Questions about the safe handling of turkey and side dishes are bound to come up this year in the wake of the Salmonella outbreak in ground turkey last August.
Given tight food budgets, the cost of organic turkey is also a concern, when compared to conventional supermarket varieties, which are practically given away in some stores during the holidays.
Are less expensive supermarket turkeys a better choice? And are turkeys labeled “organic,” “hormone-free,” “natural,” “free-range,” or “certified humane,” really worth the extra cost? The answers are spelled out below.
When you’re shopping
There is a real, practical difference between a regular or conventional turkey and “organic” bird. Organic turkeys may not receive antibiotics, arsenic compounds, or animal byproducts, and must eat 100% organic feed.
Conventional turkeys, often labeled “self-basting,” are injected with butter or fat and broth, stock, or water, plus salt and other seasonings, to make them plump and flavorful. To avoid these added ingredients, a fresh, organic bird is a better choice. Buying it from a local farm also will cut down on your food miles and help foster a relationship with local farmers. Check out the Eat Well Guide or Local Harvest to find a farm!
Another type of turkey, called “heritage turkey” is worth considering. These birds are descended from early domesticated turkeys and have longer leaner bodies and intense flavor. But they often cost even more than certified organic turkeys, and they can be difficult to find around the holidays. Find out more at the Heritage Turkey Foundation.
As for hormone-free claims, no poultry in the U.S. is allowed to receive hormones so that claim, while truthful, isn’t worth paying more for. However, in conventional turkeys, the liver can harbor arsenic from a common “growth promoter” that is used widely in mass poultry production.
The “Certified Humane” label is a highly meaningful label–you can read more about it at www.greenerchoices.org/eco-labels. It’s not too hard to find turkeys with this label and it’s the best way to ensure that the turkey was treated humanely.
Alternatively, talking to the farmer at your local farmer’s market is another way to determine how well the animals were treated. To find a local farmer in your area, you can browse the Local Harvest website where you can visit their online store to purchase your tasty Tom online.
How big a turkey should you buy? The usual rule of thumb for buying turkey is about 1.3 pounds per person, and a bit more if you want leftovers.
When you’re ready to thaw and cook
When you’re ready to thaw a frozen turkey, leave the turkey in the refrigerator in its original wrapper and place it on a tray to catch any juices that may leak from the package. Bacteria in poultry juices can cross-contaminate other foods.
The USDA recommends that you allow 24 hours of thawing per 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. For example, a 16-pound turkey would take 3 to 4 days to thaw. A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for 1-2 days before cooking. Don’t thaw on the counter since that can ramp up bacterial growth.
If you don’t have the time or space to thaw the turkey in the refrigerator, don’t panic. You can submerge the bird in cold water and change the water every 30 minutes. Allow about 30 minutes defrosting time per pound of turkey. Cook immediately after thawing.
If you prefer to defrost in the microwave, check the manufacturer’s instructions for the size turkey that will fit into your oven, the minutes per pound, and the power level to use for thawing. Cook immediately after thawing.
Also, when handling a turkey, don’t wash it under the tap, that will lead to contaminated juices going everywhere. Use a dedicated meat cutting board, if possible, or put the turkey directly into pan; then clean counters with hot soapy paper towels once you have put the bird in the oven to avoid cross-contaminating foods.
Bacteria can live in a moist environment for awhile and can replicate rapidly, so keeping drips wiped up and then doing a thorough cleaning at the end is important. If you use a sponge for turkey clean up, put it in the dishwasher before you use it again.
Tips on safer cooking methods and tools
• The number one safety issue is to cook that bird thoroughly–that is, to at least 165 degrees F – high enough to kill bacteria. Use a meat thermometer to check the temperature in the thigh, which takes the longest to cook. If you stuff the bird, you should check the temperature in that area as well as the thigh.
• The last time that meat thermometers were tested by Consumer Reports, two were recommended: the Polder THM-360 for about $30 and the Taylor Weekend Warrior 806 for about $16. But any thermometer is better than none– it not only will make your turkey safer, but it will help to ensure a juicier bird too.
• If you want to use a deep-frying method of cooking, you should be careful and use an electric deep fryer designed for frying a large item. Avoid propane-fired deep fryers altogether. Follow directions carefully and don’t overfill the fryer with oil. You’ll also want to monitor the frying the entire time. And never put a frozen turkey into a fryer—it can cause an explosion.
• You always want to stuff a bird loosely, so the stuffing can expand as the bird cooks, and do it right before you put the turkey in the oven–don’t let stuffing sit in the cavity ahead of time where bacteria can grow.
• Use a shallow roasting pan—anything too deep ends up steaming the meat.
• Don’t cover the bird; if the skin is looking too dark and you have a lot of cooking time left, loosely cover just the breast with aluminum foil to keep the meat from drying out.
• Watch the bird like a hawk. To avoid a dry bird takes constant vigilance! Check the thermometer every 10 or 15 minutes toward the end of cooking.
• You can remove the skin when carving as the skin contains a lot of fat and calories, and some contaminants can reside there as well.
Afterwards— recipes for leftovers (adapted from the November 2010 Consumer Reports ShopSmart magazine)
After your meal, as soon as possible and preferably within two hours of cooking, you can cut the leftover turkey into small pieces. Refrigerate the stuffing and turkey separately in shallow containers.
After you have finished carving the meat off the bone, you can save the carcass in the refrigerator also. It should last another day or two for making soup stock.
• Wake up your palate. Invigorate your taste buds by adding spices like chili, cumin, or curry paste to leftovers. Try fajitas, turkey-and-cheese quesadillas, turkey chili, a Thai curry, turkey mole, or a southwestern turkey casserole.
• Boost the flavor of sandwiches. Instead of making another traditional sliced-turkey sandwich, cut the turkey into small chunks, add a little mayo, and toss in: some shredded carrot, a little Dijon mustard, and curry powder; or some herbs and celery slices; or hard-boiled eggs and walnut pieces; or dried cranberries, almond slices, and mandarin oranges; or chopped olives.
• Wait until you have a hankering for turkey. Instead of eating all the leftover turkey within a couple of days or throwing it out, cut some of it up into bite-sized pieces, divide it into the amounts you normally use in recipes, and store these portions in individual freezer bags. The next time you want to make a turkey-based dish—say turkey tetrazzini, turkey a la king, or turkey stuffed shells—thaw a bag and toss it in with the other ingredients for a quick meal. Stored properly, turkey will keep in your freezer up to four months.
For expert food-storage advice, download a PDF of “Keep It Fresh!” from the ShopSmart archives.