How To Prepare The Perfect Turkey
Thanksgiving is all about the turkey, so make sure you’re ready to deliver this year.
We all love the mashed potatoes, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, but the turkey is the cornerstone of the day. To ensure you have all the information you need to prepare the perfect bird, we’ve rounded up all our best tips and tricks.
Tips For Buying Turkey
- Purchase one pound of turkey per person to be served.
- This formula allows for the holiday meal plus a little left over for the prized turkey sandwich!
- There is no appreciable difference between female (hen) and male (tom) turkeys in tenderness, white/dark meat ratio or other eating qualities.
- If you are having a small gathering for the holiday, try other turkey products such as a turkey breast, tenderloins, cutlets, drumsticks, or thighs.
- You might also ask your butcher to cut a fresh whole bird in half. Roast one and freeze the other for a later occasion.
What is a self-basted turkey?
Self-basted turkeys have been injected or marinated in a solution which usually contains edible fat, natural broth, stock or water, and seasonings. Self-basted turkeys are labeled with the percentage of solutions and their ingredients. Choose un-basted turkeys – you don’t want to pay for water!
Fresh turkeys should be stored at 26 to 40°F. But frozen turkeys should be stored at 0°F or below. You can store a frozen bird for up to 12 months. This means you can snag a bird during value sales and hold onto it until Thanksgiving or buy an extra one to put on your smoker later on.
How To Thaw Your Turkey
You can thaw under refrigeration, in cold water, or the microwave:
- Refrigeration – Allow approximately 24 hours per five pounds to thaw in the refrigerator.
- Cold Water: Allow approximately 30 minutes per pound to thaw in cold water, which should be changed every 30 minutes.
- Do not use warm or hot water!
- Microwave – Follow the microwave manufacturer’s directions and begin to roast the turkey immediately following the microwave process.
Once thawed, keep turkey refrigerated at 40°F or below until it is ready to be cooked (with the exception of microwaved thawed turkey which should be cooked immediately).
To Smoke A Turkey
Smoked turkey doesn’t need a recipe as seasonings, ingredients and spices are not necessary. You can add a little salt, pepper or poultry seasoning, but the smoke provides the principle flavor.
Don’t be afraid, however, to get creative with that smoke by experimenting with different types of wood — hickory or mesquite being the most popular. Any chunks or chips of water-soaked hardwood or fruitwood will work, but do not use softwoods like pine, fir, cedar, or spruce as they will give the food a turpentine flavor and coat it with an ugly and inedible black pitch.
Also, instead of smoking with water, try wine or juices. Try Hickory Chips that had been soaked in a mixture of red wine and apple juice. This same liquid was then poured in the water pan and used for the smoking process.
Smoking time depends on the size of the turkey, the distance from the heat, temperature of the coals, as well as the outside air temperature. You can roughly estimate about 20 to 30 minutes per pound of turkey, but it’s important to use a meat thermometer to be sure your turkey is thoroughly cooked. The turkey is done when the food thermometer, placed in the inner thigh, reaches 180°F (be sure the thermometer is not touching the bone).
- Food safety is of primary concern when smoking turkey. Turkey breasts, drumsticks, wings, and whole turkeys are all suited for smoking, although for safety’s sake, stick with whole turkeys that weigh 12 pounds or less.
- Turkey is in the “Danger Zone,” where bacteria grows the fastest, between 40°F and 140°F. So when you’re cooking, you want to make sure keep the time in between that temperature to a minimum.
- Do not stuff a turkey destined for smoking. Because smoking takes place at a low temperature, it can take too long for the temperature of the stuffing to reach the required temperature of 165°F, not to mention that smoked stuffing has an undesirable flavor.
Steps For Grilling
- Use indirect heat to grill the turkey. Prepare the grill by removing top grill rack and opening all vents. Mound 50 to 60 briquettes in center of the lower grill rack or the bottom of grill and ignite briquettes. When coals become ash-gray — about 20 to 40 minutes — divide them into two equal parts, positioned on the outside edges of lower grill rack or bottom of grill.
- Place a foil drip pan or a double thickness of heavy-duty aluminum foil between the two piles of coals.
- Lightly grease the top grill rack before re-positioning it on the hot coals. Place the prepared turkey in the middle of the grill rack, directly over drip pan, and replace the lid on the grill.
- You can figure roughly 12 minutes cooking time per pound of turkey. Be sure to check turkey’s doneness by using a meat thermometer. Breast meat is ready at 170°F degrees, thigh meat at 180° F degrees.
- You can marinate the turkey by using a fork to make random holes over the entire bird.
- Place the turkey in a large, plastic cooking bag or clean plastic trash bag and pour in the marinade.
- Close the bag securely and let it marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
- Before cooking, scrape off excess marinade and discard.
- Do not re-use marinade to baste the turkey.
- Do not stuff a turkey that’s to be grilled as it can take too long for the temperature of the stuffing to reach the required temperature of 165°F.
- Keep the lid on the grill closed as much as possible to prevent heat loss.
5 Tips For Food Safety:
U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service shared five tips to ensure food safety this Thanksgiving. Be sure to keep these in mind when you’re doing holiday prep!
Don’t wash the turkey.
USDA does not recommend washing raw meat and poultry before cooking. This can cause bacteria to spread up to three feet away. Since cooking (baking, broiling, boiling, frying, or grilling) meat and poultry to the right temperature kills any bacteria, washing before is not necessary.
Use the refrigerator, the cold-water method, or the microwave to defrost.
There are three safe ways to defrost a turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave oven, as we mentioned above. Thawing food in the refrigerator is the safest method because the turkey will defrost at a consistent, safe temperature. Cold water and microwave thawing can also be used if your bird did not entirely defrost in the refrigerator.
Use a meat thermometer.
The only way to determine if a turkey is cooked is to check its internal temperature with a food thermometer. Check these three locations: the innermost part of the thigh, the innermost part of the wing, and the thickest part of the breast. Your thermometer should register 165°F in all three of these places. Using the food thermometer is the best way to ensure your turkey is cooked, but not overdone.
Don’t store food outside, even if it’s cold.
Storing food outside is not food safe for two reasons. The first is that animals, both wild and domesticated, can get into it. The second is temperature variation. Just like your car gets warm in the summer, a plastic food storage container in the sun can heat up and climb into the danger zone (above 40°F). The best way to keep that extra Thanksgiving food at a safe temperature (below 40°F) is in a cooler with ice.
Leftovers are good in the refrigerator for up to four days.
Cut the turkey off the bone and refrigerate it as soon as you can, within two hours of the turkey coming out of the oven. Leftovers will last for four days in the refrigerator, so if you know you won’t use them right away, pack them into freezer bags or airtight containers and freeze. For best quality, use your leftover turkey within four months. After that, the leftovers will still be safe, but can dry out or lose flavor.
No matter which way you decide to cook your turkey, enjoy it!
Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at Alewel’s!