Turkey is nation's holiday dish

At recent gatherings of family and friends, chance meetings in the supermarket or doctors office, the conversation has turned to turkeys. What size to buy, how to defrost, and should I cook it, stuffed or unstuffed? The long fall-winter holiday season begins with Thanksgiving and runs through New Years Day, Jan. 1. Not everyone cooks a turkey for the holidays, but it is the nations most popular holiday food item to serve as the centerpiece for a family dinner. After you decide how many people will be joining you for the feast and if you want leftovers, you can determine how large a turkey to buy. If you plan to purchase a whole turkey, one pound of turkey per person will definitely allow for leftovers. Turkey breasts are also available which are a great choice, particularly if you or your guests don't care for the dark meat. In this case, plan on 3/4 lb. per person to include extra for leftovers. So many choices: will you purchase a fresh or frozen turkey? If you purchase fresh turkey, buy it 1 to 2 days before you plan to cook it. You may need to order fresh turkey to insure that it will be available when you want to buy it. Once purchased, store fresh turkey in the refrigerator in a pan or on a tray to catch any juices that may leak from the package. If you purchase a frozen turkey, keep it frozen until ready to thaw. Remember, when thawing a frozen turkey, do it in the refrigerator. It takes about 24 hours thawing time for every 4 to 5 pounds of frozen turkey, so plan accordingly. A frozen 20 to 24 lb. turkey will take 5 to 6 days to defrost in your refrigerator. Be sure to put the frozen turkey in a pan or on a tray to collect any juice or liquid that is released as the fowl defrosts. Alternative methods of defrosting a turkey are in cold water or the microwave. The cold water method takes about 30 minutes per pound so a 20 to 24 pound turkey will take 10 to 12 hours to defrost. Be sure the turkey is securely wrapped (in original packaging). Submerge the turkey in cold tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes. Cook immediately after thawing. If you plan to defrost your turkey in the microwave, check your oven's instructions for the recommended power level, the size turkey the oven can accommodate, and the recommended amount of time for defrosting. Remove outside wrapping and place in a microwave-safe dish to collect any juices. Many microwaves do not recommend thawing or cooking a turkey over 12 pounds. In fact, many turkeys are too large to even fit in the microwave. Once the turkey is defrosted in the microwave, it needs to be cooked immediately. Remember to remove the giblets from the defrosted turkey cavity. Cook giblets separately to use in the gravy or stuffing. For those not familiar with giblets, they are the heart, liver, and gizzard of the turkey and are stored in the neck cavity of the bird. Roast turkey or turkey parts at 325 F. Turkey can be cooked stuffed or unstuffed. If you do stuff your turkey, stuff the bird loosely and begin cooking immediately. Don't stuff your bird and then let it sit before cooking. You can cook and chill the wet ingredients for stuffing (butter/margarine, celery, onions, and broth) ahead of time. Add dry ingredients just before stuffing into the bird. Stuffing, whether it is cooked in the bird or not, needs to reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 F. USDA changed their recommendations for cooking poultry last year. A whole turkey is safe when cooked to minimum internal temperature of 165 when measured with a food thermometer. Check the temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. Some folks may prefer to cook to a higher temperature. If your turkey has a "pop-up thermometer, USDA recommends that you also check the internal temperature of the bird in the thigh, wing, and breast as stated above. Turkey will cut more easily if you allow it to rest for 20 minutes after removing it from the oven. The short rest allows the juices to set. If you plan to cook a turkey 20 pounds or larger, make sure it will fit in your oven. If you are planning to cook a large turkey, it may be easier to cook two smaller birds than one large one; not only will the smaller birds cook faster; they may fit in your oven more easily.

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