While having turkey on the holiday table is a must for many households, there is some disagreement on the type and size of turkey to buy, as well as how to thaw and cook it, said Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts.
In addition, the experts said, this holiday season the challenge of selecting and cooking a holiday turkey is further complicated by difficulties within the food supply chain. Many expect there to be a shortage of smaller frozen and fresh turkeys.
“Of course, there are also an array of opinions on the best way to prepare and cook a turkey as well,” said Odessa Keenan, AgriLife Extension specialist for the agency’s Dinner Tonight! program. “Our purpose here is to try and provide some general guidance on how to choose and cook a turkey and address some of the easier and more generally known and used preparation and cooking techniques.”
What type and size turkey should I buy?
David Anderson, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension economist in the Department of Agriculture Economics, said a drop in production from last year is driving up the cost of turkey. It could also mean it might be harder to find the exact size and type of turkey you want.
“Turkey numbers and pounds produced are at their lowest numbers since 2015, causing the wholesale price per pound to increase by about 17%,” he said.
Anderson said decreased consumer demand combined with food supply chain complications and higher production costs, such as the cost of corn and other feed, can cut into producer profitability and lead to less production.
There are some essential factors to consider before buying that holiday turkey, said Audrey McElroy, Ph.D., a professor and AgriLife Extension specialist in the Department of Poultry Science at Texas A&M University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“It doesn’t really matter whether you buy a fresh or frozen turkey,” McElroy said. “There is no real difference in taste. And consumers shouldn’t be impressed if the packaging says the turkey is hormone-free or raised without hormones because it’s federally prohibited to introduce these to either turkeys or chickens.”
She said when buying a turkey be sure to check the packaging for any rips, tears, holes or leakage as this may indicate it was handled roughly or indifferently when transported or stocked.
Number of guests
The most important factor in determining the size of a holiday turkey to buy is the number of guests you are planning to feed.
“The general rule is to buy 1 to 1.5 pounds of turkey per person,” McElroy said. “You may also purposely want to have some extra turkey for leftovers, so you should also consider that when choosing a size.”
Time is another factor in your decision in the type and size of turkey to buy.
If you don’t have a lot of time to wait for your turkey to thaw, then buying a fresh one is probably a better option. It typically takes 24 hours for each 4-5 pounds of turkey to thaw in the refrigerator, so that’s about two to three days of thawing for an average-size holiday turkey prior to the day you plan to cook it.
“It’s best to cook a fresh turkey within a day or two of purchase to be sure it is at its best quality and safety,” she said.
Thaw the turkey in the refrigerator and not at room temperature. It is not necessary to wash the turkey before preparing it. For faster thawing, submerge the turkey in a cold-water bath. Do not use hot water as that may promote bacterial growth. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. Defrosting a turkey in this manner requires about a half-hour per pound.
“Due to time and other constraints, some people may prefer to buy a turkey breast instead of a whole turkey,” McElroy said. “It usually takes about a day or two for the average 6-pound frozen turkey breast to thaw.”
She said buying a turkey breast is typically a good option for people with less time to prepare a turkey and/or a lesser amount of refrigerator or oven space. For a turkey breast, estimate about a half to three-quarters of a pound per person.
McElroy said another way to save some time on turkey preparation is to buy a basted or self-basting whole turkey that has already been marinated or injected.
According to Keenan, another time-dependent aspect of turkey preparation is if you elect to wet brine the bird, which consists of placing it in a salt, stock and spice solution to prepare it for oven cooking. Wet brining usually requires from 12-24 hours.
Another consideration for the size of turkey is capacity — both the capacity to store the bird as well as cook it.
“Make sure your refrigerator can accommodate the size of turkey you plan to cook,” said Julie Prouse, an associate in the AgriLife Extension Food Safety Education program.
“You should store the bird on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator so the moisture from the thawing bird doesn’t drip on other foods and possibly contaminate them,” Prouse said. “Always remember to consider food safety when storing, preparing, cooking and serving your bird.”
She said an often-overlooked aspect of buying the right-sized turkey is also the size of the oven opening and the depth of the oven.
“You want to make sure the turkey isn’t stuffed into your oven,” she said. “There should be adequate room for the turkey and any items you’ll need to remove it, such as oven gloves.”
How to prepare a turkey
In preparing a turkey for cooking, most people prefer to brine the turkey before putting it into the oven to cook, Keenan said.
“There are basically two types of brining,” Keenan said. “There is wet brining in which you inject the bird or marinate it in wet solution and dry brining in which you apply a salt and spice mixture directly onto the bird’s skin.”
Keenan said both types of brining have positives and negatives.
“Wet brining takes time and requires a good amount of refrigerator space,” she said. “While wet brining makes for a moist, tender bird, the skin is usually not as crisp as with dry brining. With dry brining, you get crispier skin, but the meat may be a little drier.”
She said stuffing the turkey and the ingredients for making the stuffing are mostly a matter of personal taste, and there are many recipes for stuffing.
“We don’t recommend actually stuffing the cavity of the bird with your stuffing recipe as it can be difficult to bring everything to the proper internal temperature to ensure safe consumption for the whole family,” she said. “But if you feel you must stuff your bird, remember to check the internal temperature of the stuffing as well as the turkey meat before you serve it.”
She warned that if buying and cooking a whole turkey it is important to remove the giblet packet from inside the cavity.
“Some people, especially those who are new to cooking a whole turkey, may not realize these items are in there,” she said. “It’s not unusual for them to be overlooked and inadvertently get cooked inside the turkey.”
She said she prefers to truss the turkey to prevent the wings from burning as it cooks.
“Set the turkey on a clean surface with its legs pointing toward you, then turn the wings around so their tips point toward the bird’s front,” she said. “Then tuck the tips of the wings inward under the turkey. The weight of the turkey should be sufficient will hold them down.”
How to cook a turkey
There are many ways to cook a holiday turkey, Keenan said, but the most traditional way is using a roasting pan or sheet tray to cook the bird inside the oven.
The general rule for determining cooking time for a turkey is to allow 13-15 minutes per pound.
“You’ll want to cover the contact surfaces with aluminum foil to help cook the bird more evenly and keep the clean-up mess to a minimum,” Keenan said. “Whether or not you stuff the turkey, place an aluminum foil tent over the top to keep it from burning. Preheat the oven to 325-350 degrees and place the prepared turkey on the oven’s lowest rack level.”
Keenan suggested allowing the turkey to cook for at least one hour before opening the oven to begin basting.
Remove the turkey from the oven and remove the foil from the turkey. Baste the turkey every 20-30 minutes until it’s almost completely cooked, remembering to put the foil back over the turkey between bastings. For the last half-hour or so of cooking time, remove the foil and bring the oven temperature up to 425-450 degrees.
“To baste, tilt the pan and use a turkey baster or spoon to scoop up the liquids at the bottom and then drizzle them over the turkey,” she said. “The basting helps keep the meat juicy and cools the breast meat so it cooks more evenly with the legs and thighs.”
She said toward the final 30 to 45 minutes of cooking, you can smear some melted butter or oil over the top of the turkey to help crisp up the skin and give it a rich, dark-brown color.
Prouse noted a vital tool in the cooking process is a food thermometer for checking the interior temperature of the turkey – and the stuffing if the bird has been stuffed.
“A good food thermometer is possibly your most important item when cooking a holiday turkey,” Prouse said. “It allows you to tell how well your turkey is cooking and helps avoid any frozen or cold spots. During cooking, check the temperature in the thickest part of the breast and thigh. If the bird is stuffed, make sure to check the stuffing temperature as well.”
She said the interior of the turkey and the stuffing should be heated to at least 165 degrees to ensure any pathogens are eliminated. It will usually take about three hours to cook a 10-pound turkey – a little longer if stuffed.
Once the turkey is completely cooked and is at the right interior temperature, remove it from the oven and let it sit for 20-30 minutes with the tent foil still atop.
If the bird is stuffed, there is no hurry to remove the stuffing. Allow the stuffing to cool while the turkey is cooling, then remove the stuffing just before you’re ready to serve.”
How to deep fry a turkey
Safety is probably the most important part of deep-frying a holiday turkey, Prouse said.
“You want to make sure the deep fryer is outdoors in a safe place and away from the house, garage or other covered areas,” she said. “Be sure to accommodate for any oil displacement from the weight of the turkey and ensure there is space to use the utensils needed for cooking. Wear heat-resistant gloves and have back-up utensils ready in the event you drop one into the hot oil.”
She said in the event of a fire, do not use water but rather have flour or a fire extinguisher handy to help quench the flame. If the fire is serious, call the nearest fire department.
Prouse also said it is extremely important to make sure the turkey is completely defrosted and to slowly place the turkey in the deep fryer to minimize oil splatter.
Keenan suggested heating the oil to a temperature of 250-275 degrees to start, then slowly dunking the bird into the fryer and raising the cooking temperature to about 325-350 degrees.
“Use an oil that won’t smoke at higher temperatures,” she said. “A 30-quart deep fryer will usually accommodate an entire 10-12-pound bird, but usually not any more than a 14 pounder.”
“You’ll want to use a dry rub for the fried turkey,” she said. “Avoid putting any water on the surface of the turkey as this may cause splatter. It’s also not necessary to truss a turkey before frying as it cooks more evenly than in a conventional oven.”
Deep-fried turkey cooks at about 3-4 minutes per pound, so a 10-pound turkey will cook in only 30-40 minutes. Stick a meat thermometer into the deepest part of the thigh and breast to be sure the interior temperature is at least 165 degrees.
“When ready, slowly remove the fried turkey and set it on a rimmed baking sheet with a wire rack to let any excess oil drip off,” she said. “Then place foil over the bird and let it sit for about 15-20 minutes before you begin carving.”
Prouse and Keenan agreed that while cooking a turkey for the holidays can be challenging, it is worth the trouble, and most guests truly appreciate the extra time and effort that has been taken in preparing this holiday classic.