Expert Tips on Shopping for Turkey

Cook's Country's Morgan Bolling gives helpful tips on how to shop for turkey this Thanksgiving.

Published Nov. 17, 2018.

Whether you’re a lover of cooking meat or just of eating it, it’s time that you formally meet our in-house meat connoisseur, Morgan Bolling. When she’s not at work developing a new meaty recipe, there’s a likely chance that she’s either hosting a homemade sausage dinner or planning her next pig roast.

There's a lot that goes into planning a visually appealing, flavorful, and foolproof Thanksgiving dinner. As home cooks, we have to consider a menu that works for vegetarians, meat lovers, and those who follow gluten-free diets. We also have to keep in mind how long each dish will take to cook while putting together an ingredient list. As we said, there’s a lot that goes into it.

But a lot doesn’t have to equal stress. Before you get in your car and hit the road for the grocery store this weekend, take a look at this week’s Q&A with Morgan Bolling on shopping for a turkey. Her responses to our seven questions will help you make decisions for this Thanksgiving quicker and easier.

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1. How many pounds per person?

We usually say a 12- to 14-pound turkey feeds 10 to 12 people, so slightly more than a pound per person. If you want lots of leftovers, aim for 1 1/2 pounds per person.

2. Fresh or frozen?

In the test kitchen, we prefer frozen birds. When turkeys are commercially frozen, the process is quick, which prevents large ice ­crystals from forming and damaging the meat. With turkeys labeled “fresh,” there’s a risk of ice crystals melting and refreezing. This back-and-forth process of new ice crystals forming can puncture the meat, causing it to cook up dry and tough.

3. How long can you keep a fresh turkey in the fridge?

If you do decide to go the fresh turkey route, you can keep it in the fridge for up to five days. The semi-freezing step allows for this, but before purchasing a turkey and driving it home, we recommend checking the date on the packaging to see how long it’s been sitting in the grocery store already.

4. How should I wash the turkey?

Don't. It's unnecessary, and by rinsing your turkey, you’re essentially splashing bacteria all over your sink.

5. For a large group, is it better to have one turkey or two?

When cooking for a large group, it makes sense to use two small birds since they’ll cook more evenly than a large bird. You also have the option to make a couple of boneless breasts and braise some thighs and legs separately. Doing this gives you the opportunity to tailor your cooking to each piece.

Try our Turkey and Gravy for a Crowd recipe because, well, it’s perfect for a crowd.

6. How far in advance should I thaw the bird?

If you're buying a frozen bird, you’ll want to budget one day of thawing for every 4 pounds of turkey. That means if you buy a 12-pound turkey, you’ll want to get it at least three days in advance. Note: This time frame doesn’t factor in time for salting or brining; adding that step may require an extra day of prep work.

7. There will be only three of us for Thanksgiving dinner this year. What should I do?

If you like dark meat, I’d suggest buying a couple of thighs and braising them. If you like white meat, purchase the smallest turkey breast you can find and save leftovers for sandwiches. Or go the nontraditional way and roast a duck, as our executive editor, Bryan Roof, does every year. I personally smoke a boneless turkey breast, which is a lot easier to manage because of its smaller size.

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