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The food and nutrition experts at Consumer Reports aren’t just scientists. They’re also enthusiastic home cooks who’ve hosted and prepared a holiday meal or 20 over the years. So when they share their best turkey tips, they cover all the bases—from food safety to serving strategies. Here’s their game plan.
Buy a Better Bird
Whether you buy your turkey at a grocery store or from a local farm, Consumer Reports recommends buying one that’s USDA certified organic, which means an independent certifier has verified that the farm that raised the turkey meets Department of Agriculture standards.
Among the many requirements in the USDA organic standards is a prohibition on the use of antibiotics after turkeys are two days old. The USDA Organic seal also indicates that the birds were fed organic feed from crops grown without the use of synthetic pesticides and genetically engineered seed, and that the feed doesn't contain animal byproducts or other types of drugs that can be added to the diet of a conventional turkey to promote growth. Organic turkeys do cost a little more, so if organic isn’t an option for you, your next best bet is to look for one with a label that has both a “raised without antibiotics” claim and the USDA Process Verified seal, which guarantees that this claim has been met.
Size It Right
To make sure you’ll have enough for all your guests plus leftovers, Ellen Klosz, M.S., a CR nutritionist and member of the food testing team, says to plan on about 1 pound of turkey for each person. “That may sound like a lot, but it takes into account the skin, bones, and other bits we don’t usually eat,” she says.
Leave Time to Thaw
If you buy a frozen bird, plan to thaw it in a refrigerator set to 40° F for 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds of meat. “A 16-pound turkey will take about four days to thaw,” says Klosz. “Put the wrapped turkey on a tray on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator,” she advises. “As it thaws, some water and juice will leak out of the plastic wrapping, and you don’t want that to get all over the fridge, spreading bacteria onto surfaces and other foods.”
If you forget, you can thaw your turkey in cold water, according to the USDA. Allow about 30 minutes per pound—so about 8 hours for a 12-pound bird—and change the water every 30 minutes. You should be ready to cook the turkey immediately after it has thawed.
Don't Give the Bird a Bath
“You can’t wash off bacteria with water, and rinsing out the turkey risks splashing its juices all over the sink,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a CR nutritionist and member of the food testing team. Instead, open the plastic wrap carefully and drain any liquid into the sink before discarding the wrapper. Pat the turkey dry, inside and out, with paper towels. Wash your hands and any utensils, using hot water and soap.
Don't Stuff It
“According to the USDA, the safest way to cook stuffing is outside of the turkey,” says Klosz. Stuffing can absorb the juices from the raw turkey. if the stuffing doesn't get hot enough (165° F), you and your guests could be susceptible to food poisoning, but cooking the bird until the stuffing is safe will likely lead to overcooked meat.
Rack It Up
Using a roasting rack allows hot air to circulate around the turkey, which results in a more even roast. If you don't have one, you don't need to rush out to buy one. All you want to do is lift the bottom of the turkey off the roasting pan. You can use a baking cooling rack. Or make your own rack by laying carrots across the bottom of the pan or scrunching aluminum foil into a log shape and then into a circle or spiral and placing the turkey on top of that.
Watch the Temperature
A crispy golden brown exterior may be your goal, but it’s the interior temperature that really matters. Too low and you risk food poisoning; too high and your bird may look a lot better than it tastes. CR’s tests have found that pop-up thermometers that come with many turkeys aren't 100 percent accurate. Use a meat thermometer instead.
Learn Correct Placement
“Take the turkey out of the oven, closing the oven door to keep the heat inside in case you need to roast it longer,” says Klosz. “Insert the meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh (not the drumstick), pushing it in about 2 inches and making sure you don’t hit a bone. Then, check the thickest part of the breast and the innermost part of the wing, keeping the thermometer horizontal as you insert the probe. Both should be 165° F.” (Check out top meat thermometers from CR's tests, below.)
Let the Turkey Rest
When the turkey has reached 165° F, remove it from the oven and let it rest, loosely covered, for at least 20 minutes to let the juices redistribute into the meat, says Keating. “That’s when you can make the gravy and finish up last-minute dishes.” Don’t let the cooked bird sit unrefrigerated for more than 2 hours, however. Any bacteria that may be present could multiply to harmful levels if the bird sits at room temperature longer than that.
Best Meat Thermometers From CR's Tests
Wiggling a drumstick or checking to see if the juices run clear aren't reliable ways of telling whether a turkey is done. For safety's sake, use a meat thermometer. These two are recommended models from Consumer Reports' tests. Members can access our full meat thermometer ratings.
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