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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

              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.

            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.

                    1. fresh is always the best-
                      it may cost more but it tyastes better-
                      if you want to impress knowledgeable guests buy a heritage or a wild turkey-
                      otherwise just a fresh turkey which has not been frozen-
                      try fresh cranberry sauce-it is very easy to make-directions are on bag of fresh cranberries-

                      1. I am a 10-time first timer, as in, I've hosted or done the major cooking for Thxgiving at least 10 times, but each time, I feel like a first-timer, since every year I have to try some new "technique" or something unexpected happens and there's disaster in the kitchen.

                        So I agree fresh bird = easiest for a first timer only because it's thawed. I also agree you should brine it, and buying a fresh one means you're not risking double-brining a frozen pre-brined bird.

                        If after you decide on your bird, you need to decide on grill vs oven, what heat to use, etc, then here's my advice:

                        I've found AB's high then low with a tin-foil hat method is the best method (and adapted for the grill with some wood chips it's even better), but AB's method is NOT a good method for a first timer. The 500 degree start produces a lot of smoke and makes your guests wonder if you know what you're doing when you first open the oven, plus it's hard to know when exactly is the best time to put the tin foil on: too late and you've got unsightly uneven skin darkening (and some times blackening), too early and you won't get AB's GBD (golden brown delicious) skin. So even though his method is closest to the one I'm using this year, I think you should use Butterball's low & even 325 degrees method, as long as you cook by temperature not by time. The brining, not the oven temp., is the key, and under all that gravy, cranberry, etc. it's hard to tell the difference btw an AB bird and a Butterball bird. So stick a thermometer into the thickest part of the breast, almost parallel to your roasting pan, and roast until 164-169 in the breast). Yeah yeah, AB says 161, but if you're a first-timer I'd be safe and do 164-169. Brining will make the breast juicy even if the breast is roasted to 169.

                        Oh and the hardest thing for a first timer is to time all the dishes to be ready AND piping hot at the same time. So make ahead as much as you can, esp. if you plan to make gravy from scratch. You do NOT want to wait until the bird comes out of the oven to start a roux for the gravy. Oh, and by the way, you won't get much pan juices from a brined bird anyway.

                        1. I'm going to go out on a limb and vouch for the frozen turkey, and here's why:

                          Fresh turkeys never go below the freezing point in a bird (or are never supposed to, at least), which means that the internal temperature of the bird can fluctuate anywhere between 26 and 40 degrees. Because the flesh is soft, it's also a lot more vulnerable to being bruised as it's being tossed around in shipment & storage. That may not be an issue in the 11 other months of the year, but before Thanksgiving, you can bet that there's going to be a few mishandled birds. Add the spectre of time-temperature abuse, and it's not looking so hot.

                          A frozen bird is commercially flash-frozen right after the bird is killed, which means that it's at its best quality point. Today's flash freezers are so good that you'll never be able to tell the difference. (Just visit your neighborhood sushi joint if you want proof; odds are, everything there was flash frozen before it even got to the restaurant.) Being brick-hard means it's a pain to thaw, but it also means it didn't get beat up.

                          You can also get a "refrigerated" bird, which is frozen, but at 0 to 26 degrees F, and not sub-zero like a USDA "frozen" bird.

                          Also, if the prospect of brining seems too much, you can always buy a kosher bird, which is essentially pre-brined.

                          Good luck, and happy eating!

                          1. I think that fresh vs. frozen is too general. You can get a fresh bird, but if it's from a crappy farm/ranch or hasn't been handled properly from the farm to you, then it can be no better or worse than frozen.

                            I agree w/ the below poster who says that frozen can be better sometimes b/c it is quickly flash frozen and can take rough handling better than fresh. For instance, frozen shrimp can sometimes taste better than what's labeled fresh to me.

                            I bought a fresh one last year at 99 cents/lb. from Nob Hill Foods in CA, and while it looked milky fresh and I liked that it's legs were more in proportion to its breasts, it didn't taste much better than frozen to me.

                            While my sister will be making the turkey this year, I'm going to buy a turkey for us anyway so I can experiment in the kitchen. I've heard good things about Diestel turkeys (see link), and they're in my price range (about $2/lb.) compared to Heritage birds which are double that. Store locator is available on their site. So...I think you should look beyond fresh or frozen and find a good turkey farm, as well as a trust-worthy retailer. Good luck!

                            Link: http://www.diestelturkey.com/

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: Carb Lover

                              Re your turkey experiments, are you going to try any Zuniesque dry brining, or do you think a turkey is too big a bird for this to work?

                              1. re: LindaMc

                                You guessed it; I'm going to try dry brining since I wasn't crazy about the results from my first attempt at wet brining last year. For others wondering about dry brining, please see prior threads on this (or refer to the Zuni book or Thanksgiving issue of Fine Cooking) since I feel like I've repeatedly described this method in the past.

                                Anyhow, I'm not sure how it's going to turn out, but I'm feeling freed up since I won't be making THE Thanksgiving turkey this year. I'm going to use a small bird, 8-10 lbs. and pre-season w/ S&P 2-3 days in advance to give it extra time to penetrate. Will also shove some thyme and maybe some rosemary under the skin. I'll use the same ratio of 3/4 tsp. of kosher salt per pound of meat. I'm going to sprinkle a fair amount of seasoning inside the cavity, which I don't tend to do w/ the Zuni chicken.

                                As far as roasting, I'm going to start on high heat and then turn down to finish. I'll probably flip the bird a couple of times like the Zuni recipe. If I had a roasting pan that could go on top of the burner, I would even pre-heat the pan like the Zuni recipe. I think I'll rub a little olive oil on the outside of the skin but not use any butter and not baste at all. We'll see what happens...

                            2. I've made fresh and I've made frozen and both are good. I would just suggest getting the highest quality you want to pay for. I used to get fresh ones from the (regular, not Whole Foodsy) supermarket, and they were pretty darn good. Now I get my turkey from my organic/sustainable market vendor, and it is generally frozen. These are always great. One year we ended up going elsewhere for Thanksgiving and our turkey stayed in the freezer until Easter. It was still delicious!

                              There are absolutely kitchen gods particular to first time Thanksgiving cooks. A Thanksgiving dinner was my first real cooking experience--I was newly married, extremely poor and beyond a novice in the kitchen of my tiny studio apartment. Against my better judgement (I fully expected the meal to be a disaster) I invited a couple of people from my office who had no place to go. I had never even roasted a chicken but I cut out recipes from the Washington Post food section, including those featured in ads by the Giant supermarket! To my surprise everything turned out just fine, and the experience gave me confidence to continue cooking--my first step on the road to chowishness!

                              Relax, brine and enjoy!

                                1. I would buy fresh ONLY if you had the chance to pick out the bird and have it slaughtered and dressed on Thanksgiving morning, or if you absolutely cannot trust yourself to thaw a bird adequately. Otherwise, your 'fresh' bird will likely be older than your frozen bird. As noted earlier, a frozen bird is flash-frozen as soon as it's slaughtered, and the technique is so good these days that you lose very little in quality from the freezing. The typical 'fresh' bird from your local market, has probably been dead anywhere from one to seven days. It'll be fresh as in "never been frozen", but not as close to the condition it was when slaughtered as a frozen bird.