USDA Turkey Fundamentals
by Pat Moriarty, R.D.
Okay, so it's your turn to host the annual Thanksgiving feast for the entire family.
You've known for three years that your time was coming, but the advance warning
hasn't increased your comfort level. Aunt Sara has been cooking turkeys for forty years,
and Cousin Rachel is a gourmet cook. Can you tackle a turkey without being
traumatized? Believe it or not, taking care of "Tom"isn't that tough. Just follow our
"Turkey FUNdamentals" and your bird will turn out fine without a lot of toil and
trouble. The experts at USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline say that each November, both
novice and experienced cooks have the same basic questions on preparing a turkey. Here
are the answers.
How Big a Turkey Should I Buy?
You'll need about one pound per person, or a pound and a half per _1 person if you
have hearty eaters or want ample leftovers. If you're having an "open house" and
you're not quite sure how much meat you'll need, you could cook and carve an extra
bird a few days ahead.
When Should I Buy the Turkey?
While the quality and taste of frozen and fresh turkey are quite similar, the keeping
time is not. A frozen turkey can be purchased months in advance, but a fresh bird
should be bought only 1 to 2 days ahead.
What Kind of Turkey Should I BUY?
There are basically two types of raw birds to choose from--a prebasted bird (typical
ingredients include vegetable oil, broth, spices) or an unbasted bird to which nothing
has been added. Personal preference usually dictates this choice. USDA Grade A is the
highest quality grade for poultry and the one commonly found in stores. Grade A
poultry has good shape/structure, fat covering, and is free of pinfeathers and defects
such as cuts or bruises.
Is a 'Tom Better than a Hen?
Age, not gender, is the determining factor for tenderness. All turkeys in the market
are young, usually 4-6 months old. A hen generally weighs less than 16 pounds and a
Tom is usually over 16 pounds.
How Long Will It Take to Defrost a Turkey?
It's best to defrost your turkey in the refrigerator. The rule of thumb is a minimum
of 24 hours of defrost time to for every 5 pounds of turkey. Thus it can take 4-5 days to
defrost a 20-pound turkey. A completely thawed bird will last for an additional 1 to 2
days in they refrigerator once defrosted. If you need to speed up defrost time, it is safe
to defrost the bird in a large utility sink of cold water. Submerge the wrapped bird in
cold water. Check or change the water every 30 minutes to make sure the water remains
cold. Allow 30 minutes per pound to defrost this way.
How Long Should I Roast?
Roughly 15-18 minutes per pound for an unstuffed bird, and 18-24 minutes. per
pound for a stuffed bird. Have your oven preheated to 325o F. USDA HIGHLY
RECOMMENDS THE USE OF A MEAT THERMOMETER TO DETERMINE DONENESS.
A whole turkey is done when the temperature reaches 180o F in the inner thigh. A
breast is done at 170o F. The juices should run clear. Stuffing temperature should reach
at least 165o F. Still, cooking times do vary! Every year people wonder why their turkey
is done too early or too late. There are many reasons--oven temperature may not be
accurate, the turkey is still partially frozen in center or the roasting pan is too small and
heat flow is inhibited.
What Do I Do If the Turkey Is Done an Hour Ahead of Schedule?
It is safe to hold a turkey in the oven at meat thermometer to verify that the bird is
done--dark meat has reached 180o F and the stuffing 165o F. Keep the thermometer in
the meat. You will need to lower your oven temperature. Start by moving your oven
temperature to 200o F. ADJUST THE TEMPERATURE OF THE OVEN TO ASSURE
THAT THE TEMPERATURE OF THE TURKEY NEVER DROPS BELOW 140o F. Check
meat thermometer at several intervals to assure that 140o F is maintained. Keep the bird
covered so it doesn't dry out.
What Do I Do If the Turkeys Not Done on Time?
About the only thing you can do is keep cooking! You can turn the oven up slightly,
or cover the bird tightly with a lid if you haven't already done so. Do not keep opening
and closing the oven door to baste the bird or check its progress. This will only lower the
oven temperature and add to the cooking time.
Can You Roast the Turkey the Day Before?
Yes. In fact, more and more people are taking this route. However, for safety reasons,
the cooked bird must be deboned before being refrigerated. The carved meat should be
stored in shallow containers. The meat can then be reheated in the regular oven the
next day for approximately 10 minutes per pound. To prevent the meat from drying out,
add either the leftover meat drippings, gravy or turkey broth and cover with foil.
For additional questions on cooking your holiday bird, call USDA'S Meat and Poultry
Hotline. Normal hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, Eastern Time. In November, the
hours will be extended to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Hotline will also be open the weekend
before Thanksgiving, Nov. 21 and 22, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. On Thanksgiving Day, the lines
will operate 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Call 1-800-535-4555. Washington, D.C. area residents call