How to Figure Out What Size Turkey to Buy

How to Figure Out What Size Turkey to Buy. (Image: Thomas Barwick/DigitalVision/GettyImages)

Shopping list in hand, you head to the supermarket to lay in supplies for your Thanksgiving dinner, but you realize you have no idea what size turkey to buy. Too big and you might have too many leftovers. Too small, and some of your guests could go hungry. Like Goldilocks, you want one that's just right.

Using a Whole Turkey

Whether the bird is fresh or frozen doesn't affect the amount you should buy. Allow 1 pound of turkey per person. Buy fresh turkeys one or two days ahead of time. Frozen turkeys should ideally be thawed in the refrigerator.

Allow one day of thawing time in the fridge for every 5 pounds of turkey. If you need to thaw your turkey quickly, immerse it in cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes to make sure the turkey stays below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It takes about a half hour to thaw 1 pound of turkey.

Turkey that's been thawed in the refrigerator will keep for a couple of days before you need to cook it. Turkey thawed in cold water should be cooked immediately.

Using Turkey Breast

Plan on 1/2 pound per person for boneless breast or 3/4 pound per person for bone-in breast. Turkey breast by virtue of its lower weight will thaw more quickly than whole birds. As with whole turkeys, it's best to thaw breasts in the fridge because the cold retards the growth of bacteria, but they can be thawed with the cold water method if necessary.

As a last resort, check your microwave's defrosting instructions. Keep an eye on the breast if you choose to thaw in the microwave. Parts may start to cook before the thickest part is defrosted.

Stuffing a Turkey

While stuffing your bird with your favorite dressing recipe results in a moister finished product, experts advise against it. The internal temperature of the stuffing might not reach the required 165 degrees before the turkey is finished. Instead, add a little extra stock and cook your stuffing in the oven outside of the bird.

If you can't bear the thought of cooking the stuffing outside the bird, pack it in the cavity loosely and check the temperature with a probe thermometer. Remove it from the cavity if it's not hot enough and finish it in the oven while the turkey rests. A potentially messy alternative is to start the stuffing in the oven and transfer it to the cavity for the last 30 minutes of the turkey's cooking time.

Frozen Turkey Sizes and Cooking Times

Frozen turkey sizes range from about 4 pounds for a breast to well over 25 pounds for a whole bird. There is also a wide range of preparation methods. The simplest calls for putting the turkey in a roasting pan, seasoning the skin and cooking. Elaborate treatments call for flavored butters spread under the skin, frequent basting or putting citrus fruit in the cavity. No matter what the method, the cooking times are the same.

Cooking times are longer for stuffed turkeys, and smaller birds cook more quickly. A 4- to 8-pound unstuffed breast takes 1 1/2 to 3 1/4 hours at 325 degrees. A 24-pound stuffed whole turkey will take more than five hours. Butterball has a handy turkey calculator that gives precise figures on how much turkey to buy, how long to thaw it and how long it takes to cook.

One exception to the cooking time rules is deep-fried turkey, a method that takes as little as three minutes per pound.

Turkey-Cooking Tips

  • Don't wash the turkey. This may spread bacteria in the kitchen. Proper cooking will kill any bacteria in the bird.
  • Do wash your hands and any surfaces the turkey may have touched with warm, soapy water.
  • Use a kitchen thermometer to check the internal temperature at the thickest part of the thigh and the breast. The turkey is done when the temperature reaches 165 degrees.
  • Refrigerate leftovers within two hours.
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