Thanksgiving Turkey 101

A quick trip to your local market will reveal a nearly bewildering array of options when it comes to buying a turkey: fresh, frozen, whole, in pieces, stuffed, unstuffed, cooked, or uncooked, just to name a few. The confusion stops here! We’ll give you the information you need to buy a great Thanksgiving turkey.

The Weigh-In
Roasted turkey is meant to make a spectacular entrance, so don’t skimp on size. I always recommend buying a bird that weighs a little more than you think you’ll need. Calculated well, there should be plenty of turkey for dinnertime and enough leftovers for all the turkey sandwiches your family could want. To save room for pumpkin pie, serve lighter portions — about 3 to 4 ounces, cooked — per person. Too many leftovers? No problem: just toss them into a pot of turkey soup.

Here are some guidelines for buying turkey in various forms:

Ready-to-stuff turkey, fresh or frozen: 1 1/2 pounds per person.

Stuffed turkey, frozen/uncooked: 1 3/4 to 2 pounds per person.

Breast of turkey with bone in, fresh or frozen/uncooked: 3/4 pound per person.

Boneless turkey, breast or thigh and leg, fresh or frozen/uncooked: 1/2 pound per person.

Fresh or Frozen?
Fresh or frozen, turkeys are tasty and terrific. Fresh turkeys are all-natural and require only roasting, no thawing. I suggest buying a fresh bird the day before it’s served and storing it in your refrigerator’s coldest spot.

If you buy a frozen turkey, try to avoid self-basters — they’re injected with fat (for added juiciness), which can produce a strange aftertaste. Frozen birds must be completely defrosted before roasting. Do this in the refrigerator, which may take up to 2 or 3 days depending on the weight of the bird (a good rule of thumb: 24 hours of defrost time for every 5 pounds of turkey). You should never thaw the bird on a countertop — no matter how clean your kitchen is, there’s always a risk of bacteria contamination. The bird is ready to roast when a thermometer inserted into a thick portion of meat reads 40°F.

If you need to thaw a turkey in a pinch, leave it sealed in its original bag and place it in a sink filled with cold water; this will reduce the thawing time to 2 to 7 hours. Make sure to change the water frequently and always cook the bird immediately after defrosting. Never refreeze thawed meat before cooking.

The most hassle-free and expensive turkeys come roasted and ready for the table. Many specialty markets, some restaurants, and food mail-order catalogs allow customers to place an order for roasted turkeys with all the fixings “to go.” These slice-and-eat turkeys are lifesavers if you’re traveling one day and hosting a Thanksgiving dinner the next. They also come in handy if your oven is on the fritz or you’re too short on time to shop and cook.

Turkey Outreach
Even if Mom’s not around, you don’t have to be on your own in the kitchen. There’s professional advice — actually 48 professionally trained home economists — at your fingertips through the Butterball® Turkey Talk-Line (1-800-323-4848 in the U.S. and Canada) and Web site, If you have a question, leave a phone or email message. Responses are answered within 48 hours.

The line operates from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday (CST) from November 1 to December 23; the weekend prior to Thanksgiving Day (U.S.), they are open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (CST), and on Thanksgiving Day from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. (CST).

Beth Allen is the president of Beth Allen Associates, Inc., a food-marketing communications firm in New York.

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