Between when to buy your turkey and how to store it once purchased, PEOPLE called the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line to find out
Before you devour the bird of the hour, timing is key!
While many favor the savory sides on Thanksgiving, the holiday wouldn't be complete without the main course that's synonymous with the day: the turkey.
Come November, you're suddenly overcome with urgency to flock to the store to snag the bird off the shelf, securing the coveted turkey before the crowd. However, there are important safety guidelines to consider before purchasing — and according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), "turkey is the most-often-asked-about food category by consumer."
Therefore, PEOPLE spoke with National Turkey Federation president and CEO Joel Brandenberger about some of the most common questions and topics they get asked. Among them include: "how to properly thaw a turkey, cooking instructions, including the appropriate internal temperature and how to store or freeze leftovers."
Plus, PEOPLE spoke with Butterball Turkey Talk-Line Director Nicole Johnson — who's worked for the company for over 20 years, saying Thanksgiving "is our Super Bowl" — to weigh in on the matter, so you can prepare for the holiday with ease.
Read on for turkey timing tips ahead of the holiday!
Should I buy a fresh or frozen turkey for Thanksgiving?
Some people have a preference regarding fresh or frozen turkeys, while others have no choice as it simply comes down to whatever is left on the shelves in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. Fortunately, Johnson of Butterball says "there's no difference" between the two when it comes to taste and food safety.
"The only difference between the fresh and the frozen is if you want to thaw it or not. The fresh is just truly convenience since it's already thawed for you," explains the mom of four, who says she's personally "fresh all the way" because she's "all about multitasking and making it easier."
Regardless of purchasing fresh or frozen, Johnson ensures consumers that both turkey options are "tender and juicy and delicious!" (That is, if you take proper steps in prepping your bird ahead of cook time!)
When should I buy a fresh turkey for Thanksgiving?
It's definitely worth strategizing when to buy a fresh turkey, especially considering the mad dash to the store to secure one come November. Joel Brandenberger of the National Turkey Federation tells PEOPLE it varies depending on whether turkeys are purchased at a store or farm.
"If you are purchasing directly from a specialty farm selling direct to consumers, contact the farm directly for ordering recommendations," he says. "If you are looking for a specific type or brand of fresh turkey in the supermarket, we recommend asking the store’s manager about the process of reserving as early as possible."
"If the turkey is truly fresh and never frozen, then likely you would not be able to pick up your turkey until the week of Thanksgiving," adds Brandenberger. Johnson, however, says Butterball fresh turkeys typically hit the shelves at the beginning of November.
She eased concerns about purchasing a fresh turkey "too soon" in the month, explaining that Butterball specifically has a "prolonged shelf life due to the chilling process that they underwent at the plant prior to leaving."
Therefore, if you want to claim your turkey at the beginning of November, you can do so — though, Johnson advises consumers to consider the "sell by" or "use by" date located on the hang tag before purchasing a fresh turkey.
"We do tell cooks that they can leave that wrapper on in the refrigerator and use it safely by Thanksgiving," she says. "Usually that date will be Thanksgiving Day, but a lot of them will even be the day after because a lot of people want to have a Friendsgiving celebration."
In fact, Johnson says she celebrates the day after Thanksgiving because she's answering Turkey Talk-Line calls the day of the holiday! "It's really our core value here at Butterball is bringing people together."
What questions should I ask before buying a fresh turkey straight from the farm?
Brandenberger of the National Turkey Federation tells PEOPLE that "it is reasonable to ask the circumstances under which the turkeys were processed" before purchasing a turkey fresh from the farm, like "whether a state or federal inspector was present."
However, Brandenberger says inquiry to that degree is "personal preference." Though, he suggests checking directly with the supplier or retailer if a consumer has any "specific requests or needs."
To avoid any potential food illness after purchasing your turkey and prior to cooking it, Brandenberger says it is "imperative" to follow the National Turkey Federation's "four core food safety guidelines."
They include: "Clean, separate, cook and chill." When it's finally turkey time, Brandenberger says to "always cook your turkey to 165 degrees Fahrenheit."
Then, he stresses chefs check at least three parts of the whole turkey to see if it's cooked. He suggests "the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the thigh and the innermost part of the wing."
How to store a fresh turkey?
You've secured your turkey ... so now what? Storing your bird in the days leading up to Thanksgiving is just as important as deciding when to buy it.
Johnson says to keep fresh turkeys "unopened" and "refrigerated" until the sell-by date located on the hang tag, or until chefs are ready to get cooking! As for the fridge temp, she says it should "ideally be between 35 and 40 degrees," noting that the "lower temperature is preferred."
Whether the turkey is fresh or frozen, Johnson advises cooks to put a tray under it "just in case there are any tiny little pinholes in the packaging," she says. "Some of that raw poultry juice may leak out into the fridge. If you have a tray underneath it, it will help capture some of those juices."
When taking the turkey out of the fridge on Thanksgiving Day, Johnson says many people assume they need to wash their turkey as part of the preparation process prior to cooking it — however, she says "that's not the case."
One of the advantages of Butterball turkeys, specifically, is that they have "already been cleaned for you," says Johnson. "It's already been pre-basted for you." While she says "additional basing or brining" can be done, she says "it doesn't need to be" because Butterball has "already done that work for you."
For those who purchased a fresh turkey and their Thanksgiving got postponed, have no fear! Johnson says "they can go ahead and cook" their turkey in advance if they'd like, then "slice the turkey meat off the bone and refrigerate it or freeze it for longer storage."
When should I buy a frozen turkey for Thanksgiving?
If you opt to take the frozen turkey route, Johnson advises purchasing one "as soon you see them" hit the shelves in November. "That way you're going to have a better chance of getting the size turkey you want," she says.
Meanwhile, you can purchase your turkey months in advance due to their prolonged shelf life; however, there is a suggested time frame for purchasing turkeys in the week leading up to the holiday due to the time it takes to thaw.
"You do want to ideally purchase it now," Johnson tells PEOPLE of those who haven't snagged their frozen bird yet exactly one week out from Thanksgiving. "Or if you don't want to go through the thawing process, you can also opt for a fresh turkey."
"Those turkeys are still tender, juicy, delicious, but they do not require any thawing," she continues. "They go straight from the grocer's refrigerator to your own home refrigerator, so it's really a convenience."
When to start thawing a frozen turkey?
If the turkey is frozen at any point, Brandenberger says "it’s critical to ensure you have enough time to allow your turkey to fully thaw" and should always be done "in a refrigerator or cold water."
"Allow for 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds of turkey," he advises. "For example, if you have a 15-pound turkey you would need to allow for 3 days of thawing in the refrigerator."
Of the number one question Johnson and her team at the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line get asked, she tells PEOPLE: "How do I thaw my turkey?" A common ask, that Johnson says "never strays from year to year," involves an answer that's easy to remember.
"We actually declare the Thursday before Thanksgiving 'National Thaw Your Turkey Day,'" she says. "People get a chuckle out of it, but it's a really clever way to remind folks."
How to store a frozen turkey?
When it comes to storing a frozen turkey, it's not very different from storing a fresh one. Again, Johnson suggests "leaving the wrapper on during the entire thaw process."
From a food-safety standpoint, Johnson says a frozen turkey can actually "be safe to cook for quite a number of years" — that is, only if "it's kept in the original wrapper and you have not had any major power outages."
Although you can store a frozen turkey for years, Johnson says "it may not be as tender and juicy as if you had just purchased it." Though, she reassures that "you can certainly still cook it safely."
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