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Published: 11/13/2007

Sizing up your turkey: Decide on fresh or frozen, size, and cooking technique

BY KATHIE SMITH
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

I had a hard time ordering a fresh turkey in late October. The fresh turkeys weren't due to be in the markets until a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. One meat manager said, "why don't you just thaw a turkey?" But I wanted it fresh. After all, why can't a medium-size metropolitan area like Toledo have fresh turkeys at major supermarkets throughout the year? We can, but plan on ordering ahead of time.

Meat manager Reg Behlmer of Giant Eagle in Rossford ordered a fresh Honeysuckle bird for me and estimated it was about 14 pounds.

At Campbell Poultry at the Toledo Farmers Market, Judy Campbell had a 12-pound farm-raised fresh turkey. She says she can get fresh turkeys up to 22 pounds from several local farms with two to three day notice.

"People realize the difference in taste in fresh turkey because they are young and tender and have less fat," she told me. "They're not injected with hormones or antibiotics" or salt solution. Cooking time tends to be less.

Sizing up your holiday turkey involves so many decisions from fresh or frozen to the size and the cooking technique.

It all begins with how many people will be having dinner around your holiday table. If it's a big bird that you want, Butterball recommends 1 1/2 pounds of turkey per person for generous servings and leftovers.

And yes, I did end up with a frozen 16-pound turkey with the help of Mr. Behlmer. Butterball recommends one day of thawing in the refrigerator for every four pounds of turkey. After defrosting it in my refrigerator, I had to make sure the bird would fit in the roasting pan.

A deep pan is best, with plenty of room so that the legs and wings don't hang over the sides. I think a deep pan also minimizes spattering from the natural juices that cook out of a turkey.

If the bird is still frozen on Thanksgiving morning, keep the turkey in its wrapper in a clean sink and cover with cold tap water, advises How to Cook A Turkey and All the Other Trimmings from the Editors and Contributors of Fine Cooking (Taunton, $19.95). The turkey will thaw at a rate of 30 minutes per pound.

The book also reminds that cooks map out the space they have in the refrigerator and the oven. Before you go to the supermarket clean the fridge to make more space. Arrange the shelves so they can accommodate the turkey and other cumbersome dishes. As you decide on each dish, decide how it will get cooked, especially if you have only one oven and the turkey takes 3 to 4 hours to roast.

Choose dishes that can be staggered in your oven or cooked on your stove top or microwave/convection ovens.

For some folks, the idea of grilling a turkey or frying a turkey helps address the lack of oven space.

Gas or charcoal grilling adds a distinct smoky flavor to turkey and can reduce the cooking time, according to The Spice Hunter. Be sure to season well inside and out but don't stuff the bird. Bake the stuffing in a separate dish.

When grilling, estimate 15 to 18 minutes per pound. Place a drip pan on the grill grate to catch drippings form the turkey and to prevent flare-ups. Use the rotisserie if you have one. During cooking, add water to this pan periodically to maintain a moist environment in the grill, advises Cal Flame.

A rotisserie via the George Foreman Grill or other counter top model can provide an easy, counter top way to roast a small turkey evenly, according to Spice Hunter.

Brining has become a popular way to prepare turkey. Brining involves a strong solution of salt and water with herbs, spices or sugar to preserve the flavor. During the cooking process, meat can lose up to 30 percent of its water, according to Fire & Flavor Grilling Co. Properly brined and cooked meat can reduce the water loss by as much as half.

Brining a turkey in the refrigerator takes a day. Make a wine brine or a white cranberry juice brine or a honey brine. When you add sugar it does make the turkey brown faster.

Brine mixes are available. Fire & Flavor Grilling Co. has Turkey Perfect Herb Brine Mix. "We have the perfect ratio of sodium and sugar to water for a large turkey," said Gena Knox, owner of the company. "Too much salt can overbrine. If you have too little salt, you don't get the benefit."

The herbs in the Turkey Perfect Herb Brine Mix, which sells for $5.99-$6.99, includes sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, and black pepper. The product is available at Whole Foods and select Kroger stores, and www.fireandflavor.com. For more information on brining visit www.turkeyperfect.com.

No matter what cooking technique you use, turn the turkey's wings back to hold the neck skin in place. This levels the turkey in the roasting pan to encourage even cooking and make carving easier.

Butterball recommends a 325 degree oven when roasting a turkey. Use a meat thermometer and cook turkey to proper temperature (180 degrees in the thigh and 165 degrees in the center of the stuffing). Be sure the meat is done around the bone.

Roast Turkey with Cranberry Orange Glaze is made with maple syrup, cranberry juice, and orange marmalade.

For a smaller Thanksgiving celebration, prepare a turkey breast such as BBQ Spice-Rubbed Turkey Breast. For this recipe, the brown sugar mixture is slipped between the skin and the meat. It's a technique described in Better Homes & Gardens Any One Can Cook (Meredith Books, $24.95). Starting at one side, slip your fingers between the skin and the meat to loosen skin. Gently pull back the skin, rub the mixture over the meat. Pull skin back over top. Insert an oven-safe thermometer into the thickest part of the meat, but don't touch the bone.

Once the turkey is done, remove it from the oven or grill and transfer to a cutting board. Cover with foil and let stand for 15 to 20 minutes before carving. Use the time to complete the side dishes and then carve the turkey.

Turkey with all the trimmings makes your traditional holiday meal complete.

Kathie Smith is The Blade's food editor. Contact her at food@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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