below. Brining is more manageable with a small turkey from 12 to 14 pounds. However, when you are brining, buy a turkey that has not been pre-seasoned or basted. Because after brining, it would be too salty. Table salt or kosher salt can be used to make the brine. Kosher salt is recommended since table salt contains additives such as anti-caking ingredients and iodine. Table salt is also very finely ground and more is required to produce good results. When done properly, the turkey should not taste salty.
A deep-fried turkey is a unique, way to cook a Thanksgiving turkey. Keep the oil at the right temperature and you’ll get a crispy skin and tender meat with about two grams of fat added per serving. However, if the temperature of the oil drops below 350 °F, oil seeps into the meat and raises the fat content. A whole turkey can be successfully cooked by the deep fat frying method provided the turkey is not stuffed and is completely thawed. The turkey should be 12 pounds or less.
Turkeys can be grilled on charcoal or gas. When grilling a turkey, be sure it is completely thawed. Turkeys that are 16 pounds or less are the recommended size. A larger turkey remains in the “Danger Zone”—between 40 and 140 °F—too long.
Marinating is a soaking technique, which enhances the flavor and tenderness of meat. Since commercial turkeys are young (4 to 6 months) and tender, the mission of this marinade is to spread flavor throughout the bird. Always refrigerate the turkey during the marinating process and do not serve the leftover marinade unless it is cooked first.
When smoking you will not need any fancy recipes – it’s the smoke that gives it the flavor. The process is not as fast as other preparation methods – it takes about 40 minutes per pound (eight hours for a 12 pound bird).
Use a food thermometer to check the temperature where the thigh meets the main carcass of the turkey. It should be at least 165°F. Most people will consider this under cooked, so go to 175-180°F. If it is stuffed, the stuffing should be at 165°F. Turkeys should be stuffed loosely and cooked immediately to prevent foodborne illness. Do not stuff turkeys to be grilled or fried!
Don’t rely on temperature indicators, such as the red pop-ups, that are provided. These are not always accurate. Check the temperature yourself with a food thermometer.
For some, pink in a cooked turkey raises a “red flag.” In actuality, pink meat is not a reliable indicator of doneness. Meat may have a slight pink color and still be at a safe temperature. Always use a food thermometer to be sure. Smoked turkey typically has a pink color.
Leftovers should be refrigerated and used within three days. Freeze Thanksgiving leftovers for future meals.
A Thanksgiving meal can last well after Thanksgiving Day when stored properly. I hope new methods of cooking a turkey will be tried this year, and I hope people will follow the standards and cook meat safely.
For additional facts and information on cooking your Thanksgiving turkey, visit the National Turkey Federation Web site at www.eatturkey.com or the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Services Web site at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/poultry-preparation/lets-talk-turkey/CT_Index.
Have a great (and safe) holiday! If you have questions, contact me, Vicki Hayman, at the Weston County Extension Office (307-746-3531) or firstname.lastname@example.org.