Shopping for Thanksgiving


Does buying a turkey puzzle you?  What do you need to know to select the very best?  The USDA inspects most turkeys.  When buying a turkey, make sure the label bears a seal indicating the turkey has had a USDA inspection.  The USDA grades turkeys either A, B, or C.  Grade A are the best quality.   A Grade A turkey will be plumper, have good body shape, adequate fat coverage, and all its pinfeathers should have been removed.  In addition, a Grade A turkey lacks cuts, bruises, broken bones, and will have no missing parts.

 Not so long ago, supermarkets would lure new shoppers in the door by offering really cheap birds.  If your supermarket does this, be leery.  Really cheap turkeys could be Grade B or C and might have missing wings and legs. 

 At the present time, Americans eat more ground turkey, turkey sausages, etc. Lower grade turkeys are often used for making these byproducts.  When buying a turkey byproduct, choose packages that bear the Grade A seal.  It will be a superior product. 

 Occasionally, a Grade A turkey might be missing a leg or wing.  When selecting your turkey, examine it carefully with your hands to be sure it has all its parts. 

 Turkeys are also classified based on their age.  A 4- to 8-pound turkey is called a fryer-roaster.  It is usually less than 4 months old.  The meat on a fryer-roaster will be the most tender. 

 A 4- to 8-month old turkey, will weigh between 8 to 24 pounds, and is called a Young Turkey.   Its meat will be tender and have the most flavor.  The average American Thanksgiving table serves a 16-pound turkey.  To serve a tender, juicy turkey, select a young turkey.  A 12-month old turkey is called a yearling and will not be as tender and flavorful as a young turkey, but is still acceptable.  A turkey that is older than 15 months is called a mature turkey.  He will be tough and not suited to roasting. 

 What constitutes a fresh turkey?  Fresh means a turkey has never been held at a temperature colder than 26 degrees F.  Even though water freezes at 32 degrees, turkey meat will remain pliable at this temperature. Fresh turkeys will cost more than frozen because their temperature needs require special handling.  A fresh turkey must be transported from the processing plant to the market at 26 degrees, and the supermarket must keep fresh turkeys between 38 to 40 degrees.

 When shopping for a fresh turkey, check for indications that it has been stored at the proper temperature.  Apply gentle pressure to check for signs of freezing or look for ice crystals.  A fresh turkey will feel pliable.  Supermarkets sometimes mound turkeys in refrigerated coolers above safe refrigeration levels.  Select turkeys that have been stored at least 2 to 4 inches below the top of the cooler. 

 Once home store fresh turkey in the coldest part of your refrigerator, which is usually the bottom shelf near the back.  Use a fresh turkey within 1 to 2 days of bringing it home. 

 Commercially frozen turkeys are flash frozen.  This is a process that cools them rapidly to 0 degrees F.  Flash freezing ensures the turkey will have the same level of freshness as the day it was frozen.  There is, therefore, no difference in quality between fresh or frozen.  Deciding whether you will buy by a fresh or frozen turkey depends on the space you have in your refrigerator or freezer for storage and how much hassle it is for you to defrost your bird.

 Frozen turkeys should be rock hard and show no sign of freezer damage.  Avoid purchasing packaged birds that have ice crystals.  Again, make sure your supermarket has  stored frozen turkeys below the cooler's freezer line.   This is generally 2 to 4 inches below the top of the freezer.  Frozen turkeys that are mounded in a freezer will begin to thaw at unsafe temperatures. 

 To ensure your turkey is safe, monitor the conditions in your supermarket to be sure they are holding poultry at appropriate temperatures. 

 If you purchase a frozen turkey, the best way to thaw it is in the refrigerator.  A frozen bird will take 24 hours to thaw for every 5 pounds it weighs so you should allow about 3 days for a 16-pound bird.  You can also thaw it in your sink by immersing it in cold water.  Allow 30 minutes per pound and change the frequently to ensure it stays cold.   

 If a frozen turkey has been defrosted and sold as fresh, the USDA requires that it be marked previously frozen.  The labels of frozen turkeys generally say:  "Keep frozen."  The labels of fresh turkeys generally say:  "Keep refrigerated."  If you have concerns a fresh turkey, has been frozen, check the label.  If it says "Keep refrigerated", you are probably correct. 

 Turkeys that are flash frozen will keep 1 year.  If your supermarket has a special on turkeys and you want to buy extra to save for later, the flash frozen turkeys will hold up better than turkeys frozen at home. 

 When buying a fresh turkey, always check dates.  Manufacturers will either date turkeys with a "Sell By", "Use By", or "Best If Used By" date.  A general rule of thumb for dates:  Retailers may not sell any product that has passed its "Sell By" date.  The product, however, will normally be good for 1 to 2 days after the "Sell By" date.  When product is marked with "Use By", under no circumstances use the product after that date.  The manufacturer does not stand behind its safety passed that date. When product is marked "Best If Used By", it is best if used by that date but may be acceptable for 1 to 2 days passed the date. 

 When shopping for either a fresh or frozen turkey, always check for tears or punctures.  Torn or punctured packages can allow bacteria to enter the bird. 

Check the label to determine whether or not your turkey is self-basted.  This means it has been injected with water, broth, or butter to enhance its flavor and tenderness.  Some brands are injected with up to 15 percent water.  I prefer not to buy a self-basted turkey as I don't like to pay whatever the current turkey price per pound is for water or broth 

 If you have questions on whether to purchase a turkey that has a pop-up timer to indicate when it is fully cooked, I have found these to be unreliable.  It is best to use a thermometer to determine whether your turkey is fully cooked.  When using a thermometer, turkey should be cooked to 180 degrees F between the breast and innermost part of the thigh, 170 degrees F in the thickest part of the breast, thighs and wings should be cooked to 180 degrees F in the thickest part, and stuffing should be cooked to 165 degrees F. 

 If you have to travel very far from the market back to your house, it's best to take a cooler packed with ice along to transport your turkey home.  This will ensure that your bird is not held at unsafe temperatures. 



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