The word on the bird? Start early, plan a little, and then you'll be cooking Turkey 101

November 17, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

Has the thought of cooking your first turkey got you gobbling with anxiety? Don't give it another thought. There's nothing to it.

Turkeys may be big, but they're not difficult to fix. And no matter the size, the method is exactly the same. With just a little planning, you can prepare a bountiful feast and still have energy and time to enjoy it yourself.

You might think about parceling out some of the meal duty to relatives or friends; ask them to bring a dish, or entertainment, or, at the least, a bottle of wine or a special blend of coffee.

The most difficult part of preparing such a large meal as Thanksgiving dinner is following a schedule of tasks. There is no help for people who don't remember until a couple of hours before the meal that the turkey has to be thawed, or who discover on Thanksgiving morning that the oven doesn't work.

But if you roughly follow from task to task, you will find there is a fair amount of leeway; and there is plenty of help as you go along, from cookbooks, friends, and a number of holiday hot lines set up to answer exactly the kind of questions you might have. (Be warned, however, that the closer it gets to the meal, the harder it may be to get through to the national help-line counselors.)

The main thing is to enjoy the process of preparing the meal. It's an adventure, it's a learning experience, and it's amazingly rewarding to be able to sit down to a table and nourish those close to you with a fabulous feast you -- and they -- have prepared.

If you just can't imagine having fun at this, there is a secret solution, known largely to the crafty and the desperate. You can buy turkeys roasted to perfection. This is obviously not the cheap route -- a prepared roast turkey with stuffing and gravy might cost upward of $3-$4 a pound. And you may have to do some fancy footwork to get it on the table at the proper time. But if youwould rather fuss with desserts or mash potatoes and leave the big bird to someone else, try supermarkets, gourmet shops and even caterers to find one to prepare the turkey.

But really, roasting a turkey is not hard; and once you know how, it tends to stick with you. So it gets easier and easier over time. All the more reason to start now.

Here's a guide to tackling Thanksgiving, prepared with assistance from Dorothy Jones, a home economist who supervises the 48 specially trained turkey experts at the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line.

Buying the bird

Turkeys come in two states -- frozen and fresh -- and two forms -- whole or breast only. And they come in a wide range of sizes -- most commonly from about 8 pounds up to 20-some pounds.

Get a frozen turkey if you want to buy it ahead, and if you have freezer space to store it and refrigerator space to thaw it.

Buy a fresh turkey if you can pick it up a day or so before the meal and have refrigerator space to store it. Some stores don't stock fresh turkey; you may have to order in advance.

Allow 1 1/2 pounds of purchase-weight meat per person if you count on leftovers; only 1 pound if you don't.

For instance, to serve eight people and still have leftovers, buy a bird that weighs 12 pounds. To serve 12, buy an 18-pound bird.

Thawing a frozen turkey

Frozen turkeys must be thawed in the refrigerator. Allow 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey weight for thawing. A 12- to 16-pound bird will take two or three days to thaw. It must be kept in the refrigerator, in its original wrappings, during the entire time. Place it on a tray to contain any escaping juices.

You can, if time is limited, thaw a turkey more quickly by using a cold-water method, but it requires nearly constant supervision. Submerge the turkey, in its original wrappings, in a sink, bathtub or laundry tub in water as cold as you can get it to run. Every half hour, change the water completely. It will take a half hour per pound to thaw the turkey; thus a 12-pound bird will thaw in six hours -- and the water will need to be changed five times. You can combine methods: Thawing the turkey in cold-water baths for three hours in the evening, then refrigerate it overnight, and return to the water-bath method the next morning.

Preparing turkey for roasting

Remove the neck and bag of giblets tucked inside the cavities of the turkey. (Discard or refrigerate and save for another use, such as making stock.) Do not forget this step. Failing to remove the neck and giblets is the most common mistake fledgling turkey-roasters make.

Rinse the turkey thoroughly, inside and out, with cold water, and pat it dry with paper towels. Tuck the wingtips under the wings. Salt and pepper the turkey as desired. Tie the legs together with cotton string, or use one of the trussing devices currently on the market. Place the turkey on a rack in a roasting pan large enough to hold it comfortably. (Buy one of those aluminum foil pans at the grocery if you don't have a big enough pan. Some people buy two pans for heavier birds, and cook the turkey with one pan tucked inside the other for sturdiness.)

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