Love turkey? You’re in luck. Besides being a rich source of protein, turkey meat is an excellent source of iron, zinc and potassium. And it’s also low in fat if enjoyed without the skin. So if you’ve volunteered to prepare the turkey this year, let’s make sure that you do it right. This means choosing the healthiest bird and ensuring that you cook it properly. Trust us, your loved ones will thank you!
Skip the Free-Range Bird
A free-range turkey might sound like a good thing — as though the bird can live and roam freely, eating only what nature intended. But this may not necessarily be the case. According to the USDA, “free range” means turkeys have access to the outdoors more than 51 percent of their lives (their growing cycle). But what this translates to could vary from farm to farm and from one from part of the country to another.
“If a turkey stands around in a crowded dirt lot for a few hours, then is brought into the barn to eat genetically modified or nonorganic feed, that’s not your best bird,” explains registered dietitian and author Beth Reinke. Chances are that if your motivations are health and morality, you may need to look for more than a free-range label.
Go for Organic
For the healthiest bird, opt for an organic turkey. To qualify for the USDA’s Certified Organic program, not only must animals be free-range, but they also must be fed only non-GMO organic feed grown without chemical pesticides and can’t routinely be given antibiotic drugs.
That’s important. According to Consumer Reports, 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in America last year were used in industrially produced livestock to prevent disease and promote growth. The antibiotics in our food chain have doctors and organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention worried we’re creating antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
To ensure that the bird you buy is truly organic, look for food labels that include “USDA Organic/No Antibiotics,” “USDA Process Verified” and “Animal Welfare Approved.”
Turkeys labeled with an AWA seal come from farms that are audited annually; these birds are uncaged and grow unfettered, and they’re prohibited from being debeaked and declawed.
You can look for these labels at your local supermarket, but some quick research online might be helpful first. Animal Welfare Approved, for example, lists stores that sell these turkeys.
Organic turkeys cook quicker than industrial birds, so you’ll want to cook yours more quickly and at a high temperature to prevent it from drying out. Consider using a brine, which typically consists of salt, sugar and water. Brining the turkey for up to two days reduces moisture loss and makes it juicier.
On the day of your Thanksgiving feast, preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Brown the turkey in the oven for 20 minutes, and then turn the temperature down to 350 degrees to prevent the bird from overcooking. You’ll want to add about 12 minutes of cooking time per pound of turkey.
Continue cooking your turkey until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thigh registers 165 degrees Fahrenheit. And remember: It will continue to cook after it’s removed from the oven, so let it rest approximately 20 to 30 minutes before carving. This ensures that the turkey retains its maximum juiciness. Carving too early will allow the juices to flow out, which dries out the meat.
The USDA recommends that you allow for a pound of turkey per person, so you’ll probably want an extra half-pound per person if you’re planning on sending folks home with leftovers.
To keep the turkey from spoiling, don’t leave leftovers out at room temperature for longer than two hours. Maximize refrigerator space by dividing the turkey into smaller portions. Separate the meat from the bones, which you can use to make a hearty stock later on. Store everything in resealable plastic bags or airtight containers and place them in the refrigerator. The leftovers should be eaten within three to four days.
Not quite ready to eat nothing but leftover turkey for the next several days? Simply freeze the containers and enjoy within six months.