Choosing and Cooking Your Holiday Turkey

It’s almost the holiday season, and many folks will be cooking a holiday turkey. It is important to keep certain issues in mind as you choose your turkey and begin the preparations for cooking.

Choosing Your Holiday Turkey

Although turkey meat has become more popular as a year-round product (mainly as a luncheon meat or sandwich meat), many families in the U.S. still prefer a whole turkey as their holiday meat. Choosing the right turkey for your family can be easy if you follow a few simple guidelines.

Fresh Turkeys
  • Allow for 1 lb. of meat per person.
  • Buy your turkey only 1 to 2 days before you plan to cook it.
  • Store fresh turkey in a refrigerated area until you are ready to cook.
  • Do not buy fresh, pre-stuffed turkeys.
Frozen Turkeys
  • Allow for 1 lb. of meat per person.
  • Keep frozen until ready to thaw and cook.
  • Turkeys can be kept frozen indefinitely, but for best quality, cook within 1 year of purchase.
  • Only purchase frozen, pre-stuffed turkeys that display the USDA or State mark of inspection.
  • Do not thaw frozen, pre-stuffed turkeys before cooking. Cook from a frozen state.

 

Thawing Your Turkey

There are only 3 ways to thaw your turkey (or any frozen meat) safely: 1) in the refrigerator, 2) in cold water, or 3) in the microwave oven. The size of your turkey will determine the amount of time that it will take to thaw (and if it will fit in a microwave), with larger birds taking the longest time no matter the thawing method. The following guidelines will help you determine the amount of time that it will take to thaw your holiday bird.

In the Refrigerator

Generally, you will want to allow for 24 hours of thawing time for each 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. This means that a 4 lb. turkey will take about one (1) day to thaw in the refrigerator. A bird that weighs 16 pounds will take about four (4) days to thaw. A turkey that has been thawed in the refrigerator CAN be refrozen.

In Cold Water

For cold water thawing, you should estimate that it will take about thirty (30) minutes for each pound of turkey. During the cold water thawing process, you should change the thawing water every thirty (30) minutes. Turkeys that have been thawed in this manner SHOULD NOT be refrozen.

In the Microwave

Please check your owner’s manual for specifications on thawing a turkey in the microwave. Microwave ovens vary in their power output and the manufacturer’s recommendations should be followed. Do NOT refrigerate or refreeze a turkey that has been thawed in this manner. It should be cooked immediately.

Cooking Your Holiday Turkey

There are many methods that are used for cooking a whole turkey. Roasting in the oven is one of the more popular methods, along with grilling, smoking, and frying. The guidelines listed below will help to make sure that your turkey is cooked properly. Proper cooking is essential in reducing the probability of foodborne illness.

Roasting
  • Do not set the oven temperature below 325°F.
  • For increased safety, it is not recommended to stuff the turkey before cooking as the stuffing may not reach the correct temperature. For best results cook the stuffing separately in a casserole.
  • Whole turkeys are safe when cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F. To check the temperature, insert a meat thermometer at the innermost part of the thigh and wing along with the thickest part of the breast. Do not rely solely on the pop-up indicator for temperature confirmation. Safe cooking temperatures for all meats can be found in the following blog article: Safe Cooking During the Holidays.
Grilling
  • Turkeys that are grilled should be cooked for 15 to 18 minutes per pound.
  • Do not stuff turkeys that are to be grilled (for the same reason as above).
  • The air temperature in the grill must stay between 225°F and 300°F for the previous listed times to be effective.
  • Cook to an internal temperature of 165°F (see instructions for testing the temperature in the roasting section above).
Smoking
  • Smoked turkeys should be cooked for 20 to 30 minutes per pound.
  • Do not stuff turkeys that are to be smoked (see above).
  • Air temperature in the smoker should stay between 225°F and 300°F for the previous listed times to be effective.
  • Cook to an internal temperature of 165°F.
Deep Fat Frying
  • Fried turkeys are cooked from 3 to 5 minutes per pound.
  • Do not stuff turkeys that are to be fried.
  • Oil in the cooker should maintain a temperature at or above 350°F (but below the scorching temperature of the oil).
  • Cook to an internal temperature of 165°F.
Leftovers
  • Discard any turkey, stuffing, or gravy that is left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
  • Refrigerated leftovers should be consumed or thrown out within 3 to 4 days.
  • When you reheat your leftovers, make sure to reheat them to a temperature of 165°F.

Additional information on food safety and turkey can be found here and here. Additional information on alternative methods of cooking turkey can be found here.

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