Whole commercially raised turkeys may be labeled hen or tom turkey, but this does not make a significant difference in the quality. The flavor and tenderness of the meat is determined by the age of the turkey at the time it is brought to market, rather than the gender. The youngest turkeys have the most tender meat. Most turkeys used for roasting are between 4 and 9 months old and range in weight from 8 to 24 pounds.
When purchasing a whole turkey, turkey parts, or any type of turkey product, it is important to read the label to ensure that you are selecting a product that fits your requirements. Whole turkeys sold in food stores are inspected by the USDA, so you can be sure that the turkeys are safe and of good quality. Look for the USDA stamp on the label.
When selecting a whole turkey, it is important to know that they are available fresh, frozen, or hard-chilled. Any turkey labeled "fresh" in a food store has never been cooled to a temperature lower than 26°F, which is the point that turkey meat begins to freeze. A fresh turkey should be cooked no later than 2 days after it is purchased or by the "use by date" on the label, otherwise it must be frozen until it is ready to use. Although turkey meat begins to freeze at 26°F, in order to be considered "frozen", a turkey must be cooled to a temperature of 0°F or below. Commercial processing companies use a flash freezing process that quickly cools turkeys to 0°F or below. This ensures that when the turkey is defrosted, the meat will be at the same level of freshness as the day it was originally frozen. There is no difference in the quality of turkey that is fresh or commercially frozen. Turkeys that are hard-chilled are cooled to temperatures between 0°F and 26°F. They are not considered fresh or frozen and so they are not labeled as such. Since they are not considered frozen, the turkeys must be handled as though they are fresh to ensure proper food safety.
When thawing a frozen turkey, the only reliable and safe method for thawing is to place it in the refrigerator. The turkey should be kept in its original wrapper during the thawing process and it should be placed on a platter to catch any juices that may leak from the package. Thawing the bird in the refrigerator may require several days, especially if the turkey is a large size, but it is absolutely the safest method for thawing. Never thaw turkey at room temperature on the kitchen countertop.
Turkey can be cooked with almost any cooking method, but roasting is one of the most popular methods. The roasting process tends to evaporate and reduce the moisture content of any type of meat, shrinking the fibers and making the meat tougher, so it is important to follow the proper steps for roasting to ensure the best results. When properly roasted, turkey meat is moist and tender with excellent flavor.
The use of a meat thermometer is the best method for determining the proper doneness of turkey, which is at least 170°F for the breast and 180°F for the thigh. After removing the turkey from the oven, the temperature of the meat will increase by about 5° as the turkey rests. It is important to not let the turkey overcook, because the breast meat may quickly dry out.
A fresh whole turkey or fresh turkey parts may be stored in the refrigerator at 33°F to 40°F for 1 or 2 days before cooking. It is best to place turkey products in the coldest part of the refrigerator, which is usually the meat drawer or the bottom shelf. If fresh turkey needs to be stored longer than 1 or 2 days, it must be frozen; otherwise, it may begin to spoil in the refrigerator. A whole fresh or frozen turkey should be left in its original wrapper and may be stored for 6 months in the freezer compartment if the temperature is at 0°F or lower. Cooked turkey should not be away from refrigeration longer than 2 hours after cooking. Cooked food left at room temperature for more than two hours should be discarded. Temperatures between 40°F and 140°F allow bacteria to grow rapidly, which means that hot foods should be kept hot (above 140°F) and cold foods should be kept cold (below 40 °F). Cooked turkey that is properly refrigerated should be used within 3 or 4 days. If this is not possible, the leftover turkey may be tightly wrapped in freezer paper or aluminum foil and placed in the freezer where it may be kept for 3 to 4 months.
Compared with other meats, turkey has fewer calories, less fat, less cholesterol, and very little sodium, but it is high in protein, vitamins, and minerals. Concerns over saturated fat and cholesterol have caused many people to reduce or eliminate their consumption of many types of red meat and to choose a healthier alternative such as turkey. Most of the fat in turkey is within the skin and most of the fat within the meat is in the dark meat. The white meat with the skin removed is a good food source for people on low-fat and/or low sodium diets.
As the domesticated turkey has gained in popularity, the meat has been used in a wider variety of products. Turkey breasts, thighs, drumsticks, and combinations of turkey parts are available for the consumer as are many types of turkey products including roasts, hams, filets, sausages, bacon, hot dogs, burgers, ground meat, pastrami, and jerky.