MANHATTAN, Kan. - Shopping for a turkey sounds simple, but holiday cooks, and particularly first-time holiday hosts, can find labeling confusing, said Karen Blakeslee, K-State Research and Extension food scientist.
To begin, if buying a whole bird, it's best to allow about one pound per person. If choosing a boneless turkey breast, allow one-half pound per person, she said.
Should you choose a hen, or a tom?
"Simply put, a hen is a female and typically smaller in size; a tom is a male and typically larger," Blakeslee said. "The choice depends largely on the guest list. For a small crowd, choose a hen; for a larger crowd, a tom."
The flavor will be the same, she said.
Fresh or frozen?
"A fresh turkey will be chilled, but at a temperature no lower than 26 degrees F (the temperature at which poultry begins to freeze)," Blakeslee said.
If a fresh turkey is preferred, the food scientist advised ordering it in advance and picking it up a day or two before the meal.
Purchasing a frozen turkey in advance allows consumers to take advantage of sale prices, said Blakeslee, who noted that frozen turkeys must be stored at 0 degrees F or below. She advises shoppers to examine the packaging to make sure the turkey is frozen "rock hard."
"With a frozen turkey, consumers are reminded to allow plenty of time to thaw it," said Blakeslee, who recommended placing a frozen turkey (breast side up, and in its original wrap) on a pan with a lip in the refrigerator to thaw.
Allow 24 hours of thawing time for each 4 to 5 lbs.; for a Thanksgiving meal, for example, start thawing a 15-lb. turkey on Monday, she said.
What do other labels on turkey mean?
According to Blakeslee, hormones are not allowed in poultry production.
If a poultry product contains the claim "no hormones added" or "raised without the use of hormones," claims must be followed by "Federal regulations do not permit the use of hormones in poultry."
"Basted" indicates a turkey has been injected with solution of water, broth, butter, seasonings or other flavor enhancer, but, according to Blakeslee, basting does not guarantee improved flavor or better quality.
A "free-range turkey" must have access to the outdoors at least 51 percent of the time, and a "fryer-roaster" indicates a young turkey, less than 16 weeks old and of either sex.
"Natural" or "all natural" indicates that meat and poultry products have minimal processing and do not contain artificial flavoring, coloring, preservatives, artificial or synthetic ingredients.
"No added antibiotics" or "raised without use of antibiotics" requires producers to document that animals were raised without antibiotics in feed, water, or intra-muscular.
Designation as "organic" indicates that a product meets the USDA requirements of the National Organic Program, which prohibits the use of genetically engineering methods, ionizing radiation and sewage sludge for fertilization and also includes processing requirements.
"Organic methods alone cannot guarantee food safety and security, said Blakeslee, who noted that organically produced eggs were recently found to carry salmonella.
Forget to thaw the turkey?
To quick thaw a frozen turkey, place the turkey (in its store wrap) in a deep sink or tub of clean cold water.
Allow about 30 minutes per pound for thawing using this method, said Blakeslee, who advised checking progress and changing the cold water every 30 minutes.
A smaller turkey or turkey breast can be thawed in a microwave oven, said Blakeslee, who advised consumers to check manufacturer's instructions.
Thawing a frozen turkey in a microwave oven begins the cooking process, and that will need to be continued, the food scientist said.
A frozen turkey can be roasted from a frozen state, but will require significantly more roasting time. The extended cooking time can dry out tender poultry.
Why you need a meat thermometer.
To estimate roasting time, plan on 20 minutes per pound plus 20 minutes of resting time to allow juices to congeal, rather than escape, and 10 minutes for carving.
Test doneness - an internal temperature of 165 degrees F - with a meat thermometer, said Blakeslee, who cautioned consumers about relying on pop-up timers inserted in a turkey breast and packaged with many commercially available turkeys.
"The heat triggers the pop-up timer, but the probe only measures one spot on the turkey," said Blakeslee, who recommends inserting a meat thermometer into the breast and thigh areas (not touching the bone) for an accurate reading.
Meat thermometers are available in supermarkets, kitchen and discount department or hardware stores. The simplest dial styles can cost $10 or less; more sophisticated or gadget like thermometers will cost more.
Quantities may vary, but timing similar to everyday meals.
"Plan the menu, and decide what you can reasonably make ahead," Blakeslee said. She encourages hosts to invite guests to bring foods that travel well - salads, sides, desserts or condiments - to share the responsibility and satisfaction in a successful gathering.
Focus on food safety, said Blakeslee, who noted that one of the single most important food safety and health rules - washing hands before and after handling raw and cooked foods, and before and after eating - is often overlooked.
"Make sure soap and towels are available in the kitchen and bathrooms," she said.
MANHATTAN, Kan. -- While some might argue "holiday foods taste better the next day," most will agree that holiday leftovers save time and money during the busy holiday season, said Karen Blakeslee, K-State Research and Extension food scientist, who offered tips for maintaining flavor and quality:
* Transfer perishable foods to shallow (two-inch) container to speed cooling, cover and refrigerate within two hours - or less.
* Use leftovers within two to three days, or wrap, label, date and freeze for future meals.
* Reheat leftovers to 165 degrees F before eating.
* If leftovers develop an off color, texture or aroma, skip a taste test and discard.
More information on food storage and preservation is available at K-State Research and Extension offices throughout the state and online: www.rrc.ksu.edu and www.ksre.ksu.edu/humannutrition/.
K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus in Manhattan.