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How to make your turkey the best it can be

Want to avoid making a turkey of your turkey? "Today" food editor Phil Lempert has tips on buying and cooking your holiday bird.

As Thanksgiving draws near, millions of Americans will be engaged in a single-minded pursuit: buying and cooking the perfect turkey. Here’s our advice for obtaining the best results, so that friends and family will ask, “How did you ever make that turkey taste so good?!”

So, set an extra place for me — and have a great holiday!

What kind of turkey to buy?
Most of us just head to the supermarket’s frozen section and pick out one with a brand name we know, but now there are more choices than ever:

  • Self-basting turkeys are those which have been injected with a solution to make it more tender and flavorful. Read the ingredients label carefully, as many of these solutions contain high amounts of sodium and some are loaded with artificial flavors.
  • Kosher turkeys are slaughtered and processed according to rabbinic laws and are treated with salt. Usually these taste great without any further preparation.
  • Natural, free range, cage-free, or organic turkeys are the fastest growing category in poultry. Read the labels carefully to insure what you are buying. A label that just states the bird is “cage-free” means just that — and nothing more. Look for specifics such as “100 percent organic,” or “hormone-free” to make sure you are getting a true “natural” bird.
  • To help consumers find turkeys raised without the routine use of antibiotics and growth promoters, as well as certified-organic and so-called “heritage” turkeys, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) has teamed up with the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment (GRACE) to launch a fully updated Eat Well Guide (), a free national online guide to meat raised with sustainable methods that features a special turkey section.

Storage and preparationAllow two to three days for a frozen turkey to thaw. And always thaw in the refrigerator — never on the counter. Although buying a “fresh” turkey sounds impressive, remember that one that is truly fresh will stay in good condition for only one to two days, and as a result is kept at a near-frozen temperature in the store. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allows poultry that has never been stored below 26ºF (which is 6 degrees below freezing point) to be labeled “fresh.” Here are some other tips:

  • A good estimate is that each guest will consume from 1/2 to 3/4 pounds of turkey. (And allow for 1 cup of stuffing per pound of turkey.)
  • Remove the fully thawed turkey from your refrigerator an hour before putting it in the oven.
  • Roast your turkey at 350ºF for 20 minutes per pound (for an unstuffed bird) and 25 minutes per pound for a stuffed one. Always use a meat thermometer and make sure the breast temperature reaches 170 degrees, and the thigh 180 degrees.
  • After cooking, don’t carve immediately! Cover the bird with loose aluminum foil. Wait 15 to 20 minutes before carving. This waiting time actually redistributes the juices and enables smooth carving as well as juicer meat. Always be sure to use a sharp knife with a narrow blade.

Want some “extra flavor”?Ethnic-inspired flavors, particularly from south of the border, are becoming more and more popular for Americans, so it’s no surprise that 60 percent of respondents in the Supermarket Guru October 2004 Consumer Panel said that they eat Mexican cuisine on a regular basis, and expect to eat even more in 2005.

And because turkey is bland, it can easily be spiced up. Says Miami-based Butterball culinary expert Astrid Volpert: “Because turkey blends so well with many different flavors, it's perfect if you're looking to experiment with different spices." Here are some of Volpert’s suggestions for Latin holiday dishes:

  • Prepare turkey with a cumin-based rub using lemon juice, cilantro and Tabasco sauce for an extra kick.
  • Put some zing into your favorite stuffing by adding chorizo (Mexican sausage).
  • Substitute traditional gravy with mole (a chocolate-based sauce) for a twist to your turkey.
  • Try adding cilantro, onions and peppers to mashed potatoes.

Talking turkey — resourcesThe Butterball Turkey Talk-Line (1-800-BUTTERBALL or ) is armed with experts ready to offer ideas on how to add extra flair to a traditional holiday feast. With 50 home economists and nutritionists answering questions in both English and Spanish and loaded with great recipes, they are prepared to assist with everything from how to prepare a tender and juicy turkey and what size bird to buy to what to do in case of a Turkey Emergency!

Another terrific source is the National Turkey Federation's Web site, . It’s an encyclopedia of cooking and preparation tips, with links to recipes and hints on how to buy, cook and carve the perfect holiday bird and make foolproof gravy. You can also find out what celebrity chefs are serving this season.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent