Q: How large of a turkey should I buy for Thanksgiving?
A: To choose the right size turkey for Thanksgiving, or any holiday or family meal, use this guide:
- Whole bird - allow 1 pound per person;
- Breast of turkey (with bone) - allow 3/4 pound per person
- Boneless breast of turkey - allow 1/2 pound per person
- Pre-stuffed frozen turkey - allow 1 1/4 pound per person
Q: How do I safely thaw my turkey for Thanksgiving?
A: Turkeys must be kept at a safe temperature during thawing. While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely. However, if the turkey is allowed to thaw at a temperature above 40 degrees, any harmful bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to grow again unless proper thawing methods are used.
A package of frozen meat or poultry thawing on the counter longer than 2 hours is not safe. Even though the center of the package still may be frozen, the outer layer of the food is in the "danger zone," between 40 and 140 degrees - a temperature range where harmful bacteria multiply rapidly.
There are three safe ways to thaw food: in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave oven.
Immediately after grocery store checkout, take the frozen turkey home and store it in the freezer until ready to use. Frozen turkeys should not be thawed on the back porch, in the car trunk, in the basement, in the garage or on the kitchen counter.
- Refrigerator Thawing. When thawing a turkey in the refrigerator, plan. For every 5 pounds of turkey, allow about 24 hours of thawing time in a refrigerator set at 40 degrees. Even small amounts of frozen food - such as a pound of ground meat or boneless chicken breasts - require a full day to thaw. When thawing foods in the refrigerator, there are several variables to take into account.
Some areas of an appliance may keep the food colder than other areas. Food placed in the coldest part will require longer defrosting time. Food takes longer to thaw in a refrigerator set at 35 degrees than one set at 40 degrees.
After thawing in the refrigerator, ground meat and poultry should remain useable for an additional day or two before cooking; red meat, 3 to 5 days. Foods defrosted in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking, although there may be some loss of quality.
Refrigerator thawing times for a whole turkey are: 8 to 12 pounds, 1 to 2 days; 12 to 16 pounds, 2 to 3 days; 16 to 20 pounds, 3 to 4 days; 20 to 24 pounds, 4 to 5 days.
- Cold Water Thawing. This method is faster than refrigerator thawing but requires more attention. The food must be in a leak-proof package or plastic bag.
If the bag leaks, bacteria from the air or surrounding environment could be introduced into the food. Meat tissue also can absorb water like a sponge, resulting in a watery product.
The bag should be submerged in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes so it continues to thaw. Small packages of meat or poultry - about a pound - may defrost in an hour or less. A 3- to 4-pound package may take 2 to 3 hours. For whole turkeys, estimate about 30 minutes per pound. After defrosting, refrigerate the food and cook it promptly. Foods thawed by the cold water method should be cooked before refreezing.
Cold water thawing times for a whole turkey are: 8 to 12 pounds, 4 to 6 hours; 12 to 16 pounds, 6 to 8 hours; 16 to 20 pounds, 8 to 10 hours; 20 to 24 pounds, 10 to 12 hours.
- Microwave Thawing. Follow the manufacturer's instructions when thawing a turkey in the microwave oven. When microwave defrosting food, plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwave defrosting. Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn't have been destroyed and, indeed, may have reached optimal temperatures for bacteria to grow.
Foods thawed in the microwave should be cooked before refreezing.
Q: How do I safely cook my turkey?
A: Let me first tell you what you should not do. Do not cook your turkey in a low oven - below 325 degrees - for several hours or overnight.
Instead, set the oven temperature no lower than 325 degrees. Preheating the oven is not necessary. Be sure the turkey is completely thawed. Place turkey breast-side up on a flat wire rack in a shallow roasting pan 2 to 2 1/2 inches deep.
Optional steps include:
- Tuck wing tips back under shoulders of turkey;
- Add 1/2 cup water to the bottom of the pan;
- A tent of aluminum foil may be placed loosely over the turkey for the first 1 to 1 1/2 hours, then removed for browning. Or, a tent of foil may be placed over the turkey after the turkey reaches the desired golden brown.
For safety and uniform doneness of the turkey, cook stuffing separately in a casserole dish. Use a food thermometer to check that the internal temperature of the stuffing has reached 165 degrees.
If you choose to stuff a turkey, you must use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the turkey and the stuffing. The temperature of a whole turkey must reach 180 degrees in the innermost part of the thigh and the center of the stuffing must reach 165 degrees. If the stuffing has not reached 165 degrees, continue cooking the turkey until the stuffing reaches 165 degrees.
When cooking only a turkey breast, the internal temperature should reach 170 degrees.
If the turkey has a "pop-up" temperature indicator, it also is recommended that a food thermometer be used to test in several places, including the innermost part of the thigh and the center of the stuffing.
Many factors can affect the roasting time of a whole turkey: A turkey will cook faster in a dark roasting pan. The depth and size of the pan can affect heat circulation to all areas of the turkey. The use of a foil tent for the entire cooking time can slow cooking. Putting a lid on the roasting pan speeds up cooking. An oven cooking bag will shorten cooking time. A stuffed turkey will take longer to cook than an unstuffed turkey. Ovens may heat unevenly. The oven rack position can have an effect on even cooking and heat circulation.
- Approximate cooking times. Time charts are based on fresh or completely thawed turkeys at a refrigerator temperature of 40 degrees or below. Frozen or partially thawed turkeys will take longer to cook. The cooking time for a frozen turkey will take at least 50 percent longer than the time recommended for a fully-thawed turkey. These cooking times are guidelines only. Use a food thermometer to determine safe doneness.
4- to 6-pound breast - 1 1/2 to 2 1/4 hours;
6- to 8-pound breast - 2 1/4 to 3 1/4 hours;
8- to 12-pounds - 2 3/4 to 3 hours;
12 to 14 pounds - 3 to 3 3/4 hours
14 to 18 pounds - 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours
18 to 20 pounds - 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours
20 to 24 pounds - 4 1/2 to 5 hours
8 to 12 pounds -3 to 3 1/2 hours
12 to 14 pounds - 3 1/2 to 4 hours
14 to 18 pounds - 4 to 4 1/4 hours
18 to 20 pounds - 4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours
20 to 24 pounds - 4 3/4 to 5 1/4 hours
Turkeys purchased stuffed and frozen with the USDA or state mark of inspection on the packaging are safe because they have been processed under controlled conditions. These turkeys should not be thawed before cooking. Follow package directions for handling.
For quality, you may choose to let the turkey stand 20 minutes before removing the stuffing and carving.
- Susan Krumm is an Extension agent in family and consumer sciences with K-State Research and Extension-Douglas County, 2110 Harper St. She can be reached at 843-7058.