How long is a turkey good for?

by | Jan 18, 2015

Turkey, roasted past the expiration date

Forgive me if I pause to discreetly gag while writing this, dear reader, but our house currently smells of roast wet dog. The lesson to be learned from this is that the expiration date of a fresh turkey should not be stretched — not even by a couple of days.

We’re not rookies. We roast turkeys in this house more often than most folks. You see, we try to limit red meat, and decent seafood requires driving to a distant city where price usually presents a second hurdle, so turkey affords us a refreshing break from our diet of mostly chicken thighs, with occasional chicken breasts.

Through our frequent roasting of turkeys, we have gradually perfected a process which has resulted in some damned tasty dinners with minimal ordeal. We smile at the once-a-year turkey newbies who phone the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line about their frozen bowling ball in a bag, desperate for aid and comfort on a Thanksgiving afternoon. We don’t need advice hotlines. We’ve got this.

How to prepare and cook a turkey: Dry brining

Years and years ago, we went through our turkey foodie phase. We performed the whole Alton Brown turkey brining ceremony, which does eventually produce very juicy meat. The problem, though — apart from the time, the effort, and the special containers — is the water. You are roasting a thoroughly drenched bird, so the meat is more steamed than roasted, and it begins to approach the texture of soup meat. This is also a common problem with the concept of marinades. For true and golden roasty flavor, you want as little water as possible — just meat and fat.

Rather than wet brining, we — okay, usually Amy — will dry brine the turkey. She’ll thoroughly pat dry and salt the bird with kosher salt inside and out, then let it sit on a platter in the fridge for a day or two. Salt draws out additional moisture, salt is an antibacterial used in curing processes, and salt enhances flavor and browning.

To make things even easier and avoid the interminable turkey thawing delay, we buy fresh turkeys. Only one supermarket in the area sells fresh turkeys on a regular basis, and that is the Kenosha Woodman’s store. We have tried, for example, the Woodman’s in Oak Creek, but they said absolutely not. Well, maybe right at Thanksgiving, but otherwise fresh turkeys will not sell. Really? Given the ditch our economy had been in, you would think the value of recurrent roast turkeys would have more appeal. From one $20 bird, there’s the initial turkey dinner, then turkey sandwiches, meals incorporating cooked turkey meat, and finally delicious homemade turkey soup. That’s a lot of wholesome eating for very little outlay.

So on Friday, I mentioned to Amy that it might be time for turkey once again. With no plans for international travel and playoff football coming up on free TV, Sunday could be nicely spent in front of the game, with our house permeated by an aroma of roast poultry with a hint of sage, and maybe some sweet potatoes.

Like a hero, Amy made the late Friday afternoon grocery run to Woodman’s in Kenosha, where she found one — and only one — thirteen pound Honeysuckle White Fresh Turkey.

Thinking herself fortunate to have arrived in the nick of time, Amy swiftly scooped that white plastic-wrapped baby into her shopping cart, then proceeded to grab the fresh kale and broccoli, the Piñata apples and ginger root, the raw popcorn and dental floss that were also on her list. She loves Woodman’s for a number of things — especially their produce — but it’s the fresh turkeys that provide a reason to make the inter-county trip. When she got home with darkness setting in, I helped her ferry her precious cargo into the kitchen.

A little while later, I was in the living room absorbed in painstaking website work when I heard the first soft murmurs of disillusionment reverberating in the kitchen. Amy called me in for a second opinion. “I don’t know about this turkey,” she began, with an expression of dread. Looking at the unwrapped bird, something was slightly lacking. Part of one wing was missing, which sometimes happens, kids. More generally, though, rather than a plump and proud specimen, this fowl looked just a little bit drawn, like he might have been living on the street for a night or two.

Turkey expiration date: Three days ago

Then Amy showed me the turkey’s weight tag. In addition to the 13.18 pound total and the $20.96 price, another box — which she had only just now noticed — recommended “Use/Freeze By 01-13-15.” Friday was January 16th.

“What do you think?” she asked.

Carefully sniffing the turkey, I detected no overt reek of death, no smell of hamburger forgotten on the counter during a week away. At worst, I caught just the very subtlest whiff of … well, maybe wet dog.

I looked at my valiant wife, who made the grocery run so efficiently — after putting in hours cleaning up a CRM database and, before that, enthusiastically working out at the Y as she does most days on her journey back from radiation therapy, surgery, and chemotherapy. I pictured one or both of us schlepping back to Woodman’s in the dark with the questionable merchandise and presenting our case at some service desk, then driving back home and pretty much going straight to bed.

“Just salt it as usual,” I said. “We’ll roast it tomorrow afternoon with some added aromatics.”

Turkey cooking time and temperature

So that’s what we did yesterday. We melted butter with a generous pile of minced garlic and brushed it all over inside the bird. We melted more butter with rosemary and brushed that all over the turkey’s skin. (An outside buttering, without rosemary, is our routine.) We put a big handful of sage inside the cavity, like always. Then we popped the bird — breast down in the roasting rack — into the oven at 325° F. as usual. For a turkey this size, 15 minutes per pound is the standard estimate. Somewhere around halfway through, when the back has a pleasing color, I turn the turkey breast-side up to get a nice, even golden brown skin. Even though we can tell visually by the first wrinkles when the collagen has melted, we always use a probe thermometer to verify at least 170° F. deep in the breast and 185° F. in the thigh. Five degrees over is even better, since few things are as disturbing as undercooked poultry.

Watching movies while turkey roasts

After the first 30 minutes of roasting, our house usually begins filling with a warmth and an aroma that are the essence of home comfort. This didn’t happen yesterday. No garlic was really being exuded. No rosemary or sage were wafting around us as we watched Dazed and Confused on DVD, digging deep into the back catalog of Boyhood director Richard Linklater. All right, all right, all right.

I dutifully paused the disc and flipped the bird. It looked nice enough.

Then came a different smell. Partway through our second feature — Diane Keaton’s fairly horrific 1987 documentary Heaven, a freakshow of speculations and bizarre archival clips on the subject of life after death — I began to gag at the strengthening aroma of wet dog. On the screen, a demented preacher was shrieking about Mama Cass Elliot being strangled by a sandwich, and meanwhile I was starting to choke on a reality that I had hoped to ignore.

We rested the roast, finished the film, felt queasy, and didn’t speak much. Up in bed, it was obvious that a whole-house wet dog odor situation was in progress, and was going to last at least through the night.

Today, the foil-wrapped turkey waits in the fridge, headed, I guess, out to the garbage can. Thoughts of attempted turkey tetrazzini have tried to cross my mind, but why throw good food after bad? Also, why throw up needlessly? Better to let the garbage people gasp that these people are throwing away an untouched roast turkey. I don’t see us returning to the Woodman’s service counter with a cooked and stinking bird.

Home fragrance to mask the stench

Ilume Woodfire fragrance aromatic reed diffuserHome fragrance has been deployed at the furnace level. The seductive scent of Illume’s Woodfire now pervades our heating system, via a piece of foam rubber soaked with the stuff and tucked inside the Aprilaire unit. Actual April can’t come fast enough.

This Woodfire oil — purchased because Mileager’s was out of the Thymes Frasier Fir stuff I actully like — has something in it which reminds me of the frankincense burned at Catholic masses. Because of this, I have nicknamed it Popesmoke, which might be a timely branding idea for them.

Also, Amy reminds me that the previous owner of our house was the frontman of the Smoking Popes, so it’s probably appropriate — and certainly in keeping with my recession monk lifestyle.

Even though we have traditionally been fans of the Chicago Bears, we didn’t watch them this year — and from what we’ve heard, they didn’t play. We can at least respect the tenacity of the old-fashioned, small town, socialist Green Bay Packers in the heart of the biggest capitalist power in history, so we’ll hold our noses and tune in this afternoon, because conference championship football is as exciting as football gets. You just have to avoid thinking about concussions and other debilitating injuries. It’s certainly going to be more fun than watching Diane Keaton’s movie.

We’ll cook up some chicken thighs, or take a container of Amy’s famous chicken chili from the freezer. It’s not that cold out, so we might even crack a window just a little bit.

Maybe next we can get an actual dog, and name him Lazarus.

Update: Woodman’s refund

On Monday evening, since she was passing by anyway, Amy went back to the Kenosha Woodman’s store, where she presented a manager with her receipt and the turkey’s weight/date tag. He apologetically refunded her money, so we continue to love Woodman’s.

Back at home, the awful wet dog smell is just a weird memory — but the Illume Woodfire scent really lingers, and like most smoky aromas, it becomes more sickening than pleasant over time. I guess we’ll just have to spend the last few weeks of winter breathing this food safety reminder night and day.


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