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Take guesswork out of holiday meal

November 16, 2005|by LYNN F. LITTLE

If you're nervous about cooking the big dinner, relax.

A typical Thanksgiving dinner - turkey and side dishes - can be one of the easiest and most economical holiday meals to prepare. Roasting a turkey is the easy part. Thawing a frozen turkey or timing a meal so that all will be ready at the same time can be stumbling blocks. Here are answers to frequently asked questions about preparing Thanksgiving dinner:

Q: How much turkey should I buy?

A: Figure about a pound per person.

Q: Should I go for fresh or frozen turkey?

A: While largely a matter of preference, a fresh turkey might need to be ordered in advance and then picked up before the holiday. A frozen turkey can be purchased prior to the holiday, which allows you to take advantage of sale prices.

Q: What's the best way to thaw a frozen turkey?

A: Remove the turkey from the freezer and place it (in its original wrap) in a shallow pan or tray with a lip on a lower shelf in the refrigerator. Allow one day of thawing time for every 5 pounds of turkey - about two and a half days for a 12-pound turkey; four days for a 20-pound turkey.

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Q: What do I do if I forget to thaw the turkey?

A: A smaller turkey can be thawed in a microwave. Follow the microwave manufacturer's instructions, but remember that thawing a turkey in a microwave begins the cooking process, which must then be continued. A medium or larger turkey usually can be thawed in a day with the cold-water method. Place the frozen turkey in a deep sink and cover with cold water. Drain and replace the cold water every 30 minutes until turkey is thawed.

Q: Is it OK to cook a partially frozen turkey?

A: Cooking a partially frozen turkey is possible, but it will take longer. For example, cooking time for a frozen turkey will take at least 50 percent longer than the time recommended for a fully thawed turkey. These cooking times are guidelines only - be aware also that thawed portions can dry out while frozen parts of the turkey fail to reach safe-to-eat temperatures (180 degrees). Use a food thermometer to determine safe doneness.

Q: What's the best way to gauge cooking time?

A: To roast a turkey, the general recommendation is 20 to 25 minutes per pound at 325 degrees. Package directions usually provide cooking recommendations, but oven temperatures vary. The size and style of roasting pan also can affect roasting time. Allowing extra time - 30 to 45 minutes - is recommended. The only sure way to tell whether or not a turkey is done is to use a food thermometer.

When inserted in the thigh area but not touching the breastbone, the food thermometer should read 180 degrees. When the thermometer is inserted in the breast, the temperature should register 170 degrees.

Q: Isn't a pop-up timer enough?

A: An inexpensive pop-up timer included with a turkey usually is less accurate than a traditional food thermometer. Reliable food thermometers can be purchased at hardware, kitchen, discount department and specialty cookware stores. They typically cost in a range from less than $10 for an instant-read thermometer to a substantially higher cost for digital models.

Q: Is it OK to stuff a turkey?

A: A turkey cavity is moist and dark, and that makes it a good place for bacteria to grow. That fact has prompted the recommendation to prepare dressing separately, as a casserole or in broth on the stovetop. If stuffing the turkey is still preferred, stuff lightly; check internal cooked temperature (165 degrees) and remove all stuffing promptly. A stuffed turkey usually takes longer to cook; allow an extra 45 to 60 minutes.

Q: With one oven, how can I complete an entire meal?

A: Consider roasting a turkey the day before. Remove the meat from the carcass and store it (covered) in a shallow pan in the refrigerator. Before reheating, sprinkle meat with broth, cover and allow 30 to 45 minutes to reheat (at 325 to 350 degrees). The time will vary with the size of the pan and amount of turkey.

If you're roasting the turkey the day of the meal, consider the stovetop, slow cooker and microwave for cooking vegetables and dressing, or plan a potluck. A potluck shares the responsibility and the expense. Consider volunteering to roast the turkey and set the table. then ask others to bring vegetable casseroles, a relish tray, bread or dessert.

Q: What's the secret to getting everything ready at once?

A: Read recipes carefully and note cooking times. Are they complementary? Is it possible to reheat a vegetable casserole while the turkey is being carved? Would it be better to prepare the stuffing in broth on top of the stove? Cook vegetables in the microwave? Serve a chilled fruit or vegetable salad prepared earlier in the day or the day before?

Be flexible. Plan ahead. Recognize that not everything needs to be made from scratch. Supplementing the menu with some convenience or partially prepared foods such as brown-and-serve rolls; pre-cut vegetables; or ready-made pie crusts all can save time.

Q: What's the best way to store leftovers?

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