How big a turkey should I buy for Thanksgiving? Will a hen or a tom turkey give me more for my money? And what can I do to disguise all of the leftovers so the family will actually enjoy them?
University of Illinois Extension's Turkey for the Holidays website offers quick, reliable answers to the most common questions cooks have about preparing a traditional Thanksgiving dinner – plus links to some fun holiday-themed activities to keep the kids busy while the grown-ups are busy in the kitchen.
The website is at http://urbanext.illinois.edu/turkey.
There are literally hundreds of ways to cook a turkey, according to Drusilla Banks, nutrition and wellness educator with U of I Extension. "And each year, chefs create new recipes and techniques based on trendy regional ingredients and creative cooking methods," she says. "Some are good, some are bad, and some are downright unsafe."
The Turkey for the Holidays website is designed to help busy cooks quickly find the information they need so they can avoid mistakes and problems. Thawing the turkey on the counter at room temperature is one of the more frequent and dangerous errors.
At room temperature, bacteria on the turkey can grow rapidly when the outside portion of the bird begins to thaw. These bacteria can multiply to dangerously high levels, producing toxins that cooking may not destroy.
One of the safest ways to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator, Banks adds. "We need to allow about 24 hours of defrost time for every five pounds of turkey. So a 20-pound turkey will take four to five days to thaw in the refrigerator. But it's easy to get preoccupied with other things and forget to move the turkey from the freezer to the fridge in time to be sure it's thawed out by Thanksgiving morning," Banks notes.
Thawing the bird in cold water is an alternative, but that, too, requires a bit of advance planning.
"Keep the wrapper on the turkey, and submerge it in a deep sink full of cold water," Banks advises. "Allow about 30 minutes per pound to defrost a turkey in cold water – and be sure to change the water every 30 minutes to keep it cold enough to prevent bacterial growth."
The website also includes some recipes for leftovers and recommendations on how long is too long to keep those leftovers.
As dessert is served, it's a good idea to put the leftover turkey and side dishes in the refrigerator. If roast turkey goes into the refrigerator within two hours after it comes out of the oven, it should be good for three to four days. Stuffing and gravy have a refrigerated shelf life of only one to two days before they may start to go bad.Many families, especially smaller households, may opt to buy ready-made Thanksgiving dinners from a local restaurant or supermarket. Any carry-out leftovers should be eaten the next day at the latest.