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Cooking the Holiday Turkey

There are at least 3 tasty options for cooking your holiday turkey: roasting, smoking, or frying.

Before cooking your turkey, it is highly recommended to make sure it is completely defrosted. This is most essential if you intend to smoke or fry the turkey. Smoking is a very slow cooking process. A partially frozen bird could possibly linger in the temperature danger zone too long allowing bacteria to grow out of control. Frying a partially frozen bird tends to create oil boil overs (ice thaws and mixes with hot oil) which will result in large, flash type fires.

To quickly thaw a turkey, fill a clean kitchen sink with cold water and submerge the turkey still in its original wrapper. Every 30 minutes, change the water. Allow 30 minutes thaw time for each 1-pound turkey weight. A 12-pound turkey should completely thaw in 6 hours. The other option for safely thawing a turkey is to defrost it in the microwave.

When the turkey is thawed, most people enjoy their birds prepared by one of the following methods. Roasting is the simplest and least expensive. Smoking is the slowest. Frying is the most expensive due to the cost of the oil and the fryer. All produce a delicious product that is sure to be enjoyed by your family.

Roasting is the simplest and least expensive way to prepare a turkey.

Roasting is the simplest and least expensive way to prepare a turkey.
Kimberly Baker, ©2018, Clemson Extension

Roasting: Place a completely thawed turkey, breast up, on a roasting rack in a shallow pan, approximately 2½ inches deep. Insert an oven safe thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh being careful not to touch the bone. Rub the skin with oil or margarine to prevent drying during cooking. Season with salt and other spices of your choice. Place the prepared bird in a preheated 325 °F oven. When the skin is light golden, shield the breast with a tent of aluminum foil to prevent overcooking the breast meat. The turkey is done when the meat thermometer in the thigh registers at least 165 °F. Juices should run clear. When done, remove the bird from the oven and let it stand undisturbed for 20 minutes. This will allow the juices to set and result in a moister bird.

Smoking: Starting with a completely thawed bird, insert a meat thermometer into the thigh of the bird as described above and brush the skin with oil or margarine. Season with salt and other spices of your choice. Plug in an electric smoker or ignite charcoal about 30 minutes before cooking. Position a foil-lined water pan in the smoker according to manufacturer’s directions and fill the pan with water (some people prefer fruit juice.) Check the temperature of the grill at the grate, making sure it is 200-250 °F. Place the turkey on the grate, then cover with the lid, and adjust the vents. Maintain a 200-250 °F temperature throughout cooking. If using a charcoal smoker, add additional briquettes every 1-1½ hours. Replenish water and soaked hardwood chips as needed. The turkey is done when the meat thermometer in the thigh registers 165 °F. Smoking takes quite a while, up to 12 hours depending on the size of the bird. Resist the temptation to lift the lid of the smoker, each time the lid is lifted, heat escapes and the total cooking time will be increased by at least 10 minutes.

Deep Fried: A word of caution about frying a turkey—it is more expensive due to the special equipment needed and considerably more dangerous than roasting or smoking. A wet bird will cause the oil to boil over and lowering the bird too quickly into the oil will also cause a boil over. When spilled oil hits the fire of the propane burner, serious damage can quickly occur. People have accidentally burned their house down by frying turkeys on a wooden deck or under their carport. With that said, here are the general instructions for frying a turkey.

Use a pot large enough to hold the turkey plus enough oil to cover it. Situate the turkey fryer outside on level dirt or a grassy area away from children and pets. Heat the oil (most people prefer peanut oil) to 350 °F—this could take up to an hour. Season your bird according your preference. Carefully and slowly lower your dry, seasoned turkey into the hot oil. Cook the bird for 3 minutes per pound. The skin will be very dark. Use a meat thermometer to check for doneness. The turkey is done when the thigh meat registers 165 °F on the meat thermometer. Carefully remove the turkey from the oil and allow it to drain. Serve while still warm.

SPECIAL NOTE: Salmonella is often linked to poultry. Here is the easy way to reduce the risk of salmonellosis ruining your family’s holiday: wash all surfaces touched by poultry with hot soapy water, rinse well, and sanitize with a bleach solution made by mixing one scant teaspoon regular (plain) bleach with 1 quart water. Sanitizer solution can be mixed in a squirt bottle, spritzed onto washed surfaces, and allowed to air dry. The other option is to mix the solution in the kitchen sink, soak items for one minute, and then allow items to air dry.

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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