For many American families, at the center of the Thanksgiving dinner table is the turkey. As a lean meat, turkey is a very good choice for those who want to eat healthfully this holiday season, but the preparation can often be tricky – even for the most experienced of chefs. Mayo Clinic nutrition and obesity specialists offer tips and recipes for the most healthful bird on our annual Day of Thanks.
The wild turkey is native to North America and was a staple in the Native American diet when the Pilgrims arrived here in 1620. The Wampanoag tribe of Indians assisted the settlers, introducing them how to grow foods such as corn and squash and how to hunt and fish. The first Thanksgiving celebration was held in 1621 with our new Native American friends as invited guests of honor.
Thanksgiving became an official holiday in the US on October 3, 1863 via proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln. By 1916, the day was often referred to in writings as “Turkey Day” due to the popularity of the bird at the traditional feast, held each year on the fourth Thursday of November.
The National Turkey Federation declares turkey as a delicious, nutritious protein. A three-ounce serving of boneless, skinless turkey breast contains 26 grams of protein with only 120 calories and 1 gram of fat. Exchanging red meats such as beef for lean, white meats such as turkey has been shown to be beneficial in decreasing the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers, such as colon cancer.
Turkey Selection and Preparation
When choosing a turkey for your family feast, the rule of thumb is to purchase a bird that provides 1 pound per person you are feeding. “The World’s Healthiest Foods” website suggests purchasing a fresh turkey, versus one that is “frozen” or “previously frozen” as these may contain excess additives such as MSG and salt as preservatives. When buying a fresh turkey, do not purchase one that is pre-stuffed. If not handled properly, harmful bacteria in the stuffing can multiply quickly.
WHFoods also suggests, if possible, buying a certified organic turkey. These are raised on organic feed, providing you with a food that is less likely to contain unwanted contaminants.
If you do purchase a frozen turkey, keep it frozen until you are ready to begin the thawing process. (Note: if you are buying a frozen pre-stuffed turkey, look for one that displays the USDA or State mark of inspection on the packaging, as these have been processed under controlled conditions.) To thaw the bird in the refrigerator, leave it in its original wrapper, place it on a tray, and allow at least a full day for every 4 pounds. Do not store any ready-to-eat foods underneath the thawing turkey so cross-contamination will not occur in the refrigerator.
Turkeys can also be defrosted in cold water in a clean sink, allowing a half-hour per pound. Change the water every thirty minutes. DO NOT thaw a turkey at room temperature on the kitchen counter.
After the bird is thawed, remove the giblets and rinse the turkey inside and out with cold water. Instead of roasting the turkey alone, place raw, chopped vegetables underneath the turkey to keep it off the bottom of the roasting pan, allowing air to circulate. The roasted vegetables also make a healthy side dish.
The USDA does not suggest using stuffing inside the turkey, but instead making the side dish in a casserole separately. However, if you do wish to partake in this tradition, prepare the ingredients ahead of time, and stuff just before placing the turkey inside the oven. Fill the cavities loosely, about ¾ cup per pound. Ensure that the internal temperature of the turkey and stuffing reaches the minimum safe temperature of 165 degrees F. Only stuff a turkey that is to be roasted in the oven; do not stuff turkeys to be grilled, fried, smoked, or microwaved.
*Chef Anthony Stewart from the Pritikin Longevity Center offers a wonderful roasted turkey and gravy recipe to follow at the bottom of this article. The Mayo Clinic also offers a wonderful selection of recipes for turkey and sides at www.mayoclinic.com.
Start the oven at a high temperature by preheating to 450 degrees. This will sear the outside of the turkey, brown it nicely, and push moisture toward the center of the bird. After 30 minutes, reduce the heat to 275 to 325 degrees. Always use a meat thermometer to check the temperature to decide when the turkey is done. Estimated cooking times for turkey can be found at fightbac.org.
After taking the turkey out of the oven, let it rest for at least 20 minutes which will help redistribute moisture, keeping the meat tender.
Food Safety Check
While your turkey is cooking, be sure to use sanitizer to wipe down any surface that could have been touched by the raw poultry – including your hands. Wash utensils, pans, and the sink with soap and warm water.
Once your Thanksgiving Day feast is done, remember to store your leftovers properly. Discard any foods that have been left out at room temperature longer than 2 hours. Divide leftovers into small portions, place in shallow containers and refrigerate or freeze. Use refrigerated turkey and stuffing within 3 to 4 days; use gravy within 1 to 2 days. If freezing, use within 2 to 6 months for best quality.
Recipe: ROASTED TURKEY AND GRAVY
• 6 to 8 pounds skinless turkey breast
Marinade for Turkey:
• 1 cup red wine
• 2 tablespoons paprika
• 2 white onions, chopped
• 2 cups fresh orange juice
• 2 stalks celery, chopped
• 2 tablespoons chopped garlic
• 2 bay leaves
• 1 tablespoon salt-free lemon pepper
• 1 tablespoon dried oregano
• 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
• 1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, minced
• 3 carrots, chopped
• 2 white or yellow onions, chopped
• 1 head of celery, chopped
• Drippings/vegetables from the turkey roasting pan
• 1 pint vegetable stock (low-sodium)
• 1 tablespoon fresh, chopped thyme
• 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
• 2 tablespoons tomato paste
• 2 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons cold water
Roast Turkey & Mirepoix
1. In a food processor, combine all marinade ingredients and puree.
2. Use mixture to marinate turkey breasts.
3. Place mirepoix in a roasting pan and place marinated turkey on top.
4. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 275 degrees F. for 2 ½ hours.
5. Remove cover and bake at 375 degrees F. until done. (For nicely moist turkey breasts, a meat thermometer should register no more than 175 degrees Fahrenheit.)
6. Save drippings from pan to make gravy.
1. In a small saucepan on medium heat on the stove, reduce all ingredients, except cornstarch mixture, by about half (about 20 minutes).
2. Thicken with cornstarch mixture. Strain and serve.