Turkey Day

Planning ahead is the key ingredient to cooking the perfect Thanksgiving Day turkey.

Thanksgiving Day tables feature an assortment of delicious casseroles, sides and desserts, but the star of the feast is always the bird.

Eighty-eight percent of Americans surveyed by the National Turkey Federation eat turkey on Thanksgiving, and 46 million turkeys are eaten each Thanksgiving Day.

“There are 1,000 different ways to cook a turkey,” said Lee Ann Flemming, the Commonwealth’s food columnist.

To make the perfect bird this year, cooking experts say it’s important to plan ahead.

First, Turkey Day chefs need to determine how many people they will be feeding.

“When they go to the grocery store, they should budget about a pound to a pound and a half per person, depending on how many people they are trying to feed,” said Caleb Cox, who owns and runs the Greenwood restaurant By the Bridge Bistro with his brother, Ben Cox.

So, for instance, if a Thanksgiving feast will include 10 people attending, a 10- to 15-pound turkey is needed.

Because most turkeys are bought frozen or purchased in advanced and stored in a freezer, thawing the bird is another important step in preparing the Thanksgiving Day centerpiece.

Cox said it’s important to make sure a turkey is thawed properly. He said to not leave a turkey out to thaw. A turkey should be thawed in a refrigerator.

“That prevents any foodborne illnesses,” he said.

He suggests moving the turkey to a refrigerator to thaw by Sunday, so it’ll be ready to cook by Thanksgiving morning.

Flemming said the thawing process almost ruined her Thanksgiving Day feast last year.

After the passing of her mother-in-law, for the past couple of years Flemming has been responsible for preparing the turkey and dressing at her family’s Thanksgiving Day meal held at her home.

“The dressing isn’t a problem, but the turkey I did not thaw out long enough,” she said.

Flemming said the turkey’s packaging said to thaw the bird for three to five days. “I think I did four.”

The 14-pound turkey, which was set to feed about 15 people, was not completely thawed, making it impossible for Flemming to retrieve the package of giblets stuffed inside the bird.

On Thanksgiving Day, she said, “I thought I would just wake up that morning and pop it in the oven. Well, I was wrong.”

“My husband had pliers and a hammer. We had hot water running over it. It was a catastrophe,” she said. “We had everything but a blow torch after that turkey. ... But it ended up good in the end, and we learned a valuable lesson about what to do and what not to do.”

Not taking any chances with her turkey this year, Flemming said Friday, “I put it in the refrigerator yesterday” so it will thaw out over a week.

“I’m not fighting that thing again this year,” she said.

Flemming also recommends checking inside both the main cavity of the bird and in the neck cavity to locate all of the giblet packages.

Preparing the bird for the oven doesn’t take a lot of time.

“I just looked at a lot of different recipes and kind of made my own,” said Flemming.

Some ideas are to place sliced celery, onions, an orange, apple or lemon inside the turkey’s main cavity.

Flemming seasons her turkey with olive oil, seasoned salt, salt, pepper and some rosemary. Then, it’s ready for the oven.

Cox usually caters smoked turkey breasts for his customers’ Thanksgiving Day meals.

In a typical year, about 50 to 100 turkey breasts are prepared for customers. Cox will be going out of town this year, so only 30 will be prepared for Thursday.

“I usually don’t sleep for 48 hours that week of our Thanksgiving turkey breasts and catering,” he said. “Somebody’s got to watch the grill constantly.”

The turkey, injected with garlic butter and featuring a barbecue rub, is smoked for six to eight hours on hickory and apple wood.

“That’s the only way we cook them,” he said.

For cooking a turkey in the oven, Cox suggests putting a layer of chopped vegetables — onions, carrots, celery or other root veggies — on the bottom of a sheet pan and then adding the bird on top.

“Traditionally, most people will buy a roasting rack, and all the juice just drips down and burns in the bottom of the pan,” said Cox. “But if you have it sitting in a pile of vegetables, your bird is going to be moist because of all the water that’s going to cook out of all those vegetables. ... Once the bird is complete, you have all those nice roasted vegetables down in the bottom for the gravy, or an actual side if you like root vegetables.”

To keep from having to open the oven constantly — which makes the oven temperature fluctuate and effects the cooking time — to baste the turkey, Cox said to rub the bird down with oil or butter, olive oil preferably, before cooking. That will also keep the bird moist and give it a “nice, crispy skin,” he said.

The turkey needs to be cooked until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees. The thermometer should be inserted in the thickest part of the turkey, usually the breast.

“The white meat cooks quicker than the dark meat, so I always insert it in the breast and each of the wings to make sure,” Cox said.

If the turkey is sharing the oven with other Thanksgiving fare, Cox said one side of the turkey may be done and the other side may be lacking a few degrees of doneness.

“I always recommend checking each side, and not to trust the pop-up thermometers that come in the turkeys,” he said.

Cox recommends using a meat thermometer.

He also added, “Anything over 170 degrees is going to be dry.”

After the Thanksgiving meal, it’s important to make sure the cooked turkey is not left out past four hours. After that, the turkey “is at high risk of causing a foodborne illness,” Cox said.

It’s important to “make sure you properly refrigerate your turkey as soon as possible once everybody is done and refrigerate leftovers within four hours of use.”

Flemming provided another turkey tip for those wanting the perfect Thanksgiving bird but feeling a bit overwhelmed less than a week away from the big day. “Just get somebody else to fix it or buy one,” she said with a laugh.

• Contact Ruthie Robison at 581-7235 or rrobison@gwcommonwealth.com.

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