Turkey is a large, widely domesticated North American bird with white plumage and a bare, wattled head and neck. The name turkey was originally applied to an African bird now known as the guinea fowl, which was believed to have originated in Turkey. When the Europeans came upon the American turkey, they thought it was the same bird as the African guinea fowl, and so gave it the name turkey, although the two species are quite distinct. Turkeys are traditionally eaten at Christmas in Britain, and Thanksgiving in the United States.
Raw turkey skin color is off white to cream-colored. Under the skin the color ranges from a pink to a lavender blue depending on the amount of fat just under the skin.
When the turkey has reached an internal temperature of 165 °F (82 °C) as measured in the thigh away from any bone by an appropriate meat thermometer (any juices should be clear), it should be safe to eat. When there is a pink color in safely cooked turkey, it is due to the myoglobin in tissues which can form a heat-stable color. This can also happen when smoking, grilling or oven cooking a turkey.
How to buy a turkey
Fresh turkeys are considered the best but are very expensive compared with frozen. Often, during holiday seasons, a fresh turkey needs to be ordered in advance from a butcher or meat counter at a supermarket. Frozen turkeys can be bought well ahead of time from a supermarket. If a turkey is frozen it must be properly defrosted inside a refrigerator or cooler before cooking.
What size bird?
There are a number of factors that are generally taken into account when choosing a size. The most important being the number of guests, with about 1 pound per person normally being plenty. Other things worth considering are:
- The bigger the bird, the greater the meat to bone ratio. Small birds tend to be very bony, with little meat. If there are only a few guests consider using a large chicken instead.
- For frozen turkeys, the bigger the bird the longer it takes to defrost. As defrosting takes several days, there is little point in buying a huge frozen turkey the day before preparation.
- Some domestic ovens can be too small for a large bird.
Even though a frozen turkey is a veritable meat glacier, it is still quite possible it may be warm enough for bacteria to grow on its surface and meat yet still have a frozen center. A turkey with a frozen center will not cook properly thereby increasing the risk of food poisoning. For this reason, it is essential to thoroughly defrost the turkey correctly.
The best method
The bird should be placed in a tray in the bottom of a refrigerator, and left for at least 5 hours per pound. A typical turkey will take around three days to defrost. Some home cooks report that 5 hours per pound is far too optimistic for a large turkey. (this is because the surface area, through which heat is gained, increases with the square of the length while the volume of meat increases with the cube of the length)
A quick method
In the event that a turkey is purchased at the last minute and needs to be defrosted relatively quickly, as this will still take several hours, the bird can be unwrapped, and placed in a bowl of cool, lightly running water. On no account should warm water be used. It is dangerous and will encourage bacteria to grow on the skin of the turkey.
When cooking a whole turkey, use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh without touching bone. The internal temperature should reach a minimum of 165 °F. For optimum safety and uniform doneness, it is recommended to cook stuffing outside the bird. If stuffing the bird, the center of the stuffing must reach 165 °F (74 °C). Turkey breast should reach 165 °F (77 °C). Drumsticks, thighs and wings should be cooked until they reach an internal temperature of 165 °F . However, uniform temperature is difficult to obtain due to location and thickness of the meat. There are many techniques, good and bad, which will create a safe, moist, and delicious bird throughout.
Consult the following information for safe turkey cooking directions.
Roasting a turkey
There are many of recipes for stuffing: chestnut, sage and onion (flavored bread), and sausage are the most traditional. It is the conventional "wisdom" of the modern day that the body cavity should not be stuffed, as it will prolong cooking time a great deal and "dry out the bird".
Contrary to this opinion, it is possible to stuff a turkey without prolonging cooking time or drying out the bird. The stuffing must be fully cooked, piping hot (In addition to increasing cooking time, uncooked stuffing--especially sausage--presents a health risk.), and quite moist. Likewise, one must not pack the bird's cavity tight with stuffing. Instead, it should be loosely spooned in. One can stuff both the "main cavity" of the bird and the volume between the skin and the breast to some extent, although the latter will impart stuffing flavor to the breast meat, and some diners may object.
Making a separate dish of the stuffing is of course easier, both for cooking and at the table, and avoids getting turkey innards mixed into the stuffing.
Another preparation method is to brine or marinate the turkey overnight. Brining with a low to moderate amount of salt in enough water can result in just the right amount of water entering the meat. Too little salt can result in the meat being too watery while too much salt can actually dehydrate the meat.
Some people like to place herbs with or without an onion or an orange in the body cavity to provide flavor.
Turkeys have a large breast which can become dry if overcooked. There are several ways to prevent this, though consider that some guests may enjoy the chewiness.
One method is to make a 'tent' out of aluminum foil. The breast should be covered in butter or a cooking oil (olive oil will work) and the bird should be completely wrapped in the foil that is sealed loosely at the top to include an air space. This allows the bird to very mildly brown while steaming in its own juices. Alternatively, one can cook the bird at a high temperature for a short time (30 minutes) and then only cover the breast and body with foil, leaving the dark meat uncovered, reduce heat, and continue roasting. It is 'strongly' recommended that the cook pre-fit the foil "breastplate" and have it set aside for use 'before' starting the roasting, as this is far less likely to result in singed fingers. Some people like to lay streaky bacon over the breast--a practice known as larding--to keep it moist and add flavor.
For single-temperature roasting, the oven should be set to medium (gas mark 4 180°C/350°F). The cooking time depends on the size of the bird. Approximate times are given in the table below.
|Weight of Turkey||Approximate cooking time|
|10-12 lb (4.5-5.5 kg)||3 hours|
|12-14 lb (5.5-6.5 kg)||3 hours and 30 mins|
|14-16 lb (6.5-7.5 kg)||4 hours|
|16-18 lb (7.5-8 kg)||4 hours and 15 mins|
|18-20 lb (8-9 kg)||4 hours and 30 mins|
|20-22 lb (9-10 kg)||4 hours and 45 mins|
|22-24 lb (10-11 kg)||5 hours|
The times given are only approximate. The best way to tell if a turkey is cooked is to test it.
- To test with a skewer: Insert a skewer or a long thin knife into the part of the turkey where the thigh joins the body. If the turkey is cooked, the juices will run clear. If there is any blood in the juices, the turkey is not yet thoroughly cooked.
- To test with a thermometer: Insert a turkey thermometer into the thigh. The turkey is not cooked until the thigh has reached a temperature of 185°F. Alternatively, a remote probe thermometer can be inserted into the bird before it goes into the oven, permitting constant monitoring of temperature without opening the oven door.
Double-temperature cooking (pre-browning) starts at 400 °F for 30 minutes, followed by putting on the foil "breastplate" and finishing roasting at 300 °F. This method requires thermometer testing for doneness.
- ""The Brown bag (grocery bag) Roasting"" (noted below) has been a popular method of cooking meats in the past but due to the changes in the current methods of making grocery bags, according to the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service, the glue and ink on brown bags are not intended for use as cooking materials and may give off harmful fumes. In addition, brown bags are usually made from recycled materials nowadays and are not sanitary. Thankfully there are alternate cooking materials that give comparative results sold at your local grocery, such as aluminum cooking foil, and turkey sized oven-cooking bags at a reasonable cost. Do remember when using the aluminum foil and oven-cooking bag methods there is no need to grease the areas not coming in direct contact to the turkey.
"Brown Bag (grocery bag) Roasting" is a fool-proof method for perfectly roasting a moist, golden-brown turkey (any size; stuffed or unstuffed) in about 3 to 3.5 hours. Simply place the completely thawed and rinsed bird (you may season and/or stuff the bird as you desire, or leave unseasoned and unstuffed) into a thoroughly greased paper bag, like those from the grocery. To prepare the bag, rub grease, or Crisco, to completely coat the inside of a heavy brown paper bag evenly, but not heavily, until it saturates through to the outside of the bag. Then, touch up the outside of the bag where the grease had not made its way. This prevents the bag from burning and creates a sealed, steamy environment. NOTE: Leave no part of the paper bag ungreased as it may catch fire. Seal the opening of the bag by folding it over and staple it shut along the entire length of the fold. Place the bagged turkey into the bottom half of a roasting pan and into a pre-heated oven. Bake at 500 °F for the first hour, then reduce the oven's temperature to 400 °F for the second hour, then down to 300 °F for the final hour. Thermometer test the bird after the third hour for doneness.
(If appropriate to add a personal note here, I have used the paper bag method for decades and, no matter to whom it has been served, has been deemed "the best" or "the most moist" oven-roasted turkey the consumer ever had. Thanksgiving 2005's 23 lb. turkey was baked in a gas oven (unseasoned and unstuffed) in 3 hours to a moist, golden-brown perfection. Final temperature 190ºF.)
Deep-frying a turkey
Deep-fried turkey originated in the American South as an alternative to the traditional method of preparing a Thanksgiving turkey. The bird is submerged into 375°F oil (often peanut oil) for 30 to 45 minutes (depending on the weight of the bird). Some fans of this method claim it results in a juicier turkey and leftovers are juicier than those from a roasted turkey.
How to carve a turkey
A turkey, like all meat, should not be carved as soon as it is cooked, but should be left for about 1/2 an hour to an hour to rest. Covering the bird while resting will keep it warmer and will result in less drying out. This improves the texture, and allows the turkey to be handled without burning the fingers.
There are two methods of carving the breast.
- Slide a sharp knife down one side of the breastbone and remove half the breast in one swoop. Carve this boneless slab of meat crosswise in thick slices.
- To carve the breast at the table, hold the turkey with a carving fork and slice parallel to the breast bone. This method is easier if you remove the wishbone before cooking the bird. That way the knife can cut through the meat and the stuffing giving a very large slice of turkey and stuffing.
For Christmas in Britain, turkey is traditionally served with cranberry jelly, bread sauce and winter vegetables including roast potatoes, brussels sprouts, and parsnips. Sometimes sausagemeat that has been wrapped in bacon is also served. A bread-based stuffing flavoured with herbs and onion is a common accompaniment. Gravy made from a stock of enriched stewed giblets or turkey offal and seasoned juices released by the carcass during cooking, thickened with flour, forms a side serving.
For Thanksgiving in the United States, turkey is traditionally served with cranberry sauce and gravy. Other items vary, but common complimentary dishes include mashed potatoes, biscuits, dinner rolls, black olives, various vegetables such as corn, squash, sweet potatoes, and various types of pies for dessert (such as pumpkin, apple and pecan).
Other turkey recipes
- Brown Rice with Ground Turkey
- Roasted Brined Turkey
- Turkey Biscuit
- Turkey Soup (includes instructions for making broth)
- Whole, Roasted Turkey with Stuffing
- Turkey Recipes Over 330 turkey recipes at AllRecipes.com
- Does eating turkey make you sleepy? from About.com
- Over 1,800 Turkey Recipes and How-to Videos at EatTurkey.org