Thanksgiving Day basics: Turkey time

November 20, 2012 

If you're making a last-minute dash to the supermarket for a turkey, here are a few things to keep in mind:

• BUYING: Figure on about 1½ pounds per person, which should provide enough for leftovers. If dark meat is your thing, go for a heritage turkey. It will have a more balanced ratio of dark meat to white, and a more intense flavor. A tom turkey and a hen turkey taste the same. Toms are bigger.

• DEFROSTING: Keep the turkey chilled. Leave it in the original packaging, and place it on a tray in the refrigerator. Allow 24 hours of defrosting for each five pounds of turkey. To brine a partially frozen bird, defrost it in the refrigerator by submerging it in the brine for up to two days before cooking. You don't have to defrost a frozen turkey. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says: "It is safe to cook a turkey from the frozen state. The cooking time will take at least 50 percent longer than recommended for a fully thawed turkey. Remember to remove the giblet packages during the cooking time. Remove carefully with tongs or a fork."

• SALTING: Done correctly, pretreating the bird with salt produces a tender, juicy result. Soak the turkey in a light brine (3 percent to 6 percent salt by weight) in the refrigerator for a day or two. You can dry-brine the turkey with 1¼ teaspoons of salt per pound for about 18 hours. Encasing and roasting a turkey breast in a salted-dough crust yields extremely juicy and evenly seasoned meat. (But there's no crisp skin to nosh on.) Don't brine or salt kosher self-basting turkeys; they have been salted.

• PREP: Stuffing butter or other fat under the skin doesn't protect the meat from overcooking, it just adds fat. So the meat might be dry, but it won't seem so. Spatchcocking, or butterflying, a whole turkey exposes all parts of the bird to even heat. Just cut out the backbone and push down on the turkey to flatten it.

• ROASTING: Covering the breast with aluminum foil during the first part of roasting helps reduce the risk of dry breast meat. Basting with fat during roasting will speed cooking. Basting with water (or defatted cooking juices) will slow cooking. The turkey is safe to eat once it has been cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees, measured with a thermometer inserted into the innermost part of the thigh and the thickest part of the breast.

• POST-ROAST: Let the cooked bird rest for at least 30 minutes or even an hour before carving. That allows the liquid and gelatin in the meat to set, increasing juiciness. You can inject the bird with juices after roasting to return some of the lost moisture and fat. Much of it will run out again, but enough will remain to make doing so worthwhile.


Help with cooking

Every year home cooks turn to the experts for cooking help. Here are some resources:

• BUTTERBALL TURKEY TALK-LINE: Advisers handle calls in English and Spanish. The number is 800-Butterball, or (800) 288-8372; weekdays from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., weekends from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Thanksgiving Day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

• FOSTER FARMS: Visit www.fosterfarms.com any time or call (800) 255-7227 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. The Livingston-based company produces turkeys in Turlock.

• ZACKY FARMS, Fresno: Visit www.zacky.com any time or call (800) 888-0235 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

• MARY'S FREE RANGE TURKEYS, Fresno: www.marysturkeys.com

• WILLIE BIRD TURKEYS, Santa Rosa: www.williebird.com

• CALIFORNIA POULTRY FEDERATION: www.cpif.org

• U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE: Call (888) 674-6854 for food safety tips and other information.

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