The Fourth of July and Thanksgiving are the two most important national holidays celebrated in the United States. Every country in the world has its national day, but Thanksgiving is a strictly American holiday, celebrated only in the U.S. and Canada. In the U.S., Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday of November, and marks the commemoration of the first corn harvest reaped by the Plymouth Colony in 1621. On that occasion, the Pilgrim Fathers hosted a feast to which they invited their Native American neighbors, to thank God for their bountiful harvest and for having survived the bitter New England winter. It has become customary for families to gather around a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving, a reminder of the wild turkey eaten by the Pilgrims on that first Thanksgiving feast.
Of course, old Ben wasn’t referring to the toms and hens that grace Thanksgiving tables today. Turkey back then was a wild bird and required the same kind of preparation that other game did. These days, cooks preparing for Thanksgiving need hunt no farther than their local supermarkets for a turkey that has been cultivated domestically for large breasts and meaty thighs and legs.
A contemporary turkey hunt for most home cooks starts with deciding what kind of turkey to buy – fresh, frozen, natural, free-range, kosher, self-basting, with or without a pop-up thermometer. The next decision is the cooking method: roasting, grilling, barbecue, crock pot, covered, uncovered, stuffed or unstuffed, breast up or down, traditionally seasoned or spicy Cajun fried turkey. Baby boomer cooks can remember when there weren’t nearly as many choices in turkeys. In fact, it was once a major rite of passage for a homemaker to produce a well-roasted Thanksgiving turkey that wasn’t too dry, especially the white meat. There were no self-basting turkeys back then, and certainly none with a pop-up thermometer to tell the cook when the turkey was done.
Purists among home chefs still prefer fresh turkey without additives such as the water and oil pumped into a self-basting turkey. Some will concede that the pop-up thermometer is a helpful gadget, but still not an infallible test of a completely done turkey.
So what kind of turkey should a home cook get for Thanksgiving? The choice is pretty much up to the cook’s preference. Some cooks insist that frozen turkeys lose their flavor because freezing causes a loss of moisture. Others will say they’ve eaten frozen turkey for years and never noticed a difference.
For most experienced cooks, a major factor in choosing a turkey boils down to how much time is needed for preparation. In other words, if buying a turkey the day before Thanksgiving, go for fresh turkey unless you plan to serve turkey popsicles at your feast. That’s because frozen turkeys must thaw in the refrigerator for safety, and that process can take several days. Turkeys also take several hours to roast depending on their size. If you are really one of those people who don’t have the time, consider slow cooker recipes to make your turkey.
Another essential factor you should keep in mind when you shop for Thanksgiving turkey is the bird’s age. Age affects the tenderness and flavor of turkey, with older turkeys being tougher than younger ones. If you plan to fry the turkey, make sure you don’t buy one that is over four months old. Roasters, however, may be as old one year and still taste good. The gender of the turkey makes no difference in how it tastes. Both hen (female) and tom (male) turkeys will be succulent and tender if you cook them correctly.