By Karen Ilhardt
Corporate Home Economist
The holidays often center around a turkey as the main part of the feast, so use these helpful tips for an even-better bird. Attention to time and temperature will yield a moist, mouthwatering main course that earns rave reviews. It's also a good idea to prepare a few extra pounds so there are planned leftovers for future meals.
There are several options when purchasing a turkey: fresh or frozen, whole or pieces, Tom or Hen. The choice is yours, but plan to purchase 1 pound of whole turkey per person.
When choosing a frozen bird, allow plenty of time for thawing. A general rule of thumb is to plan 5 hours per pound when thawing in the refrigerator. Simply keep the bird in the original package, place it in a pan with sides able to collect the moisture, and place in the refrigerator (bottom shelf is best to avoid cross-contamination). This method will take a 16-pound turkey 2 _ to 3 days to thaw.
A quicker - yet safe - way to thaw your turkey is by using the cold-water method. Place the wrapped, frozen turkey in a sink of cold water. Weigh it down so as much of the turkey is submerged as possible. Drain the old water and add fresh, cold water every 30 minutes. With this method, about a pound of meat is thawed with every water change. A 16-pound turkey will thaw in about 8 hours if you are diligent about changing the cold water. It is acceptable to use a combination of refrigerator and cold-water thawing methods. Just remember to keep the turkey out the “danger zone” temperature range of 41° to 135° F.
The USDA has standard label wording about thawing that is put on the turkey packaging. It will include directions for thawing birds in a microwave. Ralphs does not recommend this method since the outside portions may start cooking before the center is thawed. Temperatures are very important for food safety. Besides, many of us do not have a microwave with adequate space to allow a turkey to fit and rotate properly.
Purchasing a fresh turkey will eliminate the need to thaw. Once a bird is thawed, you should roast, grill or smoke it within 2 days.
The most common method of cooking turkey remains the oven. Commercial oven bags are available to help keep the bird moist, reduce baking time and assist with cleanup. Follow the manufacturer's directions for cooking times and temperature. Generally, cooking a turkey at 325° to 350° in an oven will take about 12 minutes per pound, but check the label on the turkey package for specific cooking times. Add 20 minutes rest time at the end of cooking to allow for easy carving. This time is a wonderful opportunity to make the drippings into gravy. If grilling, smoking or frying your turkey, be sure to follow the directions for each appliance.
To prepare the turkey, remove the outer netting and plastic. Save the reference/cooking directions. Rinse the bird well under cold water, remove the giblet/gravy packets (if included) and pat dry. For added flavor, separate the top skin from the meat and rub a seasoned butter between the layers, place fresh lemons or herbs in the cavity, or use a flavor injector.
When you're ready to start cooking, select an ovenproof pan with sides to catch the drippings (and prevent an oven fire). Tuck the wings under to prevent burning. The legs can be secured with the hock lock, tied with butcher string, or remain loose. Placing the turkey on a rack will keep it from baking onto the pan. Add about _ inch of water to the bottom of the pan to help keep the turkey moist. To get that picture-perfect browned turkey breast, use heavy-duty aluminum foil to make a “tent.” Crease a piece of the foil and place it over the turkey breast, leaving a 1” gap between bird and foil. Secure the two ends of the foil down on the long sides of the pan. Leave the other two ends open for heat circulation. Put in the preheated 325° F oven for 1 hour. Remove the foil tent for the remaining cook time to brown the skin.
The oven temperature, along with the weight of the turkey, will affect the time needed to properly cook the meat. The USDA and Ralphs recommend cooking the turkey to a safe internal temperature of 165° F. The best way to ensure it's hot enough is by using a meat thermometer. There are several types available. The “pop up” thermometers that often come placed in the birds are usually only accurate for turkeys weighing less than 12 pounds. To be on the safe side, check the internal temperature with a reliable, calibrated meat thermometer. The larger, ovenproof dial thermometer is placed in the bird for the entire cooking time. For the smaller, quick-read thermometer, use it toward the end of the cooking time. Remove the pan from the oven and test the temperature in several locations, about 20 seconds for each reading. Both types of meat thermometers should be placed in the thickest part of the breast without touching the bone. It is not recommended to eat undercooked meat. Whatever cooking method is used, make sure you have adequate time to cook the bird thoroughly. Do not partially cook the turkey; store it in the fridge or freezer and finish the cooking at a later time.
The importance of timing and temperature continues after the meal too. Ralphs has a “2-hour” rule for food safety. Once a food is purchased or served, no more than 2 hours should pass before returning the food to a safe temperature in the refrigerator. For the leftover turkey meat, remove it from the bone, place in an airtight container, and refrigerate or freeze it. Do this even if the meat will be used for a meal or snack later that same day.
If you have any questions on thawing, preparing or storing your turkey, we're happy to help! Call our toll-free Customer Service Center line at 1-800-632-6900. The hours are generally Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 12 a.m. EST (hours may vary). The Customer Service Center will be closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
This Thanksgiving, remember that cooking time and temperature are key factors to having a SAFE, delicious turkey dinner. Have a healthy and happy holiday!