Talking Turkey: Get the Best From Your Bird

Experts offer tips for buying and cooking a tasty turkey

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Thanksgiving Day is a time-honored American tradition, a time for family gatherings and a holiday meal that encourages over-the-top decadence. And for many (some 97% of us), the thought of a Thanksgiving without turkey is heresy. We gobble up roughly 45 million turkeys to celebrate the annual holiday.

To help make sure your Thanksgiving dinner is safe, nutritious, and delicious, we asked the experts for some timely turkey tips.

A Little Background

The tom turkey, the larger male bird decorated with colorful plumage, has a long wattle -- a fleshy, wrinkled fold of skin hanging down from the throat -- and is known for his trademark "gobble." The hens are smaller and less colorful than the males, and make only a clicking sound.

Both males and females are raised extensively for their excellent meat (and for eggs). The most common breeds in the United States are the Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, and Bourbon Red.

We've all heard the legend about the first Thanksgiving: After a tough first year in America in 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated a successful fall harvest of fruits, corn, and other vegetables. They had beaten the odds, and for that, they were mighty thankful. The Pilgrims' Governor William Bradford proclaimed a day to give thanks that was shared by the new colonists and their Native American neighbors.

The tradition continued each year after the harvest, and in the late 1770s, the Continental Congress suggested a national Thanksgiving day. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. (President Franklin D. Roosevelt later declared that the holiday would be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.)

Turkey Prep 101

For most of us, there's no doubt that a turkey will be the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving feast. The only question: Should we buy it fresh or frozen?

Frozen birds tend to be less expensive, but they require more time to defrost properly.

"If you have the room to defrost a frozen turkey in your refrigerator, plan on one day to thaw [each] 4-5 pounds," recommends culinary nutritionist Jackie Newgent. Place the wrapped bird on a tray on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator so the juices won't contaminate other foods.

Another safe method of defrosting is to submerge the bird, breast side down, in cold water, and change the water every 30 minutes. With this method, thawing takes approximately 30 minutes per pound.

"Defrosting in the sink is time-consuming, and if you don't change the water to keep it cold, you risk the chance of bacterial contamination," advises Newgent.

For purists, nothing can compare with the mouth-watering aromas of slowly roasting a turkey to golden perfection in the oven. Deep-frying is a popular alternative cooking method, though it requires the right equipment and lots of oil.

If you prefer the crispy fried version, don't worry about the extra fat calories, says registered dietitian Newgent: "Thanksgiving only happens once a year, so just go for it and enjoy!"

Newgent also shares a few basic turkey-cooking tips:

  • Buy 1 pound of turkey per person. That will allow plenty for the feast and leftovers, too.
  • Make sure the bird is completely thawed before cooking; otherwise, it will not cook uniformly.
  • Cook the turkey to the proper temperature. A meat thermometer is the only way to ensure proper cooking to 180 degrees. Place the thermometer deep into the thigh, without touching the bone.
  • Slowly cooking the turkey at 325 degrees will result in the most moist and delicious meat. Higher temperatures can overcook or dry out the bird.
  • Rub the bird with olive oil and season lightly with salt, pepper, onion and garlic powders, and a little sage. The rest of the meal is so flavorful that you shouldn't overpower the bird with heavy seasonings, Newgent says.
  • Baste oven-baked birds with their juices and a little butter for added moistness and rich color.
  • Cover the drumsticks and breast with foil when the bird is two-thirds done to prevent drying and scorching.
  • Plan to take advantage of all cooking surfaces when you prepare the meal. Use shallow baking dishes that fit on an oven shelf under the turkey. Prepare other dishes on the stovetop and in the microwave.

Safety First

It's always important to follow safe food handling practices to reduce the risk of food-borne illness. This year, consumers may also be worried about the potential for bird flu in their turkeys. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service reassures us that bird flu (avian influenza) is not transmissible by eating poultry.

The real concern, as always, is viruses and bacterial contamination. So keep these safety tips in mind on Thanksgiving (and anytime you're preparing food):

  • Wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling food.
  • Prevent cross-contamination by keeping raw foods separate from cooked foods.
  • Wash hands, cutting boards, utensils, sink, countertops and anything that comes in contact with raw turkey with hot, soapy water.
  • Sanitize cutting boards with a weak bleach solution (1 teaspoon bleach in 1 quart water).

To Stuff or Not to Stuff?

In many families, stuffing the bird has long been the preferred method of cooking. But the Department of Agriculture advises against this practice because of the risk of food-borne illness.

"It is difficult for the stuffing to reach the internal temperature of 165 degrees even when the meat is done," warns Diane Van, USDA meat and poultry hotline manager.

So instead of putting the stuffing inside the bird, experts advise, cook it separately in a casserole dish.

Cooking Time

The National Turkey Federation and USDA suggest following these guidelines -- along with using a meat thermometer -- when roasting an unstuffed bird:

  • 8-12 pounds: 2 3/4 to 3 hours
  • 12-14 pounds: 3 to 3 3/4 hours
  • 14-18 pounds: 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours
  • 18-20 pounds: 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours
  • 20-24 pounds: 4 1/2 to 5 hours

As you prepare for your upcoming celebration, keep these safety and preparation tips in mind to make sure you enjoy a happy and healthy holiday.

Originally published November 17, 2005.
Medically updated November 10, 2006.

SOURCES: News release, American Dietetic Association/ConAgra Foods Foundation. University of Minnesota Poultry University. National Turkey Federation web site. Jackie Newgent, RD, culinary nutritionist; national spokesperson, American Dietetic Association/Con Agra Foods home food safety program. Diane Van, manager, U.S. Department of Agriculture meat and poultry hotline.

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