Turkey Tips and Techniques

Shopping | Stuffing | Marinating | Grilling and Broiling | Barbecuing and Smoking
Deep-Frying | Doneness | Nutritional | Food Safety | Storage

Shopping Tips

  • When shopping for a whole turkey, it is best to purchase at least one pound per person. This will allow for plenty of extra helpings plus some leftovers. If you don't want to allow for any leftovers, plan on ¾ pound per person.

  • Allow 1¼ to 1½ pounds per person when purchasing a prestuffed turkey.

  • Allow ½ pound per person when purchasing a bone-in turkey breast, which usually weighs between 4 and 8 pounds.

  • Don't purchase a whole turkey if you find that the packaging has been punctured or torn. Make sure the packaging is intact before purchasing a whole turkey. Packaging that is punctured or ripped may indicate that the turkey has been damaged. It also allows drips to occur as the turkey is being transported from the store to the home refrigerator or when the turkey is thawing in the refrigerator.

  • Food stores may run specials on whole turkeys during some holiday periods, using the low priced turkey as a "loss leader" to attract customers. You can take advantage of cost savings by purchasing two birds and storing one in the freezer for the next holiday event or any other occasion such as a summer gathering. Small turkeys cooked on an outdoor grill in the summer are becoming very popular.

  • A fresh turkey is more expensive than a frozen turkey because of special handling requirements. Fresh turkeys cannot remain in a food store for as long as frozen turkeys. They are convenient to use because they do not require thawing. If you are able to allow for the time required for thawing, frozen turkeys provide the same flavor and quality as fresh turkeys.

  • If you are planning to buy a fresh turkey, it is best to purchase it no more than 1 or 2 days before you plan to roast it so that it will retain the optimum freshness and quality. It should be stored in the coldest section of the refrigerator, usually the lowest shelf at the back, until you are ready to cook it.

  • Some turkeys are sold with pop-up timers that are used to indicate when the turkey is fully cooked. A stem in the center of the device pops up when the internal temperature of the turkey reaches the proper level. Pop-up timers add convenience for consumers who may not possess a meat thermometer, however a meat thermometer is still the best way to make sure that the turkey has cooked long enough.

  • When shopping for groceries, fresh turkey (as well as other perishable products) should be selected last in order to reduce the length of time the turkey is without refrigeration. If the turkey is without refrigeration for more than an hour because of the travel time from the market, a cooler with ice should be used to transport the fresh turkey, and any other perishable food items, for the duration of the travel time.

Stuffing Tips

  • The turkey should not be overstuffed. The stuffing will expand during the cooking process and some of it may not cook thoroughly because of the density of the stuffing inside the turkey.

  • The stuffing should be cooked to a temperature of at least 165°F.

  • Remove the stuffing from the turkey before the turkey is carved.

  • Allow as much as 3/4 cup of stuffing per pound of turkey or as much as 1 cup for each guest.

Marinating Tips

  • Quantity

    It may not be possible to completely cover a whole turkey with the marinade, but several inches of liquid should be added to the container so that the turkey can be turned occasionally, allowing all portions of the turkey to benefit from the marinade. Turkey parts or slices of breast or thigh meat should be completely covered with the marinade.

  • Soaking Time

    Turkey parts require only a couple of hours marinating time, while a whole turkey should be soaked in the marinade for several hours or overnight.

  • Refrigeration

    Always marinate turkey in the refrigerator to reduce the growth of harmful bacteria that occurs when perishable food is away from refrigeration for extended periods.

  • Proper Containers

    Since the marinade contains an acidic ingredient, reactive containers such as metal bowls should not be used. A large glass bowl is the best container to use, but large plastic bowls may also be used. Large plastic bags that can be sealed are ideal for marinating turkey parts.

  • Reuse

    The marinade should not be reused for any other purpose because of the bacteria that may be present from having been in contact with the raw turkey.

Grilling and Broiling Tips

  • When grilling or broiling turkey pieces, use tongs to turn the pieces rather than piercing them with the fork. Piercing the meat allows juices to escape, which can toughen the meat.

  • Make sure the heat is not too high so that the turkey doesn't get charred on the outside before the interior is cooked to the appropriate doneness.

  • Turkey has a tendency to become dry when it is grilled or broiled so it must be watched carefully during the cooking process. The turkey can be coated with a little oil or it can be marinated to help prevent it from drying out while cooking.

  • It is important that the turkey is grilled or broiled at the correct temperature and that the turkey is at the proper distance from the heat source to ensure that the meat will be tender and juicy.

  • Always have a fire extinguisher handy when using an outdoor grill and make sure the grill is at least 10 feet from buildings or any other flammable items.

  • In order to preserve the natural moistness, leave the skin on the turkey while it is grilled or broiled.

  • In order to cook different sized turkey pieces at a similar rate, place the smaller pieces further from the main heat source so that they will cook at a slower rate.

  • Aromatic woods including alder, hickory, or maple, can be added to the coals during the grilling process to provide a distinctive flavor to the turkey, however not to the extent provided by barbecuing, which uses indirect heat, smoke, and a more lengthy cooking time to achieve a more pronounced flavor.

  • In order to speed the grilling or broiling time, turkey pieces may be microwaved first to partially cook the pieces. The partially cooked turkey must be immediately grilled or broiled after microwaving to maintain the wholesomeness of the food. Finishing the cooking at a later time may allow bacteria to grow rapidly, causing food poisoning.

Barbecuing and Smoking Tips

  • Never stuff a whole turkey that is going to be barbecued or smoked because the stuffing will require too much time to reach the proper safe temperature of at least 165°F. Stuffing that is barbecued or smoked will develop an unpleasant taste, which is another reason for omitting it.

  • Turkey may require additional time to reach the proper doneness if it is barbecued or smoked on a cold day.

  • A meat thermometer should be used to check the internal temperature of the turkey for proper doneness.

  • Never allow children or pets near the barbecue or smoker and have a fire extinguisher handy while the equipment is in use.

Deep-Frying Tips

  • Because of the size of the cooking equipment and the large quantity of oil required, deep-frying a whole turkey should never be attempted indoors. Pieces of turkey meat can be safely deep-fried indoors using using traditional equipment such as a small pot on a stove top.

  • When purchasing a deep-fryer designed for cooking whole turkeys, make sure the model has a solid base that will hold the cooking pot firmly. Models with tripod legs should be avoided because they can easily tip.

  • The pot must be large enough to accommodate the turkey, but not so large that it becomes wobbly on the heating surface.

  • Do not overfill the pot with oil. When the turkey is placed into the pot, the oil may spill over the sides and ignite on the heating unit.

  • The temperature of the oil should be watched closely. If the oil overheats, it may ignite.

  • If the turkey is not thawed completely when it is inserted into the hot oil, it may cause the oil to spillover because of the reaction of the hot oil to the frozen bird.

  • Any utensils and equipment that come into contact with the hot oil must be dried thoroughly first. Moisture on the utensils will cause splattering when brought into contact with the hot oil, which can be dangerous.

  • Make sure the turkey is as dry as possible before it enters the hot oil.

  • The deep-frying equipment should be used a safe distance from all combustible substances. Never place the cooker on a deck, near any building, or on top of a table.

  • The hot oil should not be left unattended and children and pets should NEVER be allowed near the cooking area.

  • A fire extinguisher and heavy potholders should always be within reach.

  • After the cooking is completed, the oil should not be transferred to another container or disposed of until it has cooled completely. It is extremely dangerous to pour the oil from the cooking vessel until it has cooled. Several hours may be required for the large quantity of oil to cool properly.

Doneness Tips

  • A whole turkey should be cooked until the internal temperature of the breast meat reaches 170°F and the deepest portion of the thigh reaches 180°F. White meat cooks faster than dark meat and it will dry out quickly if it is overcooked. It is always a good idea to check the temperature in both the breast and the thigh.

  • A visual test to determine the proper doneness can be performed by piercing the turkey with a fork. If the turkey is cooked thoroughly, the juices should run clear. Doneness can also be determined by cutting into the thickest part of the turkey to check that the meat is completely opaque. The drumsticks should move up and down easily.

  • If you cook a turkey that comes with a pop-up timer, the cooking process can be almost foolproof. However, if you stuff the turkey, you still need to use a meat thermometer to check the temperature of the stuffing to make sure it has reached a minimum temperature of 165°F.

  • Leftover stuffing that was originally cooked inside the turkey and has been removed, should be reheated to a minimum temperature of 165°F.

  • Stuffing that is placed inside the turkey is often undercooked because many cooks do not allow for the extra cooking time required for a stuffed bird. This increases the chances of food poisoning.

  • When cooking turkey pieces such as breasts or thighs, a meat thermometer may not be necessary to determine the proper doneness. Turkey pieces are fully cooked when the meat is no longer pink and the juices run clear.

  • The meat near the bones of a turkey (or any poultry) may still look a bit pink even if a meat thermometer indicates that the turkey is fully cooked. This is because younger turkeys have bones that are more porous than older turkeys, which allows red pigment to leach out from the bones to the nearby meat during the cooking process. The turkey is safe to eat as long as the proper internal temperature has been reached and the juices run clear.

Nutritional Tips

  • Skinless turkey pieces can be poached in water, wine, and/or broth with herbs and spices added. This will keep the meat moist and add flavor from the poaching liquid. Since no fat is added, the turkey retains its nutritional benefits.

  • Steaming is another healthy cooking method and because the turkey is surrounded by steam rather than water, none of the valuable nutrients leach out.

  • Stir-frying uses very little oil and cooks bite-size turkey pieces quickly. The vegetables, herbs, spices, and various condiments cooked with the turkey add flavor and provide a healthy, low calorie, low fat dish.

  • Grilling is becoming one of the most popular methods of cooking turkey and it is also one of the most healthy. The grilling process allows fat to drip away from the turkey as it cooks, keeping the meat nutritious and flavorful.

Food Safety Tips

Thawing

  • When thawing turkey in cold water, make sure the water is very cold and if the original wrapper has any punctures or tears in it, the turkey should be placed in another plastic bag and sealed. The water must be changed every 30 minutes.

  • Do not allow turkey to reach room temperature before it is cooked, as this can promote the growth of harmful bacteria. Turkey should be cooked as soon as possible after its removal from refrigeration.

  • Raw turkey that has been thawed should never be refrozen because this increases the risk of food poisoning when the meat is finally used.

  • Turkey that has been thawed in the microwave must be cooked immediately after thawing. Do not place the turkey back in the refrigerator with the intention of cooking it at a later time. The defrosting process in the microwave may create hot spots on areas of the turkey that will promote the growth of bacteria, which requires that the turkey be cooked immediately.

  • A frozen prestuffed turkey should not be thawed before it is cooked because bacteria can rapidly multiply in the stuffing while the turkey is defrosting.

Stuffing

  • NEVER stuff the turkey in advance. The stuffing may promote the rapid growth of harmful bacteria. Always cook the turkey immediately after stuffing.

  • Stuffing that is placed inside the turkey is often undercooked because many cooks do not allow for the extra cooking time required for a stuffed bird. This increases the chances of food poisoning. Always use a meat thermometer to verify that the temperature of the stuffing has reached a minimum of 165°F.

  • Consider cooking the stuffing separate from the turkey. The stuffing can be placed in a baking dish which reduces the risk of bacterial growth in the body cavity of the turkey and also allows the turkey to cook faster.

  • All of the stuffing should be removed from the turkey after it is cooked.

  • Leftover cooked stuffing should be refrigerated and used within 1 to 2 days and should never be frozen for use at a later date.

  • Leftover stuffing that has been cooked inside the turkey should be reheated to a minimum temperature of 165°F.

Cross Contamination

  • Various types of foods should be kept separate from each other during storage and preparation. Never store ready to eat foods next to raw meats. Bacteria that may be present on raw turkey may contaminate the ready to eat foods.

  • It is very important to wash your hands often during food preparation to avoid transferring harmful bacteria from one food item to the next. If you were handling raw turkey, for example, you would want to wash your hands thoroughly before chopping vegetables to reduce the risk of transferring bacteria from the turkey to the vegetables.

  • If cutting boards are used in your kitchen, it is a good idea to use one for meats and a different one for fruits and vegetables. Cutting surfaces made from tempered glass are more sanitary to use than wood boards you don't have to worry about bacteria remaining in cracks and pores as you do with wood or plastic surfaces. They are also the easiest to clean. Regardless of the material they are made from, cutting boards should be cleaned thoroughly after each use.

  • Besides using soap and water for cleaning surfaces, bleach or an antibacterial spray may be used to help kill any organisms that the soap and water missed.

  • Never use the same knives and utensils for preparing multiple food items unless they are washed thoroughly before using them on a different item. Example: The knife that was used to cut raw turkey should not be used to chop vegetables unless the knife has been washed thoroughly first.

  • When serving cooked turkey, do not place it on the plate that contained the raw meat.

Storage Tips

  • Placing leftovers in shallow containers in the refrigerator allows leftover cooked food to cool more quickly.

  • If you have a large quantity of leftover cooked turkey, it may be best to store some of it in the freezer as soon as possible.

  • Leftover turkey should not be frozen after it has been in the refrigerator for several days because it will have deteriorated in quality beyond the point that is safe for long term storage.

  • When eating outdoors, food should not be consumed that has been without refrigeration for more than an hour, especially in hot weather.

  • In order to reduce the risk of foodborne illness, it is important to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.

  • Poultry products and all raw meat inspected by the USDA will have information on the label regarding proper handling and storage.

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