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Weekend chef: How to choose a Turkey for Thanksgiving

Posted 12:45am on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012

Thanksgiving is around the corner so it is time to start thinking turkey!

For most people it has been a whole year since they bought their last turkey. So I figured I would put together this turkey “cheat sheet” refresher on how to pick out your Thanksgiving bird.

How Big?

When buying a whole turkey, both the National Turkey Federation (NTF) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends planning on one pound per person. This formula is supposed to include leftovers. I personally feel that this formula is a little light, especially if you are buying a small turkey were the meat-to-bone ratio is so much smaller than larger turkeys.

My rule of thumb is if the turkey is 12 pounds or under, plan on to 2 pounds per person. If it is over 12 pounds, plan on 1½ pounds per person. Now you will have some leftovers!

Don’t worry about the math, I fixed up this chart.

  Turkey Weight   Adult Portions
  8 to 12 pounds   4 to 6
  12 to 15 pounds   6 to 10
  15 to 18 pounds   10 to 12
  18 to 21 pounds   12 to 14
  21 to 24 pounds   14 to 16

Fresh or Frozen?

It really is personal preference, but there are some situations when you really need to buy one over the other.

For example, you must buy a frozen turkey if you are buying your turkey early, fresh turkeys don’t last long and must be cooked within a couple of days from purchase. Be sure to check the "use by" date when buying a fresh turkey.

On the other hand, you really need a fresh turkey if you are buying your turkey close to Thanksgiving. Frozen turkeys can take anywhere form 2 to 6 days to thaw out depending on size. So as a rule of thumb, you really need to have started thawing out your bird by the Saturday before Thanksgiving at the latest. So plan ahead!

The best method of thawing out a frozen turkey is in the refrigerator. It takes around 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds. Just place your turkey in its original wrapper on a tray or pan in the refrigerator and wait for it to thaw out. Remember, It takes around 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds, so it can take as long as 6 days for a 24 pound turkey. Here’s a chart with thaw times form the NTF.

Refrigerator Turkey Thawing Time

  Turkey Weight   Days for Thawing
  8 to 12 pounds   2 to 2.5 days
  12 to 16 pounds   2.5 to 4 days
  16 to 20 pounds   14 to 5 days
  20 to 24 pounds   5 to 6 days

If you did not plan ahead, you can try thawing your bird in cold water. Place bird in its original wrapper in cold water (do not use hot water). The water must be changed every 30 minutes. This method takes around 30 minutes for every pound. Here’s your chart.

COLD Water Turkey Thawing Time

  Turkey Weight   Hours for Thawing
  8 to 12 pounds   4 to 6 hours
  12 to 16 pounds   6 to 8 hours
  16 to 20 pounds   8 to 10 hours
  20 to 24 pounds   10 to 12 hours

I personally like fresh turkeys because I don’t like the hassle of thawing out the bird, but because fresh turkeys are perishable they do cost more.

Turkey fine print

OK, you have decided whether you want a fresh or frozen bird and what size it needs to be. Now it is time to pick out your turkey.

But wait! It actually is not that easy… It turns out there is a lot of fine print on the turkey wrapper. Here are some of the labeling terms and what they mean. Most of this terms come straight off the USDA and NTF website.

FRESH TURKEY: Turkey and cuts have never been below 26 °F (the temperature at which poultry freezes).

FROZEN TURKEY: Temperature of raw, frozen turkey is 0 °F or below.

BASTED, SELF BASTED or FLAVOR ENHANCED: Turkey has been injected or marinated with a solution containing butter or other edible fat, broth, stock or water plus spices, flavor enhancers and other approved substances.

KOSHER: Turkey prepared under rabbinical supervision that includes the use of salt.

NATURAL: Turkey containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.

ORGANIC: Turkey has the approval and certification of the USDA, which includes strict regulations on organic feed, free range access and no antibiotics

YOUNG TURKEY: Turkeys that are less than 8 months of age and are considered more tender. Domesticated turkeys grow real fast, so chances are it will be a young turkey.

FREE RANGE or FREE ROAMING: Turkey has been allowed access to the outside.

BROAD-BREASTED WHITE: The most common type of turkey raised in the United States. This farm-raised domesticated turkey yields a higher breast meat content and has white skin and feathers.

HERITAGE: Turkey breeds indigenous to the Americas, dating to early Colonial times. They have less breast meat than domesticated turkeys with a flavor some describe as gamy.

Wow, that is a lot of fine print.

So what do I buy?

When I buy a turkey I first look for a natural turkey since I plan to brine mine with salt before cooking. Self basted/flavor enhanced turkeys along with kosher turkeys already have salt added, so they should not be brined.

Then to avoid the hassle of thawing, I look for a fresh bird. -- But remember, fresh turkeys do cost more. So, if you want to save some money and have the time, frozen is the way to go.

This is basically the two things I look for, a fresh, natural bird.

Free range or organic are pluses, but can also raise price significantly.

I ended up buying my turkey at Sprouts. Their store brand turkey is fresh, natural, young and free range. Jackpot!

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