Bird is the Word: Your Guide to a Successful Thanksgiving

Frozen or fresh turkey? Heritage or wild? Your holiday questions, answered.

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Every year around this time, I hear a familiar hum. It's the sound of people talking about turkey. They're jumping on the phone with their mothers to ask how to roast the bird, and chatting with spouses about how big of a turkey to get. They're weighing the benefits of a fresh versus a frozen turkey, a heritage bird versus a conventional one, and of course, brining versus frying. These conversations tend to be fraught with some tension and nerves over whether things will really work out in the end.

Friends, I'm part of the humming sound. While I've made full Thanksgiving meals a few times, each year seems to have its own new set of calculations and challenges depending on how many guests are coming, whether I'm pregnant and really want to hoist a 20-pounder in and out of the oven, and how much time I have to prepare. Since I'm quite sure many of you are also figuring out your turkey specifics right now, I thought I'd share some tips to help you navigate the choices.

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Frozen vs. Fresh

If you have a large house and an extra freezer, you can take advantage of all the holiday sales on frozen turkeys. You can sometimes even get them for free by spending a certain amount at the grocery store. If you buy a frozen bird, there are two main things to keep in mind:

1. Know that many are prebasted. This means they've been injected with a solution of salt, water, spices and natural flavors to keep the bird moist and flavorful. Since you've already got about 200 milligrams of sodium per 4-ounce serving (most people eat more than this), you need to watch what else you rub onto the skin to keep the sodium in check.

2. You need to plan for the time that it takes to defrost a frozen turkey. They must be defrosted in the refrigerator to avoid running foul (sorry!) of any food safety issues. It takes a full day for every 4 pounds of bird. For a 20-pounder, that's five whole days – quite a commitment when your fridge is likely packed with other Thanksgiving edibles.

Fresh turkeys, which are now sold everywhere from your farmers market to the grocery store, have the advantage of not requiring defrosting. But they'll also take up space in your fridge in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. If you're buying a fresh bird from a local butcher or the farmers market, always ask how long you'll be able to keep the bird in the fridge before cooking it. The ones you find at the supermarket should have sell-by dates on them.

Whether your turkey is fresh or frozen, always place it on the refrigerator's very bottom shelf. This way, if there are any drips, you won't get raw turkey juice all over your yogurt and strawberries. And finally, it's helpful to have a refrigerator thermometer to make sure your turkey and all the trimmings are kept at 35 to 40 F. Any higher and you risk bacteria growth.

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Heritage and Wild

There's been a lot of talk about heritage breeds of poultry, swine and other meats the last few years. What's all the fuss? Heritage breeds of turkey are native to the United States, and because they're tougher to raise, they're not as supersized as conventional turkeys with their Pamela Anderson breasts. They also have a more distinctive flavor, which may or may not suit your tastes. You can find a fresh heritage turkey in your area by going to Local Harvest and clicking on the image of the turkey in the upper left. Then just enter your zip code. Heritage breeds include American Bronze, Narragansett and Bourbon Red varieties. If you want to go heritage, get a move on because they sell out fast!

While heritage birds are pretty pricey (about $4.50/pound), a wild bird will really cost you ($13 to $15/pound). Wild birds look almost nothing like the typical large-breasted Butterball variety. By comparison, wild birds are scrawny and don't have a ton of white meat. Wild birds are for the more adventurous, who appreciate a gamey flavor. With young picky eaters and waist-conscious diners at my table, it will be years before I attempt a wild turkey. But check out D'Artagnan if you think it's for you.

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Brining, Frying, Roasting, Oh My!

I live in an apartment in Brooklyn, so frying is just not going to happen for me. You need an open space with no fire hazards around to safely fry a turkey. Do not attempt this inside! There are all sorts of turkey frying kits you can buy on Amazon. You basically need one of those and a few gallons of peanut oil – enough to fully submerge the bird. The turkey must be totally dry – inside and out – before frying it. To me it seems like a total hassle, but the advantage is that it takes much less time to fry – only three and a half minutes per pound of meat, which translates to 45 minutes for a 12-pound turkey.

You can buy a bird that's prebrined or prebasted (see above), or you can do it yourself. Brine is a solution of mostly salt (often kosher), plus spices, herbs and sometimes citrus juice. It's intended to infuse the meat with flavor and keep it moist. You need to first make the brine solution, and then submerge your defrosted or fresh turkey in it for 24 hours in a large vessel (like a clean plastic bucket). Some folks take it a step further and actually inject their brine into the turkey – either with hypodermic needles or a brining injector, which is by no means a cheap acquisition.

I like to keep things easy. For me, that means roasting the bird. Yes, I'll make a paste of sea salt, sage, rosemary and other herbs and will lovingly massage the bird's flesh with this (under the skin). And filling your roasting pan with wine, broth or even water will help prevent the turkey from drying out. In a 350 F oven, it takes about 20 minutes/pound to cook a defrosted bird. Fresh birds take 10 to 15 minutes/pound.

[Read: How to Eat Intelligently (and Enjoyably) Over the Holidays.]

Stuffing: In or Out?

Even though I'm sure you've read about the dangers of cooking the stuffing inside your turkey, I feel like it's my responsibility to remind you again. Since a turkey roasts from the outside in, it's extremely difficult to ensure that you've cooked the bird and the stuffing thoroughly without the outside of the bird getting overcooked. So you either end up with burnt skin and cooked stuffing, or undercooked (and unsafe) stuffing and a potentially undercooked bird. Let's keep it safe and easy and put the stuffing in a casserole dish. With goodies like sausage, herbs, nuts and dried fruit, it should definitely not be lacking in any flavor. You can either place it in the oven during the last 45 minutes or hour of the turkey's cooking time, or you can bake it in your toaster oven (see below for more on that).

And you can still boost the flavor of the turkey by putting some onions or lemons in the cavity. Just ditch those once the bird is cooked.

Give it a Rest

OK, that gorgeous bird is fully cooked, and a meat thermometer, inserted into the thickest part of the bird, has reached 165 F. It's time to give the turkey a well-deserved rest before it gets gobbled up. A rest time of 20 to 30 minutes is necessary for most turkeys. A super big one may take closer to 45 minutes. Why do they need to rest? The meat juices need to redistribute throughout the bird, and resting allows this to happen. If you slice into it right from the oven, all those lovely juices will rush out and end up on the platter (or the floor, much to your dog's delight), instead of staying in the meat where you and your guests can enjoy it.

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Timesavers

• Get a toaster oven that can bake: Instead of relying on your main oven, use a toaster oven with a baking function to make dinner rolls, roast Brussels sprouts, reheat stuffing and more. It's a lifesaver during the last hour leading up to the big meal.

• Make ahead: First of all, start with a list! Write down everything you'll be cooking and when you plan to make it. I use the notes function on my iPhone for this. Also include the items that other folks are bringing. Not only will this help streamline prep, you can also plan which platters, bowls and serving items you'll need.

Make as much stuff ahead of time as possible. If you're a baker, you can assemble apple or other fruit pies ahead of time (unbaked), then wrap them well and stick them in the freezer. On Thanksgiving morning, put them right into the oven – no thawing – and bake. The pie may require just a bit longer to fully cook, so keep your eye on it. You can also prebake the crust for a pumpkin pie and make and store the filling separately, then assemble and bake either Thanksgiving day or the day before. For pecan, it's best to make and bake the whole pie and then freeze it. Allow it to thaw in the fridge and you'll be all set.

Stuffing can be baked in a casserole dish a day in advance and reheated on Thanksgiving. Salad dressings and cranberry sauce can be made two days ahead of the meal. And think about all the items you may want to simply prep in advance, like vegetables for a crudité platter or bread cubes for your stuffing.

• Delegate: I'm a control freak – especially about important dinners – but even I've learned that I'll ultimately be much happier if I let people help me. Ask non-cooks to bring items like wine, cider or a nice loaf of bread. Friends and relatives who would like to actually make something can bring a salad, dessert or cheese plate for pre-dinner nibbling.

I hope these tips help alleviate some holiday stress. Here's to a wonderful Thanksgiving, no matter what type of turkey you go with. But if you decide to make a turducken, you're on your own.

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Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns and feedback.

Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, is a best-selling author and nationally recognized health expert, and the former Food and Nutrition Director at Health magazine for nearly eight years. Prior to that, she was part of the editorial team at the Discovery Health Channel and was managing editor at FoodFit.com. Frances is the author of Feed the Belly: The Pregnant Mom's Healthy Eating Guide and co-author of the best-selling The CarbLovers Diet and The CarbLovers Diet Cookbook. Her cookbook, Eating in Color: Delicious, Healthy Recipes for You and Your Family will be published in January 2014. Frances earned her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and completed her dietetic internship at Columbia University in New York.