Next to the Fourth of July, the holiday that is quintessentially American is Thanksgiving. Observed annually on the fourth Thursday of November, the day commemorates one of the great legends of American society, a harvest feast at which the colonizers known as Pilgrims invited their Native American neighbors to a feast at which they thanked God for their survival. The centerpiece of this contemporary feast has become the bird that Benjamin Franklin proposed as the national symbol: the turkey.
Of course, old Ben wasn’t referring to the toms and hens that grace Thanksgiving tables today. Turkey back then was a wild bird and required the same kind of preparation that other game did. These days, cooks preparing for Thanksgiving need hunt no farther than their local supermarkets for a turkey that has been cultivated domestically for large breasts and meaty thighs and legs.
A contemporary turkey hunt for most home cooks starts with deciding what kind of turkey to buy – fresh, frozen, natural, free-range, kosher, self-basting, with or without a pop-up thermometer. The next decision is the cooking method: roasting, grilling, barbecue, crock pot, covered, uncovered, stuffed or unstuffed, breast up or down, traditionally seasoned or spicy Cajun fried turkey. Baby boomer cooks can remember when there weren’t nearly as many choices in turkeys. In fact, it was once a major rite of passage for a homemaker to produce a well-roasted Thanksgiving turkey that wasn’t too dry, especially the white meat. There were no self-basting turkeys back then, and certainly none with a pop-up thermometer to tell the cook when the turkey was done.
Purists among home chefs still prefer fresh turkey without additives such as the water and oil pumped into a self-basting turkey. Some will concede that the pop-up thermometer is a helpful gadget, but still not an infallible test of a completely done turkey.
So what kind of turkey should a home cook get for Thanksgiving? The choice is pretty much up to the cook’s preference. Some cooks insist that frozen turkeys lose their flavor because freezing causes a loss of moisture. Others will say they’ve eaten frozen turkey for years and never noticed a difference.
For most experienced cooks, a major factor in choosing a turkey boils down to how much time is needed for preparation. In other words, if buying a turkey the day before Thanksgiving, go for fresh turkey unless you plan to serve turkey popsicles at your feast. That’s because frozen turkeys must thaw in the refrigerator for safety, and that process can take several days. Turkeys also take several hours to roast depending on their size. If you are really one of those people who don’t have the time, consider slow cooker recipes to make your turkey.
Beyond prep time, the other biggest factor for a flavorful bird is the turkey’s age. Succinctly, younger turkeys will have better taste. Turkeys for frying should be no older than four months, while roasters can be 5 months to one year old. It really doesn’t matter whether the turkey is a hen (female) or a tom (male). Either one will taste delicious if it’s properly prepared – especially when topped with turkey gravy and accompanied by a mound of mashed potatoes and a dab of cranberry sauce.
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