If there’s one thing we should be thankful for this Thanksgiving, it’s this: Turkey is cheap*! And the rest of the Thanksgiving dinner can relatively inexpensive, too.
The secret to enjoying a traditional feast without overspending is to plan ahead and know a few tricks.
I sat down with two highly respected professionals—a butcher and a personal chef. What I learned from John Smith, professional butcher and personal chef, Liz Tarditi, pretty much blew a hole in everything I thought I knew about buying, thawing, and preparing a turkey.
Get the best turkey
Choosing the best turkey is easier said than done unless you fully understand the difference between a store brand and a name brand bird. Just because a turkey is more expensive does not make it any better, says John. All that means is that it has a lot of advertising built into its price.
What customers don’t know is that one turkey processor will slap many different labels on his crop of birds. The turkeys are all the same, only the labels are different.
And now for my conversation with John the butcher:
Fresh or frozen?
JS: First, let me define a “fresh” turkey. According to the people who make the laws, turkeys can be called “fresh” even though the moisture in the bird is frozen! If you press very firmly on the bird the meat is not frozen. The turkey processors have it down to a science. They bring the temperature of the “fresh” birds down to the very legal limit before sending them off to the store two weeks before Thanksgiving.
Frozen turkeys, on the other hand, are quick-frozen immediately upon butchering. So the freshest turkey is really a frozen turkey. The freezing process has no noticeable effect on the quality of the bird.
How can we select the right turkey from the pile?
JS: First, decide what size of a bird you need (one pound per person is a rough guideline) and then select the plumpest frozen bird in that size category. Some will be slim, some fat. Some turkeys are flat-chested and some are quite bony. Choose the roundest. It’s that easy.
If a bird is skinny, it could mean it wasn’t very healthy and might be dry and tough. Bone and fat cost as much as the meat so go for the least amount of waste. Remember too, that the larger the turkey the more useable meat-to- bone and fat ratio. Customers often buy a really big one and ask me to saw it in two north-to-south, through the breastbone (no charge, of course). If you do that you can save half for Christmas or share with another family.
Besides the obvious, what’s the difference between a Tom and a Hen?
JS: You’re going to love this. The turkey people who process millions of birds do not have time to do a physical exam. They separate birds by size, not gender. Birds that dress out 16 pounds or more are usually called Toms, 15 pounds and smaller are Hens.
So how about a quick recap?
JS: When choosing a turkey don’t even look at the brand unless you own stock in the company.
- Go for the cheapest
- The freshest turkey is a frozen turkey
- Pick the plumpest one you can find
- Toms are big and hens are small
Turkeys are a great value now, so it’s a good time to fill your freezer. I buy enough turkeys for my family during the holidays to last all year long. Kept frozen and in its original plastic wrapping, a turkey can safely remain in the freezer for a year.
Prepare the turkey perfectly
For years, Liz Tarditi’s mother tried to kill her family with turkey. Not intentionally, of course, but invariably sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas someone in the family developed flu-like symptoms. Mother blamed it on the weather and whatever influenza was going around but the truth is they suffered from mild food poisoning that zapped their resistance and required weeks to fully recover.
Tarditi, now a professional personal chef, says the way to avoid “the flu” and make sure the holidays are as healthy as they are happy is to practice safe food handling techniques when preparing the Thanksgiving turkey.
My conversation with Liz:
Well, now that you’ve got my attention, what’s the deal with food poisoning?
LT: Most poultry contains small amounts of salmonella bacteria that when ingested can result in a variety of afflictions all the way from slight illness to death. The way to kill salmonella in food is with heat and on surfaces with an antibacterial agent.
As a professional chef, I am required by law to handle food in such a way as to not poison my customers so I treat all poultry as if it has live salmonella. Unfortunately, most non-professional cooks don’t take similar precautions so lots of people get sick needlessly, but rarely make the connection with their kitchen.
EC: I can understand a restaurant following strict rules because it’s a public place. But it seems extreme for home cooks. Our parents and grandparents didn’t worry about salmonella and antibacterial cleaners, and they did okay.
LT: Yes, but think about that turkey your grandmother made. Was the white meat moist and juicy or was it dry as dust? Did she wiggle the drumstick to see if it was done? That method of cooking turkey until the meat falls off the bones (an ancient test for poultry doneness) requires at least 185 F internal temperature. That’s overkill and means white meat so dry you’ll choke on it. Reducing the cooking time and temperature so the turkey just passes the safety point (165 F) produces delectable results: perfectly moist and juicy white and dark meat.
So where do we start?
LT: You must have an effective antibacterial solution in your kitchen, but don’t spend $6 for a 12-ounce bottle of cleaner. Make it yourself: One gallon of 70 F (cool) water plus one teaspoon of liquid unscented chlorine bleach. Any warmer and the bleach evaporates; more bleach will harm some surfaces and fabrics.
Don’t get obsessive, just measure carefully and stick with this perfect, dirt-cheap recipe that will not harm wood, paint, granite, marble, or fabric. Regularly sanitize all surfaces with this bleach water, particularly those that may have come in contact with raw poultry including the inside of the refrigerator.
Okay. Here I have this great big frozen turkey. Now what?
LT: Back up a couple of hours. Clean out your refrigerator before you go shopping and make a place for a large sheet pan to catch the raw run-off drippings while it sits in the fridge. Leave the turkey wrapped and place it in the fridge on the sheet pan. Even sealed in plastic, it will drip. Let the frozen turkey thaw naturally.
It will take one day per five pounds. Don’t take it out and leave it on the counter to speed it up; don’t try to quick-thaw it by placing it into the oven at a low temperature, or in a sink of water. Don’t “blast” it at 500 F for three hours before it’s time to eat.
Thawing a turkey any other way than in the fridge on a sheet pan for several days invites trouble because it increases the chances that some bacteria will make it through the cooking process alive and well.
What if it is fully thawed several days before Thanksgiving?
LT: Even if the bird is thawed completely by say, Tuesday, just leave it fully wrapped in the refrigerator. It will still be excellent on Thursday.
What’s the best way to safely stuff a turkey?
LT: In a word? Don’t! As the bird cooks, raw juices drip into the soft, absorbent stuffing. The stuffing may be steaming hot when you spoon it out, so you think it’s fully cooked because the bird is. It’s not. Turkey must reach an internal temperature of 165º F, and so must the contaminated stuffing. It’s nearly impossible to cook a stuffed turkey to perfection and also guarantee uncontaminated stuffing.
You don’t really expect us to give up stuffing, do you?
LT: No! Prepare your stuffing as you always have but bake it in a separate foil-covered pan while the turkey’s roasting. Use some turkey stock to give it that great flavor we all know and love. After the bird is fully cooked and out of the oven, mix some of the roasting pan drippings and fat into the stuffing before you make the gravy. An unstuffed turkey cooks faster and more evenly.
What’s the easiest, and hopefully fool-proof way to roast a turkey?
LT: Set the oven to 325 F. Place the turkey in a roasting pan, season with salt and pepper and put it in uncovered. It will take about 3 hours for a 12-pound turkey; add 10-12 minutes for each additional pound, up to 6 hours total for a 25-pound bird.
Check internal temperature 2/3 through the cooking time using a meat thermometer inserted into the thigh meat. It’s done when it reads 165 F. Always sanitize the thermometer before and after you stick it in the bird. Let the bird rest for 20 minutes before carving for juicier and more flavorful meat.
Remember the season
Build your menu around fresh stuff that is really cheap this time of year. Pumpkins, squash, onions, apples and potatoes are in season and very inexpensive right now. You won’t have to look far to find excellent recipes for butternut squash, sweet potatoes, and onions.
And think about this: How cheap is a bag of flour plus a few packets of yeast? Dirt cheap! The crowning glory of your holiday meal can be homemade bread rolls.
Stick to the basics
Forget all those fancy appetizers, relish plates and far-out exotic dishes that end up costing a small fortune. Most people don’t care that much for them anyway. Stick with a traditional menu of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, one or two vegetables, a salad, rolls, and dessert.
If you want to impress your guests by jazzing things up a bit, try this easy soup to start off the meal:
- large cooking pot
- 1 29-oz. can pure pumpkin puree (careful, NOT pumpkin pie filling)
- 1/2 onion, small (chopped and sauteed)
- pinch garlic powder, or to taste
- 1 14.5-oz can chopped tomatoes
- 1 cup heavy cream
- red pepper flakes, optional
- salt and pepper, to taste
- Place all ingredients in a pot and cook for 30 minutes on Medium heat.
- Pour into blender or use an emersion blender to purree the soup, just before serving.
*We’re seeing higher prices on turkey this season compared to years past, due pandemic challenges that have made turkey somewhat less plentiful. However, compared to other types of meat, turkey is still cheap pound for pound.
First published: 11-18-16; Revised, Expaned & Updated 11-11-20
John Smith is the author of the book “Confessions of a Butcher: Eat Steak on a Hamburger Budget and Save.” Chef Liz Tarditi is a professional personal chef. She provides delicious, home-cooked gourmet meals for busy clients in their homes.