Thanksgiving Day Prep 101- Turkey Basics
Turkey day is upon us! Those of you who volunteered to host guests, without much regard for what the dinner entails, may feel a bit stressed right now, especially if you’ve done zero preparation. Don’t fret, you still have plenty of time to plan a deliciously memorable Thanksgiving feast, and, using my quick Turkey Day tips, it’ll come together effortlessly. This first post will focus on the star of the show- the turkey!
Turkey- Buying The Day’s Superstar
If you’ve never roasted a turkey, it’s really not that hard when you pay attention to TST: timing, seasoning, and temperature. Before we get into that, you’ll need to purchase a turkey. Today’s turkeys come with a plethora of labels, here’s what they really convey:
– Natural means the turkey was minimally processed with no artificial ingredients. It offers no inclination on how the turkey was raised, i.e. humane, or vegetarian diet.
– Cage-free sounds humane, however most turkeys are raised cage-free….in crowded warehouses.
– Antibiotic-free means the turkey did not ingest or was injected with any antibiotics.
– Free-range turkeys can be kept indoors, but have access to the outdoors for more than half their lives.
– Humanely raised is a term the USDA hasn’t defined, so it can be quite subjective. However, most producers will follow the phrase with clarification such as, “Humanely raised roaming on a wide, green pasture.”
There are also third party labels which, in my opinion, offer the most truthful detailing of a turkey’s life. An outside organization comes in to monitor and inspect producers per the organization’s guidelines in order for a producer to earn a label. A few examples are:
– Animal Welfare Approved, a part of A Greener World organization which ensures turkeys are allowed enough space to stretch, run, and perch.
– Certified Humane is run by the non-profit Humane Farm Animal Care which has specific guidelines outlining light, space allotment, and air quality. These turkeys never see the inside of a cage.
– Global Animal Partnership labels are found at Whole Foods. The 5-level rating systems takes into account various aspects of an animal’s life, such as food, space, and crowding to form a better picture for the consumer.
You’ll find plenty of arguments for one type over another to include more or less breast meat, more or less juice, and tenderness. Oftentimes the more guidelines followed, the more expensive the turkey. It really comes down to personal beliefs and preference, so I advise you to read more into the topic and choose a label you feel comfortable purchasing.
Frozen or fresh?
Easy, frozen. Unless you’re purchasing your fresh turkey on site, most turkeys sold in supermarkets are frozen, to include the “fresh” ones that the supermarket merely thawed. Just allot three to four days to defrost in the fridge, depending on size. Side note, this is where you need to begin considering timing.
Considering Seasoning in Timing
My mother never brined our turkeys growing up, and they still tasted good. However, always wanting to be different, I’ve been wet brining for a few years now, with the exception of a dry brine last year. I find wet brining the bird elevates the flavor and juiciness the most, which is why I’ll take the 48-72 hours to submerge the bird in its seasoning punch, and find space in the fridge.
Considering defrosting and brining, I know I need to buy my turkey by the Thursday before Thanksgiving, exactly a week before Thanksgiving.
PLANNING MOMENT: Decide how you’ll plan to cook your turkey and how much time it’ll entail, then set your no later than purchase date. Most grocery stores allow consumers to reserve a bird, especially those with third party labels, so use that system to your advantage. You’ll need about 1.5 lb of turkey per guest if you want to guarantee seconds and some leftovers.
Thanksgiving Day TST
Timing- You’ve chosen your turkey preparation technique, now you’ll need to do some math.
– How much time does your method (roasting, frying, spatchcock) take per the poundage?
– Do you need to prepare prior to heat application? For example I remove my turkey from the brine, let him dry a bit before smearing herbed butter under his skin. I take my time and chat with whoever’s in the kitchen, so I allot an hour. It’s also always a good idea to have a room temperature turkey going into the oven or fryer for even cooking, so even if you’re not smearing your bird with butter, allow it 30 minutes to sit on the counter prior to cooking.
– How long does the bird rest when it’s finished cooking? Most people recommend 30 minutes to 1 hour to allow the juices to settle. Remember to keep the turkey covered with foil so it does stay nice and warm though.
Once you’re added up all the time required, subtract it from your family’s traditional dinner time. Now you know when to start getting the turkey ready.
PLANNING MOMENT: Set an alarm or write out time notes prior to Thanksgiving, for example, I initially put my turkey in a 500 degree oven for 30 minutes then lower to 350 and baste every 30-45 minutes. The day before, I set multiple alarms indicating each step on my phone to stay organized.
Seasoning- You likely already have a turkey recipe in mind, but I’ll use my seasoning method as an example.
– Prep- gather all the ingredients and even mix spices ahead of time so you’re ready to go on turkey day. I make an herbed butter, essentially butter with various chopped herbs and citrus zest. The butter gets taken out of the fridge first thing in the morning to soften. Then I chop the herbs and stuff the turkey cavity with citrus and more herbs. Mix the herbs with the butter, don’t forget salt and pepper. Then, throughout the roasting process I’ll baste the turkey with the melted butter and turkey juices on the bottom of the pan. Yes it’s fattening, and no I don’t care because it’s delicious and happens once a year.
– Browning is flavor. That crispy outside is flavorful and offers a decadent, salty-herb contrast (if you seasoned correctly), yet sometimes the turkey’s breast browns faster than the legs or vice versa. Keep foil handy to cover any parts that are browning too quickly and you’ll avoid a blackened situation.
PLANNING MOMENT: Be sure you have foil on hand. If you want to experiment with turkey seasonings there’s plenty of ways to go: citrus with thyme and sage, spicy cajun, apples and warm spices, and simply peppered with bright lemon. Gather the ingredients and prep in advance anything you can.
Temperature- I begin ridiculously hot (500ºF) , then bring it down low (350ºF) for a slow roast. This play of temperature locks in the juices and cooks evenly. If you’re frying, you’ll need to constantly check the oil temperature for fluctuations and have additional oil on hand to keep the turkey covered. For doneness, don’t rely on those plastic thermometers that come embedded in the turkey, and be wary of electric probe timers.
– Know how to use your timer correctly, which means stick if directly into the meatiest part (the breast) as well as the inner thigh, without touching surrounding bone. My experience with probe thermometers, where you insert the probe while the turkey is roasting and a display kept outside the oven keeps track of the internal temperature, hasn’t been phenomenal. A couple of Thanksgivings ago my brand new probe thermometer indicated the turkey’s internal temperature was done, yet I had calculated another 2 hours of roasting. I ignored the thermometer, and the turkey came out perfectly cooked. The lesson here is estimating 20 minutes per pound will give you a trustworthy length of time the turkey needs to roast so don’t begin using the thermometer until the last hour of cooking.
PLANNING MOMENT: Turkeys are cooked with they reach an internal temperature of 165ºF. However, food continues to cook once removed from its heat source, so pull your turkey out when it reaches 155ºF to avoid an overcooked, dry bird.
Slicing- There are plenty of online videos demonstrating slicing turkeys, I advise you watch one. The key is to separate the breast lobes then limbs from the cavity. As with most hands-on tasks, this is best viewed, so here’s my favorite carving technique demonstrated by Alton Brown.
Even a week from Thanksgiving is enough time to devote carefully turkey consideration. Based on your personal beliefs and what’s available in your area, choosing a turkey is easy if you know what the various labeling really means. Paying attention to TST: timing, seasoning, and temperature, guides the rest of your preparation, to include when to begin pre-turkey day seasoning, the temperatures and duration you’ll be cooking the bird, and allotted bird resting time. Good TST reliance ensures your bird arrives at the table juicy, flavorful, and hot.
Check out the second installment of Thanksgiving Day Prep 101- Planning The Whole Meal, for ideas on organizing your feast from appetizers to dessert.