The Bird Basics

November 11, 1998. BY SUSAN SELASKY Free Press Test Kitchen Director.

Who would have thought that a mere bird could be so intimidating? We're not talking condors. These are turkeys, for heaven's sake. Plump, pasty-skinned fowl with all of the personality of oatmeal. But on Thanksgiving, turkeys can turn even experienced cooks into Jell-O. Not to worry. With the holiday only 15 days away, we're here for you. Today we begin a series to help you nail down the T-day basics. We begin with the star of the feast -- Mr. Turkey, or more likely, since most of the turkeys we eat are hens, Ms. Turkey. The goal is to cook the big bird to golden-brown, juicy perfection.

A whole turkey is probably the biggest thing most of us will ever cook. Turning out a perfect one can be tricky, and first-timers may be too nervous to try. But if you follow our guide, you'll be on track to have a great gobbler day.

What equipment will I need? Not much. These few items should do it:

What size turkey should I buy? Tally the number of guests and figure about 1 pound of turkey per person or 1 1/2 pounds if you want leftovers. A 15-pound turkey should be enough for 10 people. If your guests prefer more breast meat, buy a larger turkey. They generally have more breast meat.

How do I thaw the turkey? That was the No. 1 question on the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line last year, says Jean Schnelle, who runs the consumer line. Here's the answer, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

What about a fresh turkey? No thawing necessary, obviously. But the USDA says you must cook a fresh turkey within two days of purchase or freeze it.

How do I prepare the turkey for roasting?

Take the turkey out of the refrigerator and remove the wrapping. Remove the neck and giblets from inside the bird. Thoroughly rinse the turkey, inside and out, with cold water. Pat dry with paper towels.

When should I stuff the bird? If you're going to stuff the turkey, now's the time. Always stuff just before popping the bird in the oven, never before. Also, mix the stuffing ingredients together just before you're ready to stuff the turkey. Loosely spoon the stuffing into the cavity, allowing about 3/4 cup per pound. Don't overdo it. A 10-pound turkey should hold about 7 cups of stuffing.

What's next? The Butterball folks recommend cooking the turkey uncovered in a roasting pan. Two-thirds of the way through cooking, Butterball says foil can be placed over the breast area to prevent it from drying out. Rick Rodgers, author of "Thanksgiving 101" (Broadway, $15) advocates tightly covering the breast area with foil before roasting to prevent it from drying out. If you put foil on the breast, remove it about 30-45 minutes before the turkey is done to allow the breast to brown.

Should I baste? Butterball says it isn't necessary, because it doesn't affect the moistness of the meat. But lots of cooks prefer the crisp, brown skin it produces. Start basting with a bulb baster after the turkey has been in the oven about an hour by drawing up the pan juices. If you wrapped the breast in foil, you'll need to lift the foil to baste. Baste quickly because each time you open the oven door, heat escapes and can affect the cooking time.

Tip: Add a cup or two of turkey stock or chicken broth to the roasting pan to supplement the pan juices for basting.

How will I know when the turkey is done? Roasting times vary with the size of the turkey, whether it is stuffed and the oven temperature. This is where using oven-safe meat thermometers or instant-read thermometers comes in handy. The turkey is done when the internal temperature of the thigh registers 180 degrees and the breast registers 170 degrees. "A stuffed, 10- to 18-pound turkey (using the open-pan method) will take 3 3/4 to 4 1/2 hours," Schnelle says. "An unstuffed turkey in the same size range will take 3 to 3 1/2 hours." If you don't have a thermometer, check the turkey at the estimated time by piercing it in several places with a fork. The turkey is done when the juices run clear.

OK, it's done. Now what? When the turkey is done, remove it from the oven. Lift it out of the roasting pan with large serving utensils and transfer it to a serving platter. Cover it loosely with foil. Let it rest at least 20 minutes before carving for easier slicing. The turkey will stay hot. Reserve the pan juices to make gravy, if desired. We'll tell you how to do that in next Wednesday's Food section. Then carve and serve.

Is that it? Those are the basics, but you can be creative at several points along the way. Here are some ideas:

Printed by permission from the Detroit Free Press. 1999.

Please visit our free recipes pages 1, 2 & 3 for additional recipes to use for your holiday meal.

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