Turkey may be most famous for its starring role in the Thanksgiving feast, but there are good reasons to give it a place on the dinner table more often: It’s low in fat and high in protein. Leftovers make tasty side dishes and sandwiches. And it’s easy on the wallet.
When your relatives are coming over for Thanksgiving, you’ll probably want a whole bird, which typically weighs from 14 to 16 pounds for a hen, 16 pounds and up for a tom. (There’s no taste difference—it’s just a matter of size.) With this you get white and dark meat, the legs, and the giblets for gravy.
When you want just enough turkey for a weeknight dinner, breasts are the perfect size. Typically weighing in at 4 to 9 pounds, they consist of only white meat and skin. They’re available boneless or bone-in, fresh or frozen, self-basting, smoked, or barbecued.
How to Choose Turkey
Fresh turkeys can be cooked the same day you buy them (and keep only 2 days). They’re more expensive than frozen because they are perishable and require special handling. Frozen turkeys keep for up to 9 months in the freezer, so you can buy them when they’re on sale, but they take 2 to 3 days (depending on size) to thaw in the refrigerator. Some people prefer the texture and flavor of a fresh bird, but the system of flash-freezing turkeys just after they’re processed usually preserves them well.
Natural: All meat can be labeled “natural” as the USDA defines it. This simply means that no artificial ingredients or preservatives were added during processing. But the bird might have been fed antibiotics. (The USDA does not permit giving hormones to poultry.)
Free-Range: Although the term implies that the bird roamed free to eat a varied diet (which adds to the turkey’s flavor, not to mention well-being), the USDA requires only access to the outdoors, with no amount of time specified. If you want a guarantee that your bird had ample time to roam free, look for a “Free Range” label in conjunction with one that states it is “Certified Humane Raised & Handled,” “Animal Welfare Approved,” or “Food Alliance Certified.” Issued by independent monitoring organizations, these labels are much better indicators of the humane treatment of animals. (To find certified products in your area, go to the individual organizations’ websites.)
USDA Organic: This label is the USDA’s certification that turkeys were not given antibiotics (giving hormones to poultry, organic or otherwise, is not permitted); that their feed was 100 percent organic, produced without using most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers; and that they were given access to the outdoors.
Certified Humane: This label, issued by a nongovernmental organization, certifies that the turkeys were raised in conditions exceeding federal standards, were given a nutritious diet, and were raised with sufficient space to perform “natural behaviors.” They were fed no animal by-products and no antibiotics, except when ill. Look for the “Certified Humane Raised & Handled” logo.
Kosher: These turkeys were raised and slaughtered following Jewish dietary rules. Because kosher processing involves hand salting, the meat is often saltier than that of nonkosher birds.
Self-Basting: These turkeys have been pumped with liquids, which may include broth, butter, water, salt, and chicken fat—in the name of added flavor and moisture. They can be salty, and their texture can be slightly spongy.
Heritage: Heritage breeds are direct descendants of the first domesticated turkeys raised by the English settlers. Two common varieties are Bourbon Red and American Bronze. Unlike commercial turkeys, these do not have a disproportionately large amount of white meat. As a result, they’re not particularly plump, though they’re far from scrawny. They tend to be moist, with a robust turkey flavor, most noticeably in the dark meat, and a chewy, al-most beeflike texture. Heritage turkeys turn out best with long, slow cooking at 300° to 325° F. Because they are raised on traditional farms, not in large-scale commercial hatcheries, they tend to be humanely raised, though they carry a hefty price tag. Available by special order, they usually sell out a couple of weeks before the holiday.
How to Store Turkey
Uncooked fresh turkeys can be stored in their original packaging for up to 2 days in the refrigerator or up to 9 months in the freezer. Uncooked breasts keep up to 2 days in the refrigerator, in their original packaging, or up to 9 months in the freezer, tightly wrapped.
Leftovers keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days, and in the freezer for up to 3 months. Leftover turkey should be carved from the bone and the stuffing removed before refrigerating them; kept together, they may not cool fast enough to prevent the growth of bacteria.
The safest, most accurate way to figure out when your turkey is perfectly cooked is by checking the internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommendation for maximum food safety is 165° F for all turkey. For white meat, however, for best taste and texture, the Real Simple test kitchen’s preference is 160° F. Learn how to take a turkey's temperature by watching this video.
Real Simple Turkey Recipes:
- Roast Turkey With Sage Stuffing and Gravy
- Turkey Samosas
- Turkey Burgers With Caesar Spread
- Turkey Burgers With Cajun Grilled Onions
- Spaghetti and (Mostly) Homemade Turkey Meatballs
Preparing a turkey for roasting is a simple task, no matter how big the bird. It’s so easy, in fact, as this video shows, that you might just find yourself putting it on the menu in months other than November.
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