How To Pick Your Thanksgiving Turkey

Don't sweat it. Here's how to pick the best bird for your feast.

Sweet-and-Spicy Roast Turkey

Greg DuPree; Prop Stylist: Ginny Branch; Food Stylist: Cat Steele

With Thanksgiving nearing, now is the time to think about the meal's centerpiece. Yes, earlier is better because turkeys require a good bit of prep: You have to thaw them several days in advance, and you'll need to put your decision-making cap on to decide things like how you want to cook the turkey and if you plan to brine.

Here, answers to the most common turkey-buying questions so that you're ready to buy the right turkey when you head to the store. Cooking the holiday turkey is one of the most important jobs, but these fool-proof tips will help to ensure that the process for a flawless bird goes as smoothly as possible.

When Should I Buy a Turkey?

If you're buying a frozen turkey, you can shop up to one year in advance as long as the turkey remains properly frozen. (Take advantage of post-holiday sales!)

If you're buying a fresh bird, purchase it one to two days before you cook it.

How Many Pounds Should the Turkey Be?

Time to do a little turkey math: You'll need one and a half pounds of meat per person. So for 10 guests, you'll need a 15-pound bird.

If you like having a lot of leftovers for turkey sandwiches (or your guests have very big appetites), up it to two pounds per person.

If you're hosting just a few people, consider buying a turkey breast instead of a whole turkey.

Should I Buy a Fresh or Frozen Turkey?

There's no difference between fresh and frozen. The only thing that matters is when you do your shopping.

If Thanksgiving is one to two days away, opt for a fresh bird that does not need to thaw. Store it in your refrigerator until you're ready to cook it.

Depending on the size of the bird, a frozen turkey requires a few days to thaw in your refrigerator. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), if the turkey is under 12 pounds, give it one to three days. If it is 12 to 16 pounds, it will take three to four days. And if it is 16 to 20 pounds or more, allow about five days for it to defrost completely. Don't try to shortcut the process by leaving the turkey on the counter to thaw.

What Should I Avoid When Buying a Turkey?

Don't buy fresh, pre-stuffed turkeys. If not handled properly, there's a risk that it will be contaminated with harmful bacteria.

Also avoid "self-basting" or "basted" turkeys. They are injected with broth, butter, salt water, spices, and other ingredients to enhance the flavor, but the meat is often overly salty and spongy. It's better to control the seasonings yourself with a spice rub or brine.

Does My Turkey Need a Pop-Up Timer?

Cute as they may be, those little plastic timers that come with turkeys are often inaccurate, either popping up when the white meat is already overcooked or not popping up at all. An inexpensive meat thermometer is your best bet for making sure the turkey is done—when it reaches 165°F.

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