Preparing the turkey: How to choose the right bird for your Thanksgiving feast

Preparing the turkey: How to choose the right bird for your Thanksgiving feast

November 13th, 2017 by New York Times News Service in Life Entertainment

The turkey is the unquestioned star of the Thanksgiving meal. It can be the most daunting part as well. (Getty Images/iStockphoto/Steve McSweeny)

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

The turkey is the unquestioned star of the Thanksgiving meal. It can be the most daunting part as well. But with a little planning and care, it doesn't have to be.

Before You Start

» Order your turkey now if you want something other than a supermarket bird. (Ideally you would order three to four weeks in advance.)

» A decent roasting pan, one heavy enough that it won't buckle under the weight of the bird, is a good investment. You will also need a rack; usually one comes with the pan, but if you buy it separately, make sure it fits inside your pan.

» An instant-read thermometer is the most accurate way to determine when your turkey is done. It's worth buying if you don't have one.

» Be sure to leave enough time to defrost your turkey. Do this in the fridge, allowing one day for every 4 pounds of turkey. Put it in a bowl or on a baking pan or platter.

Daily countdown

Need some help getting everything ready for your Thanksgiving feast?┬áNov. 12 through Nov. 22, we’ll offer tips, advice and recipes.

› Sunday: Thanksgiving tools

› Monday: Choosing a turkey

› Tuesday: What to drink

› Wednesday: Sumptuous sides

› Thursday: Beer and turkey pairings

› Friday: Setting the table

› Saturday: How to be a good guest

› Nov. 19: Tips for your turkey

› Nov. 20: Buffet essentials

› Nov. 21: How to snag the wishbone

› Nov. 22: Ideas for your leftovers

Buying Your Turkey

The array of turkey choices can be confusing, so we've broken it down to help you navigate your options. Some cooks swear by a fresh turkey, claiming that frozen varieties are not as flavorful. But when it comes to supermarket turkey, the difference between fresh and frozen is negligible.

» Free-range: This is a bird that is not raised in a cage and is free to graze on any grasses or grains it can find in its pen, which is generally considered a more humane and healthy poultry-farming process.

» Organic: The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that all turkeys sold as organic must be raised free-range, without the use of antibiotics, and fed an organic and vegetarian diet that has not been treated with pesticides.

» Natural: Natural turkeys are generally less expensive than organic, and are often of a comparable quality. But there is no government guarantee to back up the word "natural" on a label. You must read the fine print to find out if the bird is antibiotic-free, free-range or raised on a vegetarian diet.

» Kosher: Turkeys with the "kosher" label have been farmed and slaughtered according to Jewish dietary customs, with rabbinical supervision. They also undergo a salting process after slaughter that gives the meat a juicy texture. (Don't brine a kosher bird.)

» Conventional: This is the standard supermarket turkey. The variety is the Broad Breasted White, which was bred to have a plumper, broader breast. A conventional turkey should be brined; it will noticeably improve the texture. And use an open hand when it comes to seasonings, since the turkey won't offer much flavor of its own.

» Heritage: Heritage turkeys are old-fashioned varieties of birds that were once common in the United States. They have a richer, more distinct flavor, more like a game bird, and have a greater proportion of dark meat. Breeds include Narragansett, Jersey Buff, Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red and White Holland.

» Wild: It is against the law in the United States to sell a truly wild turkey that's been shot by a hunter; thus most "wild" turkeys on the market are pasture-raised — often free-range heritage birds. To procure a truly wild turkey, you will need to either shoot one yourself or befriend a hunter.

» Self-basting: These turkeys have been injected with a solution generally consisting of butter or oil and salt, and sometimes herbs, spices and preservatives. Self-basted turkeys are sometimes not labeled as such, so make sure to check the ingredients list. If you see anything other than "turkey," chances are it is a self-basting bird. Do not brine it.

Preparing the Turkey for Roasting

Roasting a turkey can be confusing — there are so many options for how to prepare the bird. But it doesn't have to be that way. Here's how to do it, step by step.

» Unwrap: You've bought your turkey, and it's a few days before Thanksgiving. After you remove the turkey from its plastic bag, do not wash it; just pat it dry with paper towels. Place it on a platter, and put it in the refrigerator, where the air will dry its skin tight.

» Remove gizzards: Be sure to pull out the sack containing the neck and innards from the cavity. Reserve them for stock if you like. If the bird is frozen, defrost for one day, and then you should be able to pry them out. (Beware: Sometimes the giblets are under the neck flap, not in the cavity. Check the turkey thoroughly.)

To Brine or Not To Brine

For many, the answer is no — at least, not a wet brine. Wet brining — the process of submerging a turkey in a salt-and-aromatic solution — is the messiest and least convenient way to ensure moist and evenly seasoned meat.

Instead, many cooks prefer to season the bird all over with a salt rub — technically, a dry brine — and letting it sit for a few days, or even hours, before roasting. It's much easier to keep a salted turkey in the fridge rather than having to figure out where to store a bird covered in liquid.

» For a dry brine, combine 1/2 teaspoon salt per pound of turkey (use coarse kosher or sea salt) with whatever aromatics you want to mix into it. Rub the mixture all over the bird and refrigerate for up to three days. In a pinch, you can season the bird just before cooking, though the skin will be saltier than the flesh.

» For a wet brine, it's important to find a recipe for brine and stick to it, without making substitutions. For instance, different varieties of salt have different volumes; if your recipe calls for 2 cups kosher salt, don't substitute table salt or else you'll have an inedible bird. (Never brine kosher or self-basting turkeys, both of which already have been salted.)

The safest way to brine is to submerge the turkey in the salt solution, cover it, and leave it in the refrigerator. If you don't have room, you can also try brining in a cooler (as long as the turkey can fit, completely covered by the solution, with the lid on). You'll have to be vigilant about maintaining the temperature of the solution. Check it with a kitchen thermometer at regular intervals to be sure it stays between 26 and 40 degrees. To keep it cool without diluting the salt, place ice cubes sealed in plastic bags into the brining bath, replacing the cubes once they melt. Or, if you live in a cold climate, place your cooler outside.

Stuffing

Whether you call it stuffing or dressing, the savory bread mixture that you may or may not cook inside your turkey is an integral part of the Thanksgiving meal. Generally speaking, stuffings are cooked inside the bird, while dressings are baked in a casserole dish on the side, but the words are often used interchangeably. Both methods have their merits.

Turkey FAQ

Q: How much turkey should I buy?

A: Buy 1 pound per person, or 1 1/2 pounds per person if you'd like to make sure you have leftovers. If you're ordering your turkey from a butcher or farmer, you'll need to do so a few weeks in advance.

Q: Can you safely defrost a turkey at room temperature?

A: A large turkey shouldn't be defrosted at room temperature. Thorough cooking would kill microbes, but not necessarily all the toxins they may have produced. And the skin may start to go rancid.

Q: How long does raw turkey keep?

A: According to the USDA, fresh turkey can be kept in the refrigerator for up to two days. A frozen turkey will last for up to a year if kept frozen continuously.

Q: Where can I safely store a turkey while it brines?

A: Your best bet is to make room in the refrigerator and store the turkey in there. That way, you can be sure the temperature will be low enough.

Q: Should I truss my turkey?

A: If you do not stuff your turkey, you do not need to truss it. Allowing untrussed wings and legs to have hot air circulating around them helps them cook faster, so the white and dark meat will all be done at the same time. If you do stuff your bird, trussing helps keep the stuffing in its proper place, and it makes for a neater presentation.

Q: Is it dangerous to cook the stuffing inside the turkey?

A: The USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend cooking stuffing separately from the turkey. The concern is that cold or frozen stuffing, sometimes sold already stuffed into packaged birds, won't reach a high enough temperature to be eaten safely. To be safe, take its temperature; like the turkey, it must reach 165 degrees.

Q: Do I need a roasting rack to roast a turkey?

A: A rack allows the heat of the oven to circulate around the turkey; also, if the turkey is resting on the bottom of the roasting pan, the skin there will be flabby and moist. You don't need a specially designed rack for your roasting pan, but you need something to lift the bird above the bottom of the pan. Balls of aluminum foil work perfectly well; you can also use upside-down ramekins.

Q: Do I need to rinse off the turkey before I start cooking it?

A: No. Any bacteria that's on it will be cooked off in the oven.

Q: Should I baste the turkey?

A: You don't have to, but if it's part of your process, don't baste for the first hour. You want the heat of the oven to do its work tightening the skin of the turkey and helping to seal in the juices that will run at the breast. Afterward, you can baste on the half-hour, using the fat and liquid in the bottom of the roasting pan to burnish the skin and, some say, to help keep the entire bird juicy within.

Q: How do I cook a turkey in a convection oven?

A: Convection ovens have a fan that circulates the heated air within the cooking chamber, and using one generally means roasting your turkey at a lower temperature, for less time, than in a conventional oven. It is not an exact science, but the general rule of thumb is to decrease the oven temperature called for by the recipe by 25 degrees, and to reduce the cooking time by roughly 10 percent or 20 percent. Use a rack and a shallow roasting pan, so that the skin of the bird has maximum exposure to the heated air. Don't worry about turning and basting the bird. With a convection oven, the result is usually a moist bird with a crisp, crackling skin.

Last Steps

You've bought, defrosted and seasoned your turkey, which means you're more than halfway to a golden, glorious centerpiece for the feast. But there's still a little more to do. We'll walk you through these final steps so you can put the bird in the oven (and take it out) with confidence.

Add Flavor to the Pan

To add flavor to both the turkey and the gravy, if you're using pan drippings, you'll want to add aromatics to the turkey cavity and to the bottom of the pan. Some combination of herbs, peeled garlic cloves, quartered onions and lemons, apples, mushrooms, celery, carrots and bay leaves can be used in both places. Then cover the bottom of the pan with 1/4-inch of liquid (wine, cider, beer, broth, water) so the drippings don't burn.

But Don't Baste (Unless You Want To)

Some people swear by basting, but it isn't necessary. Every time you open the oven door to baste, you let the heat out. Basting also gives you a less crisp skin. Instead of basting, rub fat (butter, olive oil or coconut oil, for example) all over the bird just before you tuck it into the oven. Then leave it alone until it's time to check for doneness.

How To Tell When the Turkey Is Done

Start taking the turkey's temperature at least 15 minutes before you think it might be done. To check its temperature, insert an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh and under the wing, making sure you don't touch any bones.

Your bird is done when its internal temperature hits 165 degrees. Don't worry if the thigh meat near the bone still looks pink. Some turkeys are naturally pinker than others, and a fully cooked bird will often have that color.

Let It Rest

Once your turkey is cooked, let it rest out of the oven, covered loosely with foil, for 20 to 30 minutes before carving.

Simple Roast Turkey

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

Time: 3 1/2 hours, plus brining

More work does not necessarily yield a better bird. In this easy recipe, you can skip stuffing, trussing and basting.

1 10- to 12-pound turkey

Coarse kosher salt

1 tablespoon black pepper

1 lemon, zested and quartered

1 bunch fresh thyme or rosemary

1 bunch fresh sage

12 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled

1 (12-ounce) bottle hard apple cider

Dry white wine, as needed

2 onions, peeled and quartered

3 bay leaves

Olive oil or melted butter

Remove any giblets from cavity and reserve for stock or gravy. Pat turkey and turkey neck dry with paper towel; rub turkey all over with 1/2 teaspoon salt per pound of turkey, the pepper and the lemon zest, including the neck. Transfer to a 2-gallon (or larger) resealable plastic bag. Tuck herbs and 6 garlic cloves inside bag. Seal and refrigerate on a small rimmed baking sheet (or wrapped in another bag) for at least 1 day and up to 3 days, turning the bird over every day (or after 12 hours if brining for only 1 day).

Remove turkey from bag and pat dry with paper towels. Place turkey, uncovered, back on the baking sheet. Return it to the refrigerator for at least 4 hours and up to 12 hours to dry out the skin (this helps crisp it).

When you are ready to cook the turkey, remove it from the refrigerator and allow it to come to room temperature for 1 hour.

Heat oven to 450 degrees. In the bottom of a large roasting pan, add cider and enough wine to fill the pan to a 1/4-inch depth. Add half the onions, the remaining 6 garlic cloves and the bay leaves. Stuff remaining onion quarters and lemon quarters into the turkey cavity. Brush turkey skin generously with oil or melted butter.

Place turkey, breast side up, on a roasting rack set inside the roasting pan. Transfer pan to the oven and roast 30 minutes. Cover breast with aluminum foil. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue roasting until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of a thigh reaches 165 degrees, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours more. Transfer turkey to a cutting board to rest for 30 minutes before carving.

— By Melissa Clark

Roast Turkey Breast

Time: 1 hour

Yield: 4 to 10 servings

Roasting a whole turkey breast for Thanksgiving, rather than an entire bird, offers a few clear advantages. It cuts roasting time at least in half, reduces the hassle of carving, and frees you to create more interesting side dishes. But perhaps the best argument for roasting a breast is that you can produce white meat that is truly moist, as opposed to the dried-out white meat that results from roasting a whole turkey until the legs are cooked through. A breast of about 3 pounds is fine for a party of four, while one weighing 6 pounds or more can serve about 10.

1 3- to 6-pound turkey breast

2 tablespoons olive oil or melted butter

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat oven to 450 degrees. Place turkey in roasting pan; brush with oil or butter, and season with salt and pepper.

Place turkey in oven, and roast for 40 to 60 minutes, depending on size, basting with the pan juices every 15 minutes or so. Begin checking every few minutes with an instant-read thermometer; turkey is ready when the thermometer reads 155 degrees. Remove the turkey from the oven, and let it rest for 5 to 10 minutes (during which time its internal temperature will rise to about 160 degrees) before carving and serving.

— By Mark Bittman

Mojo Turkey

Time: 6 hours, plus marinating

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

You need not conjure New England with your Thanksgiving turkey. This recipe nods to what happened when Cuban culture drifted onto the Thanksgiving tables of south Florida, with a bird dressed in a marinade of sour oranges (a mixture of orange and lime juice works as well) mixed with a lot of garlic and oregano. Serve the turkey with black beans and white rice on the side — and a Key lime pie for dessert.

1 12- to 14-pound turkey, giblets and neck removed

2 heads of garlic, peeled and chopped

2 tablespoons ground cumin

2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more to taste

2 tablespoons black pepper, plus more to taste

2 cups sour orange juice, or 1 cup fresh orange juice and 1 cup fresh lime juice

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup fresh oregano leaves, roughly chopped

1 orange, cut into quarters

1 lime, cut into quarters

1 small yellow onion, peeled and cut into quarters

Rinse turkey well in cold water and pat very dry with paper towels.

Make the marinade: Combine garlic, cumin, salt and pepper in a large mixing bowl and mash the mixture together with the back of a kitchen spoon to make a kind of paste. Stir sour orange juice (or orange and lime juices) and oil into the paste and whisk to combine. Add oregano leaves and mix again. Reserve 1/2 cup of marinade and put aside.

Put turkey in a roasting pan that can fit in the refrigerator and cover with remaining marinade, making sure to get a lot of it into the turkey's open cavity. Cover and refrigerate overnight, or for at least a few hours. Baste a few times with marinade.

When ready to cook, heat oven to 450 degrees. Remove turkey from marinade and place on a clean cutting board. Discard marinade and clean roasting pan well. Return turkey to roasting pan, tuck the tips of the wings under the bird and shower it with salt and pepper. Place orange, lime and onion quarters in the turkey's cavity, then truss its legs together with cotton string. Roast turkey, uncovered, in the oven for 30 minutes.

Reduce oven heat to 325 degrees. Baste turkey with pan juices, and add remaining marinade to the pan. Continue roasting turkey, basting every 30 minutes and tenting it with foil if the skin is turning too dark, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh without touching bone registers 165 degrees, about 2 hours 45 minutes to 3 hours more. Transfer to a cutting board or platter and allow to rest at least 30 minutes before carving.

— By Sam Sifton