Things to Know About Thanksgiving Turkey

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It is high turkey time and turkey talk is all the rage during these early days of November.

Did you know that the turkey was  Ben Franklin’s favorite bird and is actually a descendant of the T-Rex .

Who wants to eat a dinosaur for their Thanksgiving or Christmas meal?

Let’s just try to move beyond that little giblet, I mean tidbit.

A bird sitting on a branch
If Ben Franklin had his way, the turkey would have been America’s national bird.

Thanksgiving turkey facts

Like their much larger predecessor, the T-Rex, both the domestic and wild turkeys are native to America.

From northern Mexico, up through the midwest, across to the east coast and into southern Canada, the wild turkey extends his natural habitat.

Inforgram on thawing turkey and food safety.

After the birth of our nation, the turkey was a contender of birds that were being considered for our national emblem.

The bald eagle won out, much to dear old Ben’s chagrin.

Two white turkeys, a hen and a tom.
A hen and her tom, doing what they do best, talking turkey.

The male (tom) is the heavier of the sexes, (25 lbs. max) and also more colorful than the female (hen).

The male turkey can be spotted by the size of his wattle, the fleshy mass of loose skin which starts around his lower beak and runs down the front of his neck.

Male turkeys also have a much larger snood, the wobbly length of skin that hangs over, around, and down their upper beaks.

These appendages both change color with the tom turkey’s mood.

Red for excitement, from the rush of blood (breeding time), blue for fear, (lack of oxygen in the blood), and if the turkey isn’t particularly healthy, lighter in overall color.

Beards also extend from the male’s chest, normally about 8 inches in length.

Females can also support any or all of these features, but on a much smaller scale, if noticeable at all.

Wild turkeys scratch the ground for sustenance, eating wild vegetation, gleaning harvested crops, munching both bugs and frogs.

Their diet depends mostly on the time of year and what happens to be available.

One might think that these large birds, because of their size, would sleep on the ground in a group, keeping each other company (they don’t like to be alone).

In fact, they roost and perch in trees, an effort to avoid predators.

Yes, turkeys can fly and actually have been clocked at 55mph, in short bursts of movement (up to a mile) with the aid of their powerful legs and wings. A running turkey can attain a speed of 30mph!

A whole roasted turkey
Talking Turkey with Chef Kat from Platter Talk

It wasn’t too many years ago that wild turkeys were nearly wiped out, due to excessive hunting.

Their one-time number of an estimated 11 million had plummeted down to 30,000 birds by 1930.

Now, thanks to over 50 years of conservation efforts, wild turkey numbers have increased back to upward of 5 million.

This number seems small when compared to the US production of domestic turkeys, which is estimated to be around 270 million birds per year.

Since wild turkeys are indigenous to America, it should come as no surprise that they were first domesticated by Native Americans around 2,000 years ago in Mexico. Interestingly enough, they weren’t raised for their meat but for their feathers which were used in clothing and for rituals.

It wasn’t until later, that turkey also became an important food source for them.

A roasted turkey drumstick on a serving platter with white meat.
Turkey drumsticks make great meals, unto themselves. Nutritious, flavorful and inexpensive, they’re hard to beat. and we’re not just talking turkey.

Because it has been bred for meat, the domestic turkey can weigh in at a whopping 50 lbs.

Flying has become an impossibility because it’s now too heavy for its wings to support flight.

The shorter legs of the domestic turkey also mean that the bird which we buy at the grocery store is unable to walk as quickly as the wild turkey, whose well-exercised legs are long and give aid when taking off for flight.

Wild turkey breast is dark.

The exercise of flight promotes blood flow to the breast region of the bird.

Conversely, the domesticated turkey breasts are white and the entire bird is of a milder flavor, which is due to the decreased blood flow from the relative inactivity of the bird.

How to choose a turkey

An uncooked turkey in a roasting pan
While we are talking turkey, what’s your favorite way to roast a turkey?
  • Normally, a dinner-sized portion of cooked turkey is from 3 to 6 oz. per person. You will lose about 40% of a raw turkey to bone, skin, and shrinkage. With this information, you can plan on what size bird you need for the number of guests at your dinner table.
  • If you buy a fresh turkey, you can skip the next step. Although a fresh turkey is always ideal, they are also considerably more expensive and can be difficult to come by. A frozen turkey can be perfectly delicious if prepared correctly. If your turkey is frozen, thaw your turkey in the refrigerator, allowing about 24hrs of thaw time per 5 lbs. of frozen turkey. Allow 4-5 days for a 20 lb. turkey.
  • When your turkey thaws and is and pliable, remove the package of goodies from the neck flap or cavity, which contains the neck, liver, heart, and gizzard. Reserve for later use in stuffing and gravy. I usually put the neck in some stock that is heating for use in the gravy.
  • Generously shake salt inside the cavity of the turkey and massage it thoroughly into all the nooks and crannies. Rinse your turkey in cold water, inside and out, and then pat dry. Set the oven for 325°F.
  • Time to make the stuffing. Use the recipe of your choice. Whether you have a traditional family recipe or use an “instant” boxed variety, is entirely up to you. Plan on making at least 3/4 cup of stuffing per person. Once the stuffing is ready, loosely fill the turkey.
    • This allows for the expansion of the dressing and promotes an evenly cooked turkey. Fill the small neck cavity at the top of the bird with stuffing, too. Fold neck skin under the body. I usually make enough stuffing to fill a low (2”) casserole dish too. Everybody at our dinner table loves stuffing, and there is always plenty.
  • Once the stuffing process is complete, place turkey, breast-side up, on a roasting rack set in a roasting pan. If you don’t have a rack, don’t stress. You can make a rack with celery ribs. This will add flavor to your drippings when making gravy.
    • Brush or spray the turkey all over with melted butter or olive oil. Sprinkle with Kosher salt.
  • Next, tent the entire roaster with heavy-duty aluminum and fold at the apex to make a stiff tent top. I find that this holds it shape better than regular aluminum foil.
    • Don’t let the aluminum touch the turkey because the skin can adhere to the foil while cooking, which would result in the skin peeling off with the foil.
    • This would be a tragedy, IMHO. Be sure the edges are snug and secure. This will help hold in steam and help your turkey cook better. Plan on allowing 4.5 to 5 hours of cooking time for a 20 lb. turkey at 325℉.
    • Remove turkey from the oven before the last 1/2 hour of cooking. Adjust the temperature of the oven to 375°F.
    • Remove foil from roaster for the last half hour of cooking. For a nicely browned skin. It’s a good idea to baste twice during roasting and once after the foil comes off for the final step of browning.
A roasted turkey on a bed of lettuce
Try for Our Savory & Citrus Roast Turkey, for Your Next Holiday Dinner.

How to roast a turkey

The turkey is safe to eat, once the food thermometer reaches an internal temperature of 165℉.

Allow the bird to stand about 30 minutes before removing the stuffing.

When the turkey roasts, much of its juices move to the outer edge of the flesh.

Letting it rest for 30 minutes or so give the juices time to be reabsorbed back into the meat, making for a more moist and flavorful turkey.

The resting time can be used to make the gravy, reheat side dishes, pour water and do all of your last-minute finishing touches before calling your guests to the dinner table.

Thanksgiving tablescape with fresh flowers and wine glasses.
While your turkey is out of the oven and resting, it’s the perfect time to add the finishing touches to your holiday dinner table.
Updated from the original post of November 5, 2016

Other holiday recipe ideas

Meet the Platter Talk Guys

Dan & Scott split their time between Wisconsin and Southwest Florida and are dads to six boys. Good food runs through their veins, and they love showing others how to cook easy recipes.

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  1. Great turkey information. Have you ever tried roasting a wild turkey? I hunt with my cousins & we’ve seen them but never actually brought any home since none of us has ever Cooked one. Any advice would be gratefully welcomed. Thank you.

    1. Rylee, I have had a deep fried wild turkey, but never a roasted one. We would love to know if you try this technique!

  2. It is almost Turkey day! Get into here, I will be sharing with my family for the big day! Thankful when I get turkey tips!

  3. What a brilliant post – we should all be more informed about the food we chose to buy and eat and this is a fantastic piece with turkey season being almost upon us! Great photos too 😀

  4. Congratulations! I really enjoyed reading every little detail of your post… so-so many interesting things to learn.

  5. Wow, an incredible amount of turkey facts to digest (so to speak). I’m certainly referencing this post the next time I cook turkey.

  6. You are a cornucopia of turkey knowledge! I had no idea that they could run so fast or fly! As we get closer to Thanksgiving, I’m looking forward to a juicy bird!