Although Thanksgiving is all about the many different dishes up for grabs on the buffet table, there’s obviously one in particular that every guest expects to steal the show: the turkey. Not including this golden bird—let alone making it the centerpiece—is more or less turning this holiday into a carbo-loading dinner of sides and dessert. If this upcoming Thanksgiving is the first one that you’re hosting, then you’re probably already aware of this fact, but we’d also suspect that you have a few questions around the details that go into choosing the right turkey, too.
Much like baking a pie crust or stirring together seasonings for stuffing, there is a certain finesse to choosing a specific turkey for your Thanksgiving meal. Once you’ve figured out the number of guests attending and you’ve estimated the amount of food they’ll probably consume, then it’s time to brave the supermarket fray to find the turkey that will soon become the focus of your feast. Read on to get advice on how to pick the right one so that you’re not circling the aisle with questions before the big day. We promise: Choosing the right turkey is not as tough as it seems, but we can’t say the same thing about what it takes to cook it.
Do the Math
The most important step in preparing a large meal for guests is estimating how much people will eat. Although everyone loves Thanksgiving leftovers, no one wants to be stuck eating them until Christmas. And on the flip side, guests who want seconds (or even thirds) during dinner expect to get it—so don’t underestimate appetites.
Figure out how many people will be surrounding your dinner table, and then as a general rule, figure that the average guest will eat one to two pounds of turkey. If you have 12 guests, it’s best to get at least at 12-pound turkey. If you’re unsure, always err on the side of caution and buy more. Again, you can always have leftovers, but you can’t make more.
Peruse the Grocery Aisle
Now that you have the weight of a perfect turkey in mind, look for it. There are many different types of turkeys for sale—including kosher turkeys, pre-basted turkeys, and wild turkeys, to name a few—so don’t get discouraged by the number of options. Most grocery stores sell what’s appropriately called a “regular” turkey, which sells for about a dollar per pound. These turkeys are often sold frozen. You’ll also notice that “natural” turkeys are up for grabs. These turkeys contain no artificial ingredients or additional colors and were handled as little as possible. Since natural turkeys are usually sold fresh, they’re slightly more expensive than regular ones.
Organic, free-range, and heritage turkeys are also likely to be available, but they’ll set you back. Organic and free-range turkeys are usually sold at up to four dollars per pound, while the smaller heritage turkeys come in at about five dollars per pound. Be aware of your budget as you factor in the costs of these birds. As the host, this is probably not the only thing you’re preparing for Thanksgiving dinner, and no one expects you to blow your savings on this crispy centerpiece.
Factor in Time
If you decided to place a regular turkey into your grocery cart, then it’s very important that you factor thawing time into your schedule. A 12-pound bird can take up three days to thaw fully in your refrigerator, which will definitely hamper your plans if you shop the day before Thanksgiving. Another general rule to follow is that it takes about one day of thawing for every four pounds of frozen turkey.
If you bought a fresh turkey, however, you can store it in your refrigerator for up to a day before you start preparing it. You can even reserve your turkey in advance at certain grocery stores and butchers to ensure that you won't come home empty-handed on the big day.
Make Sure You're Prepared
You can’t cook a turkey without the right tools, and the most important one is probably near the turkey aisle: a heavy-duty aluminum roaster pan. If you don’t already have a cooking container for your turkey at home, this option will do perfectly, and you can discard it once you’re ready to serve.