Turkeys roamed the Americas thousands of years ago, and the Pilgrims, landing in Massachusetts in 1620, found them a valuable game bird. The story goes that four wild turkeys were served as part of the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621, starting a tradition that has endured to this day. Benjamin Franklin regarded the turkey so highly that he proposed naming it the official bird of the United States instead of the bald eagle, declaring that “…the Turkey is a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true native of America."
In the past, turkey was regarded as a once-a-year treat at Thanksgiving or Christmas—90 percent of all turkeys were sold during November and December. Many cooks felt that whole birds entailed too much work to serve at other times of the year.
But today many people are making turkey a part of their regular diet. Turkey breast is the leanest of all meats, supplying just 115 calories and less than a gram of fat per 3-ounce serving (skinned). In addition, turkeys are now produced in greater numbers and are available in many forms. Consumers can select the parts they prefer, such as whole or half breasts, cutlets, drumsticks, thighs, wings, and tenderloins, all of which cook much faster than a whole bird. Convenience and nutritional awareness have contributed to a vast increase in turkey consumption in the past half-century, perhaps in large part to turkey’s popularity as a deli meat.
Types of Turkey
The wild turkeys of yesteryear have largely been replaced on our tables by domestic turkeys, which are farm-raised birds bred for their broad breasts and juicy, flavorful flesh. Here are the types you're likely to see at the store.
As with chicken, almost all of the fat in turkey is found in the skin. However, turkey meat is so low in fat that eating 3 ounces of roasted breast meat with skin adds only 130 calories to your meal—19 percent from fat. Dark turkey meat is higher in fat than the light meat, but it is still relatively lean if eaten without the skin.
Turkey is high in the nutrients for which meat is known. It is an excellent source of protein, as well as riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, selenium, iron, and zinc.
For a full listing of nutrients, see Turkey in the National Nutrient Database.
How to Choose the Best Turkey
Here's what to look for when buying a fresh or frozen whole turkey or turkey parts.
How to store turkey
As soon as you get whole fresh turkey home from the store, place it in the coldest part of the refrigerator. If the bird comes with giblets, remove them and store in a separate container. The giblets should be used or frozen within 24 hours.
Rewrap the turkey in butcher paper or heavy-duty aluminum foil. Above all, make sure the package does not leak juices onto other foods. Either overwrap the turkey or place it on a platter in the refrigerator.
If you’ve bought a whole turkey and cannot use it within one or two days, cut it up and freeze the parts. Home freezers are not cold enough to quick-freeze a whole bird, which eliminates the risk of salmonella. So, it’s essential to cut up the turkey before freezing. Rinse the turkey parts in cold water and dry them with paper towels, then wrap them in heavy-duty aluminum foil or freezer paper, and seal the package tightly.
How to Cook and Serve Turkey
Turkey is a versatile bird that can be enjoyed year round. But it’s important to prepare and cook it correctly to avoid the risk of salmonella.
Published November 17, 2015