Breaking Down the Bird – Part 1: Choosing & Prep


What’s completely ugly, noisy,  and filthy while alive, yet completely beautiful, silent, and delicious when dead? Why it’s a turkey, of course! If you’re living in the US, you and your family are probably gearing up for that sacrament of all food gorging holidays – Thanksgiving. A day where it’s okay to eat tons and tons of food, watch parades on the television, and have a ‘get-out-of-jail’ free pass when it comes to being nice to your distant or not-so-distant relatives. Thanksgiving can however be a daunting task if you’re the one preparing all the delicious and tasty noms and that’s where we’ve come to help! /cue the dramatic hero music!

We’ve decided to take the mystery out of Thanksgiving and do a  five-part series called “Breaking Down the Bird” in hopes to squelch your turkey-day anxiety at least when it comes to preparing the food and drinks.  For this post we’re talking about choosing and prepping your turkey before the big day. After this you will be a prolific, poultry master, young padawan. As an ice-breaker, watch this little gem. You’re welcome. 

Whether you’re feeding a crowd of 2 or 20, you can do so with style and grace worthy of a  1950s Stepford-housewife clad in pastels and pearls. Before we can get to the unveiling, wooing, and salivating friends/family, we must first get everything prepped and ready to go for the big day.

The right bird for the right gathering.

Types of Turkey:

Fresh Turkeys:

  • Pros: No thawing time, different choices of birds: brined, free-range, heirloom, kosher, and original (plain), most flavorful. You can purchase them from butcher shops, farmers markets, and higher-end supermarkets. Fresh turkeys generally require less work, but that just depends on cooking methods and techniques. These are all the rage nowadays with gourmet chefs and blogs alike.
  • Cons: Limited supply, you can should only buy them a few days before cooking, needs to be kept in the fridge, can be pricey depending on where you buy them. If you are looking into grabbing a fresh turkey for your feast
  • Price: Starting around $4.50 per pound, and that’s if you find one on sale. Yikes! Average prices are around $7.38/pound.
  • Weight Range: 8lbs to 25lbs
  • Tips and Facts: Turkeys that are labelled “fresh” have NOT been frozen and have been kept above 26°F since slaughter. You have to be very health conscious when dealing with fresh turkeys and be keen to food safety. You should only pick up your turkey a day or two before “go-time” and once you bring it home you need to put it in the coldest part of your fridge (40°F).

Frozen Turkeys:

  • Pros: Very cost-effective, you can cook a frozen turkey ( it’ll take more time – like 8+ hours of roasting time), more readily available, can be purchased up to a year in advance (if kept in the freezer), and are technically ‘fresher’ even though they are frozen or pre-frozen. These are probably the turkeys you’ve grown up eating. You can also buy just the turkey breast, if cooking for 3 or fewer people.
  • Cons: Require a bit more work and prep and defrosting/thawing time can range from 1-6 days depending on the size and weight of your bird.
  • Price: Starting around $0.45 per pound this time of year. Keep an eye on your sales ads! Average prices are around $1.63 per pound.
  • Weight Range: 4lbs to 35lbs
  • Tips and Facts: Frozen turkeys ARE technically fresher than ‘fresh’ turkeys just because they are frozen within hours of slaughter, but the act of freezing can degrade the natural flavors and stiffen up the tender meats of the bird. You can use two methods when thawing a frozen turkey: the ‘cold-water’ method or the fridge method, but we’ll talk a little more about that in a second.

Ready-To-Go Turkeys:

These are turkeys that you order from your store, local restaurant, or smokehouse and pick up on the day of, ready to go. They normally require just a bit of warm-up time in the oven but are practically ready to eat as soon as you get it from the store. There is no shame in doing it this way but it can be kinda pricey. Most ready-to-go turkeys cost around $50 and they go up from there.

How Much Turkey to Should You Get?

Buying the ‘bird’ can be a confusing task that shouldn’t be. It all depends on how many people you are feeding and what kind if you’re going to be the only ‘main dish’ for the event. If your gatherings tend to aim more towards the pot luck side of meals then you’ll need to adjust your equation from 1.25 to .75.

What equation am I talking about? Well, we’ve found a way to help figure out how much to buy (turkey-wise) for your Thanksgiving Day feast. This equation also gives you just enough leftovers… and leftovers are sometimes the best part of Thanksgiving. Mmmmm turkey everything!

The "How-Much-Turkey-To-Buy" Equation

So, if you’re cooking for a group of 8, you’ll need about 10-11 lbs of turkey. Or if you’re just cooking for you and your sweetheart you’d only need 2.5 lbs of the bird – so we suggest looking into getting just the turkey breast or 2 Cornish hens.

If you’re cooking for a large group you can also purchase two medium-sized turkeys rather than one gigantic one. Just think of it as a way to get double the dark meat and you can even use one for cooking stuffing in.

Thawing the turkey properly to get it ready for the Big Day

Thawing Your Bird:

If you’re buying a ‘fresh’ bird, you can go ahead and skip this step since your bird is ready to go either to be prepped further or straight in the oven.

When thawing your bird you have a couple of options, either by submerging it in cold water or placing it in the refrigerator. Each method has their pros and cons. You could let it rest out on the counter, but the Food Safety Administration frowns against it and we don’t want you or your guests getting sick. I’ll admit that I’ve left it in my sink a few times and nothing has happened, but that’s taking a chance and I’ve heard more and more horror stories about people doing that and getting food poisoning… so it’s not for me anymore. 

Cold-Water Method:

Out of the two methods this is the quickest, safest method. All you do is place your bird (still in its wrappings) in a cold water bath, changing it out every 30-45 minutes so that the water is about 40°F. You’ll need to keep it in the water for 30 minutes per pound of turkey.

10 pounds of turkey will take at least 5 hours to thaw using this method.

The downside to this method is that it is very tedious and time-consuming. Sure it takes less time to thaw rather than just putting it in your fridge, but you’ll need to swap out water every 30 minutes.

Approximate COLD Water Turkey Thawing Time
Turkey Weight Hours to Allow for Thawing Turkey
5 to 10 pounds 2-1/2 hours to 5 hours
10 to 15 pounds 5 hours to 7-1/2 hours
15 to 20 pounds 7-1/2 hours to 10 hours
20 to 25 pounds 10 hours to 12-1/2 hours

Refrigerator method:

This is a leave-it-and-go-on-with-your-day method. Just place the turkey in your fridge, on a large dish or in a large bowl. To properly thaw your turkey you’ll need to keep it in the fridge for 1 day for every 5 pounds of turkey.

10 pounds of turkey with take at least 2 days to properly thaw.

The downside to using this method is that it takes up quite a lot of space in your fridge… and it takes DAYS rather than HOURS to thaw your plump piece of poultry.

Approximate Refrigerator Turkey Thawing Time (40 degrees F.)

Turkey Weight

Hours and Days to Allow for Thawing Turkey

5 to 10 pounds 24 hours to 48 hours (1 to 2 days)

10 to 15 pounds

48 hours to 72 hours (2 to 3 days)

15 to 20 pounds

72 hours to 96 hours (3 to 4 days)

20 to 25 pounds

96 hours to 120 hours (4 to 5 days)

Other Methods:

I know I said that there was only two methods… well where technically I’m correct, there are a few ways to thaw the turkey that are a bit taboo.

  • Microwaving Method: Please don’t tell me if you do this because this is probably one of the quickest ways to turn your bird into a tough lump of turkey. Microwaving a whole turkey can be problematic at best. The flesh on the outside will start to cook while the insides will still be icy cold. You could probably get away with thawing a turkey breast using this method, since there isn’t a lot of meat or bone to this type of cut rather than the whole turkey.
  • Leaving-out Method: I mentioned this earlier, and it’s still a bit iffy. The Leave out method is where you leave your turkey out, either on the counter, car (seriously?!) or in your garage for it to thaw. It’s a very risky method, even if it is super effective and speedy. Generally leaving it on the counter or in the sink overnight should do the trick but you’re taking a chance in evoking the Porcelain God.
  • Putting it straight in the oven: Some turkeys nowadays actually are made for putting it straight into the oven. It seems rather weird to me but I guess to each his own. If you’re interested in something like this, brands like Butterball™ are offering them and can be found in the major supermarket chains.

The space between thawing and cooking your bird


How to brine:

What does brining do for your turkey? To brine a turkey is basically to submerge it in a super saline solution (with other herbs) so that the meat is tendered and stays moist throughout the bird during the cooking process. Think of it as a way to marinate your turkey. The salt will help tenderize your meat and the fact that it’s in a liquid bath for several hours gives the herbs and salts the chance to permeate the meat.

To Brine: You’ll need the following things: a large stockpot, a 5 gallon plastic tub (cleaned and food-grade), 1.5 cups of salt, 1 cup of brown sugar, 1 – 1.5 gallons of vegetable stock, 1 – 1.5 gallons of ice water, crushed herbs (2 tablespoons of each, use either rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, or all three), 1.5 teaspoons of ginger (candied or fresh), and 1.5 teaspoons of clove and all spice berries.

In your large stockpot combine the vegetable stock, brown sugar, salt, and herbs. Bring to a boil, remove from heat and let cool. Then pour that into your clean plastic tub and add in your ice water. Once all your liquids are in the tub, make sure that your turkey is completely thawed, the innards are removed, and it is pat dry. Place your turkey, breast meat side down in the container making sure that the brine is inside the turkey’s chest cavity and is completely covered by the brine. Cover your plastic tub and place it in the fridge until ready to place in the oven.

Notes: You’ll want to prepare and let your turkey brine at least 24 hours before it’s ready. Brining will take 20-30 minutes off of your final cooking time so make sure you check accordingly.

Deep Frying Prep:

Thaw your bird completely, pat dry. Oil and Water is a dangerous combination. Sure, deep-fried turkey is completely delicious but it is a very risky procedure if you’re not being careful.

There aren’t any special prep methods for deep-frying a turkey. You can brine it, just absolutely make sure that your turkey has no residual water, either on the surface or in the chest cavity.

Dry Rub Marinade:

If you’re wanting a bird with a tasty crust full of flavor, this is the one for you. This method is great if you plan on smoking your turkey.

Again, thaw your bird completely. Use a paring knife and poke holes around the breast meat in about 1” – 1.5” apart. Combine your dry spices, there are thousands of combinations you can use whether it’s lemony and herb-y, or smokey and sweet. You’ll want about 1 cup of the dry rub. For your turkey you’re going to want to separate the skin gently away from the meat and then massage half of the mixture between the layers and you’ll use the rest of the spice to rub on the outside. If you’re wanting to do this method you’ll need to mimic some of the spices when you get ready to cook your bird.

You’ll want to let this method chill in the fridge for at least 6 hours.

Well, hopefully we’ve set you on the right step for your Turkey-filled adventures. If you have any questions, please let us know in the comments below and be sure to stay tuned over the next few days for the remaining installments of BREAKING DOWN THE BIRD.

Breaking Down The Bird Post Schedule:
Part 1: Choosing the Bird… – Posted
Part 2: Essential Utensils and Supplies  – Posted
Part 3: Cooking your Bird – 11/19/13 Coming Soon
Part 4: Pairing the Perfect Sides – 11/21/13 Coming Soon
Part 5: Leftovers – 11/23/13 – Coming Soon


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