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Hosting first t'giving: fresh or frozen turkey?

  • k

My wife and I will be hosting both families for the first time this year, and we've been discussing what kind of turkey to buy. We both grew up on our parents' frozen turkeys at thanksgiving, but are now wondering if fresh might be better tasting. Is there a difference? Also, we assume the cooking process itself would be different (true?) - and therefore timing everything else.

Any thoughts are greatly appreciated. We'd rather not screw up our first effort, but I'm sure there are thanksgiving gods that ensure snafus of some kind for first-timers.

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  1. One key thing to do is brine your turkey-you are guarenteed tender juicy meat. Basically submerge it in one cup of kosher salt to one gallon of water for about 10 hours. Then rinse, dry and cook, baste occasionally.

    Golden rule when you think it needs to cook for another half hour, take it out of the oven. The turkey, as will any meat, continue to cook and stay warm-in fact ours was out of the oven for 45 minutes by the time we cut into it and it was still piping hot! Also by letting it rest the liquid evenly disperses through the bird, so when you cut into it you are not loosing that precious liquid that keeps it moist.

    You could experiment in smaller batches with chicken breasts (20mins brining time) or pork chops; just reduce the recipe to a quart with a quarter cup of salt. You can also experiment putting bay leaves, juniper berries, black peppercorn, smashed garlic or fresh herbs in the brine.

    7 Replies
    1. re: Marmie

      Absolutely critical step in brining: the brine (or water for the brine) must be below 40F by the time you put the turkey in. Otherwise, you raise the risk of bacterial breeding.

      1. re: Karl S.

        Another brining tip: brine for 18-24 hours (a CLEAN plastic 5-gallon plastic bucket from the hardware store works great), then let it dry on a platter in the fridge for another 4-6 hours before roasting. You'll get the benefits of brine but still get crispy skin.

        I like some sugar in my brine too, about half as much as the salt. I use as much salt as the water will hold in solution.

        1. re: Fnarf

          Agreed. The sugar helps boost browning of the skin, but more helpful is separating the skin from the flesh with herbed butters, and *not* basting.

          1. re: Fnarf

            I brine for 24 and dry in the fridge for 24 as well. The longer drying time makes for crispier skin.

            1. re: TomSwift

              Do you leave it in the open in your fridge or do you cover it with something? I would think that covering the bird with inhibit drying.

              Mr. Taster

              1. re: Mr. Taster

                I agree with you. I don't cover the bird with anything. The whole point is for it to dry out.

        2. re: Marmie

          Could I do a dry brine instead of a wet brine with a fresh bird?

        3. I recommend fresh. Despite what they say about getting it two days ahead, I have always gotten mine the weekend before without problem. Then again, I keep my fridge on the cold side (as one ought).

          The reason to get fresh is that, while it has likely been chilled below freezing and may actually have a couple of frozen areas when you get it, you are much less likely to have such patches by the time you cook it.

          With a frozen bird, you can find that, you may end up overcooking the bird (like to 180 instead of 163-165 in the deepest parts of the breast and thigh) in order to get the frozen bits in the deep thigh done right. Not worth it, from my point of view.

          1. Remember that NOTHING has ruined more Thanksgiving turkeys than insufficient thawing (well, except for me hitting the bourbon too hard too early). That's one good thing about a fresh bird. Brining will help thaw, but you're always going to run a risk of having frozen bits deep inside. And then the bird ends up being six hours late, and EVERYBODY's into the bourbon too hard.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Fnarf

              Amen!!!
              USDA Guidelines for defrosting in fridg:
              24hrs for every 5#
              8-12# - 1-2 days
              12-16# - 2-3 days
              16-20# - 3-4 days
              20-24# - 4-5 days
              Consumers information from USDA: 1-800-535-4555
              PS - put something under turkey to catch anything that might ooze out.
              Bob

            2. Ok, this is just my 2 cents- I only have anecdotal evidence to support these claims:

              I would reccommend the Fresh birds for one reason, and one reason only: they're already thawed.

              I grew up eating fresh turkeys (HOKA) and loved every Thanksgiving. When I finally grew up (sigh) I became a little thriftier and bought frozen birds. To be fair- I have been a professional cook for 3 years, but the frozen birds are almost indistinguishable from the expensive fresh ones.

              *NOTE* after having read my own post, I realized I presupposed 10+ guests if that is the case, read on... I'll add a more "resonable" entry at the end for a party of 6...

              That being said, having been a professional cook- there is nothing more difficult to wrangle than multiple inconsistnatly thawed & different sized birds. You'll be opening the oven every 10 minutes to check the temperature of the birds and the skin will never crisp.

              Go for the fresh, the extra money IS worth it, brine the birds (I like Alton Brown's suggestions, though the previous poster has some good suggestions, too), treat yourself to a probe thermometer (or 2) and keep it simple. Turkey is good as turkey. If you stuff them, you'll drive yourself to distraction trying not to kill your guests.

              Ok, now that sanity has returned: For a first time SINGLE turkey- Go for the frozen butterball! Those folks have been practicing making fool-proof turkeys for decades- they are basically pre-brined and very consistant.

              Now for the tips: Give the darn thing a LONG time to thaw. If you're lucky, your grocery store will pull a few to thaw in anticipation of the big day, but I wouldn't bet the farm on it! Thaw in the fridge for about 4 days before you want to cook it.
              When the beast is thawed, rub the whole birdy with melted buter, a lot of kosher salt and some black pepper. YOu could do more, but again, keep it simple the first time- you can always doctor the flavors with a yummy gravy.
              I won't start the hot-then-slow or slow-than-hot flame-war debate yet, but the most important thing is to cook the turkey until it's done. Not by time, but by temperature. That little doohicky that sticks out of the bird is a liar. Treat yourself to a decent probe thermometer (the kind you can leave in the bird and stick the base to the outside of the oven. You'll keep opening the door a hundred times for the stuffing and the sweet potatoes, so time doesn't mean as much. I cook my birds to 165. Carry-over heat will take care of the rest.

              Wow, am I rambling today or what?!
              You sound like a reasonably food-capable couple (you read this site, after all!) so good luck and happy Turkey!

              11 Replies
              1. re: jdherbert

                I too am hosting my first bird party with my girlfriend this year....

                A few questions for you, if you don't mind

                1) where should you stick the probe into the bird to ensure 165? I know when I'm making meatloaf to angle it at 45 into the middle but I have no idea what the deepest part of the bird is.

                2) what kind of a pan do you use to roast the bird? Can I use my glass pyrex? or should I use that one my mom always used (you know, the oval shaped black speckled one). Also, how do you prepare the pan? Line with foil? Or could that make funny flavors?

                3) Regarding stuffing, I've heard that excellent results can be had from stuffing under the skin of the bird. Is this true? It seems that all that lovely fat under the skin would melt into the stuffing, making it super savory and delicious.

                4) What size bird would you recommend for 6 people?

                Thanks so much!

                Mr. Taster

                1. re: Mr. Taster

                  1. The two places one tests for turky temp is in the breast and in the thigh. Thigh is tricky, because you have to avoid the bone, which I've always had trouble doing. The thickest part of the breast is on either side if the keel bone, about halfway between the high point of that and the wing joint. If you do the stuffing-under-skin, make sure the probe is down in the meat.

                  2. The oval speckled "roasters" don't really roast, they bake, though that works too. For roasting you use a large open pan - glass would do but it's way heavy - and a rack for the bird to sit on. Foil won't hurt anything, but it gets in the way of making gravy, which disqualifies it in my book, unless you're dealing with a rusty pan. You can coat everything with cooking spray if you want. Can't hurt.

                  3. I have slid stuffing under the breast skin - first time was in fact I was using an oval enamel "roaster" and the turkey wouldn't fit under the lid, so I boned out the breast (still on the turkey - "Your surgical skills amaze me, Dr. Owen!") and put the stuffing under the skin, and it was REALLY GOOD. But work. On a bird to be roasted in the open, you first gently loosen the skin on either side of the keel bone (but leave it attached down the middle), and then shove shallow handfuls of the stuffing in there until it's pretty close to capacity. You'll need to sort of mold it to shape from the outside. Don't tear the skin - in fact I usually take a big needle and cotton thread and sew up the hole in the skin where the popup thingy was.

                  BTW, it's not the turkey fat that bastes the stuffing, it's the butter in the stuffing that bastes the turkey breast, so use plenty. The stuffing also insulates the faster-cooking white meat, so that it actually cooks at about the same rate as the dark parts. This is the REAL benefit. Ensures non-balsa-like breast meat, too.

                  4. I do approx. 2 lbs per head, and usually have sufficient leftovers, so 12 lbs oughta do you. 14 would give you a margin. I did a 16-pounder plus two extra hindquarters (4-legged turkey is the family tradition) for eight of us, and took exactly enough home besides sharing a bit.

                  1. re: Will Owen

                    The only thing I stuff my Turkey with is celery, carrots, some sprigs of fresh sage and an onion or two. I bake my dressing on the side. It is easier to be sure that the dressing gets to the correct temperature, and in a big bird that may not happen and that can be a health risk. If you do elect to stuff you should remove all the stuffing from the cavity when the bird is roasted and not refrigerate leftovers with the stuffing inside.

                    Also, I recommend buying smaller turkeys, buy 2 if you are having a group and roast them together. They will cook more evenly and more quickly and there will be 4 drumsticks and 2 wishbones!

                    1. re: Candy

                      That's why the family turkey always gets an extra set of landing gear added! However, this year I think I am going to look into ordering two 8-pounders, partly for the reasons you cite, and partly because they'll be easier to schlep around.

                      As I did not really mention, the only stuffing that goes IN my bird is what's under the breast skin, not in the cavity...not so much for health reasons as that I just hate to deal with a turkey carcass that has stuffing jammed between the ribs. As for the stuffing itself, I like both sausage/cornbread and oyster/bread stuffing, and having two turkeys will give me an excuse to do both! Mostly baked separately...

                      1. re: Will Owen

                        Sausage and cornbread is my favorite but the oyster and bread is awfully good too. Something my mom taught me years ago is to add some dry vermouth (Noilly Pratt of course) to the melted butter for the dressing. It adds wonderful flavor to the dressings.

                        1. re: Candy

                          You're making my mouth water!!!

                          Please please please, under-the-skin stuffing recipes here please!

                          Mr. Taster

                          1. re: Mr. Taster

                            What I do is a 1 stick of unsalted butter at room temperature mixed with a bit of French dry vermouth, and chopped herbs - fresh sage, thyme, a mashed clove of garlic, flat leaf parsley, a bit of chopped rosemary all mixed up and then remove any rings and slip your hands under the skin of the turkey loosening it around the breast and thighs and legs. Then spread the herbed butter around under the skin. I salt and pepper the outer skin, freshly ground Telicherry pepper and roast.

                            1. re: Candy

                              I just make the usual sort of bread stuffing - I have even been known to use Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix and follow the recipe on the bag - making sure that there's enough butter in there, and that while it's not too moist, all the crumbs have soaked it up and aren't crunchy. If I'm doing oyster stuffing, I get jars of shucked oysters, drain and chop them, and add the liquid to the broth I'm using and the oysters to the whole thing. Proportions? Don' need no steenking proportions...

                              Under the skin takes about two cups of stuffing at most. The rest I put in a greased casserole dish and finish up in the oven.

                              1. re: Will Owen

                                Okay, I did not get that your were putting dressing under the skin. I was wondering if I was posting the wrong thing. I do put the herbed butter under the skin and bake my dressing seperately and yes I do succumb to Pepperidge Farms, somehow their cornbread dressing mix works out better than my own homemade for dressing. For either cornbread or oyster bread I just kind of wing it.

                                Chopped celery and onions in a heavy pot with a stick or so of butter and a clove of garlic put through the Suzi press, I don't know how much, just enough...when the veg are soft I add either the cooked crumbled breakfast sausage and the cornbread mix and stir. Then I add enough Noilly Pratt dry vermouth to moisten the whole but not make it too wet or soupy. It goes into a casserole, gets dotted with butter and baked until hot and the top crispy. For the oyster bread, it is the same proceedure but unlike Will I do not chop my oysters but fold them in whole and raw. I do add a bit of the oyster liquor but it gets the vermouth too. Both get some salt and pepper too maybe a bit of thyme and if I have it chopped fresh sage, my garden seemed to have lost the sage this year so I will be looking for some in the grocery. Taste it as you go along, be careful with the liquids, you can always add more and it is harder to take it away if you have added too much. I don't use eggs either, I think it gives you a gluey dressing.

                2. re: jdherbert

                  Thanks for saving me a lot of time, everything you said is what I believe after 30+ years of cooking family Thanksgivings. There is so much food that no one is totally concentrating on the quality of the turkey itself, it should be swimming in gravy and/or stuffing anyway! The outside-the-oven thermometer is a must, they beep when the meat hits your preferred temp, so you can be hanging out at happy hour; and the frozen turkeys are pre-brined, so save yourself all that work if you can.

                  1. re: jdherbert

                    as someone else who cooks for a living, my 2cents. Frozen birds are fine, just avoid any injected ones-
                    i.e. self basting birds or whatever marketing wants to call em(90%+ of them unfortunately)-they suck, usually pretty salty and the meat texture changes to mush. I don't brine em for the same reason-texture.

                    For 8 ppl, a 8-10lb bird is plenty-any larger and i will usually part em up and roast seperately-unless i need a grosse piece for display. Breast i cook to about 150f, dark 165-170f-all depending on size and carryover.

                  2. Frozen is the cheapest, usually by quite a bit, and if thawed in the fridge for 3 days the last day of which you brine the turkey, and baste properly with a little tin foil hat on it, you wont be able to tell the difference, I have done this with a year old turkey from the freezer, moist and tender.