Turkey Talk – From Freezer to Table

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How to Save Buying a Turkey

A fresh turkey offers the best flavor but not necessarily the best price and you have to buy it within a couple of days from when you will be roasting it, so though it’s the freshest turkey alternative, it’s not the best option for everyone. 

As for the frozen variety, turkeys that are butter-basted usually claim to offer a more tender and tastier bird, but there’s really no guarantee that it will indeed be better than other frozen turkeys.  I have opted for the most expensive butter-basted fowl only to find there was very little difference in flavor and tenderness, compared to other turkeys I’ve cooked.

If you want to save money on a turkey, consider buying a frozen utility-grade turkey which offers the best value.  A utility grade turkey is one that for some reason, has a missing part or two, often a drumstick or thigh. And while not picture perfect on the platter, most will not miss those errant pieces, but you’ll surely notice the price savings.

How to Defrost a Frozen Turkey

The safest way to defrost a frozen turkey is to do it slowly in the refrigerator.  You’ll need at least 4-5 days thawing time in the refrigerator for a large 18-20 lb turkey and at least a couple of days for a smaller 10-12 lb bird.  Leave it wrapped, but place it in a large bowl or container – it will drip while defrosting.

Another method is to thaw it more quickly in a sink or tub of cold water and the time required will vary from 3 to 12 hours depending on the size of the bird.  I most often use this method; it works quite well and does not use space in the refrigerator.  Change the water every half hour as recommended by  U.S. Food Safety.

The turkey should be submerged in cold water and I usually turn it over every couple of hours and remove the bagged innards and neck from inside the bird, as soon as they will release. This helps to thaw the interior of the turkey more quickly. Make sure to rinse the turkey thoroughly when thawed, including the cavities. Prop it up in the sink to drain, then transfer to paper towels.  Dry the thawed and rinsed turkey with paper towels and keep it refrigerated until ready to prepare for the oven.

Once the turkey is removed from the sink, give the sink and counter a thorough cleaning to remove any bacteria that may be present from the poultry.  Launder tea towels and dishcloths as these could also have become contaminated from the raw turkey.

You can also thaw a turkey in a microwave if you have a large enough oven and follow your microwave directions for proper defrosting of your turkey.  I haven’t personally tried this method, as I find that microwaves generally tend to partially cook edges while thawing other parts of most meats and poultry.

How to Cook a Turkey

You should gather all the necessary turkey tools the day before to make sure you’re ready to roast the turkey.

What you’ll need:

  • Roaster or roasting pan (or an electric roaster oven); roaster should be deep.
  • Poultry rack – to lift the bird off the bottom and help with removal
  • Large turkey forks – to help with removal from the roaster
  • Baster
  • Meat/Poultry thermometer – optional but handy
  • Foil to cover and seal, or an adequate cover
  • Butter, margarine or olive oil to grease the bird
  • Sage or poultry seasonings, salt and pepper, paprika
  • Prepared stuffing or dressing (optional) – See Turkey Stuffing Recipe
  • Timer

How to Prepare the Turkey for Roasting:

  • Stuff the thawed and dried turkey with dressing (also called stuffing).  If you are stuffing your turkey, press the dressing into both cavities of the bird.  I usually place the turkey neck either on top of the largest (top side) cavity over the dressing, or into the underside area, along with some dressing.  I use a bread dressing, but there are other many other varieties.
  • Note that stuffing a turkey does pose a risk of harmful bacteria.  For that reason,  many now opt to cook the dressing separately from the turkey, which is considered the safest alternative.  I have made slow cooker dressing for the past two years and do like this method of cooking dressing.
  • Place the turkey drumstick ends up, on the poultry rack in the roasting pan.  With your hand, keep closed the underside stuffed cavity while transferring the turkey to the roasting pan.
  • Grease the exterior of the turkey with soft or melted butter, margarine or olive oil, making sure to grease well the outer extremities.
  • Season the turkey with salt, pepper, sage or poultry seasonings and a little paprika.
  • Add a little water – about an inch in the bottom of the roaster.
  • Apply a cover or seal well with foil.  I also add a little foil to the drumstick ends and wing tips before covering, because these parts tend to burn more easily.
  • Roast in a preheated oven at 350°F till done.
  • To check whether it is done, use a meat/poultry thermometer deep inside the bird and it should register an internal temperature of at least 165°F.
  • After removal from the oven, let it stand for about 15 minutes before carving.
  • While turkey is resting, make your gravy right in the roasting pan, using a medium heat and stirring occasionally.
  • Remove stuffing completely from the turkey and place in a serving bowl.
  • Carve the turkey, slicing enough to serve your guests a choice of light or dark meat as well as drumsticks or wings.

Cooking Time Tips:

A stuffed turkey takes longer to cook than one that is not stuffed.  Allow about 3 hours for a 12 lb turkey; about 5 hours for a 16 lb bird and about 6 hours for a 20 pounder.  If the turkey is done but serving time is still a couple of hours away, reduce your oven temperature and baste often.  If you need to speed it up, turn up the heat slightly and remember to baste it, to keep the turkey from drying out.

Although there are some charts to go by, exact cooking time seems to vary with every turkey and expect it to be ready earlier if it is not stuffed.  I have tried several variations of cooking temperatures for roasting a turkey, even at a much higher heat for a shorter time and though that worked fine, I have returned to my general cooking heat of 350°F (16 lb stuffed) and getting it in the oven before noon, for an expected dinner serving time somewhere between 5 and 6 pm.  It’s a good idea to check the turkey, before proceeding to cook vegetables, so everything is ready at the same time.

More General Turkey Tips:

  • Always wash utensils, sink, counter and kitchen linens to remove any possible bacteria after handling raw poultry and turkey.
  • Stuff a turkey just before it goes into the oven, never ahead.  You can prepare the dressing ahead and refrigerate, before stuffing the turkey.
  • When thawing in the sink, keep the turkey wrapped to avoid getting it water logged.
  • Only use food-grade (not general purpose or trash) plastic bags to store turkey.
  • Never cook a turkey at less than 325°F – it’s too low to properly kill bacteria. For this reason, slow cooker or Crock-pot cooking is not recommended for cooking turkey.
  • To estimate the size of turkey you’ll need, allow about 1 lb of turkey per adult; less for children. But keep in mind that turkey freezes very well and leftovers are usually quickly gobbled up.
  • Never leave dressing in the turkey – remove immediately when done.
  • It’s easier to clean the turkey carcass while it’s still slightly warm, than leaving this task (refrigerated) for the next day.
  • Turkey bones (use only the larger ones) make a great soup base and leave some bits of turkey on them.  Add more turkey later along with vegetables and remove bones when ready.  Avoid using the turkey neck for making soup, as small bones can present a hazard.
  • Never stuff a frozen turkey; make sure it is completely thawed before stuffing.
  • Make your poultry dressing in a slow cooker.
  • Find a good roaster in my Best Roasters and Roasting Pans
  • Need a refresher on Setting a Table?
  • Consider serving a Quick and Easy Ice Cream Dessert to complete your dinner.

For general food safety tips and more detailed turkey cooking charts, visit U.S. Food Safety

Visit Kraft Canada for helpful Turkey 101 tips.

You’ll also find some nice step by step information on preparing a turkey at Butterball