For millions of American families, holiday meals feature a gloriously roasted turkey gleaming with butter and crisped to perfection. And while a single meal of turkey, potatoes and rolls won’t hurt you much in the long run, it’s our propensity for giving in to indulgent cravings during the winter holidays that pushes the U.S. into astronomical rates of obesity. Lucky for you, there’s no need to ditch your favorite holiday staple. Making a few simple swaps when you’re prepping the bird can cut calories without cutting taste. If you’re in charge of the turkey this year, then here are some tips on trimming it down.
Frying or Roasting?
It might seem obvious that deep-frying a turkey would be a bad idea from a health perspective, but deep-fried turkeys are a growing trend for holiday meals. Even if you use peanut oil, an arguably more nutritious oil for cooking and frying foods, deep-drying a bird in a vat of oil is asking for unnecessary calories and fat. It’s hard to get a consistent cook with a deep fryer, which means you’ll constantly be playing a guessing game of getting the oil hot enough to cook. While the oil heats up, your turkey will slowly absorb all of that oil. The lower the temperature, the longer it takes to cook, and the oilier your turkey will become.
The healthier way to prepare your turkey is to roast it slowly in the oven for several hours. It’s also the safest. There’s no need to worry about grease splatters, unevenly cooked (and potentially undercooked) portions or too much oil.
There are plenty of ways to roast a turkey effectively, and you may have been doing this for years already. If you’re new to turkey prep and need some pointers, this guide from The Kitchn offers a simple, no-fuss method for getting your bird cooked and on the table with as little effort as possible.
Once you’ve figured out the basics, experiment with dry rubs, seasoning and other components to punch up your poultry without adding calories, sodium or bad sources of fat. One method for roasting includes lowering the temperature gradually as you cook the bird, then basting it with apple cider vinegar to retain the taste without trapping in oils. This apple cider method also comes with the added bonus of cutting in half all the less-nutritious elements of a prepared turkey. For instance, a standard portion of roasted turkey comes out to about 370 calories; the apple cider recipe is just 155 per 6.5 oz. The sodium reduction is even better, going from 994 mg in a standard portion to just 115 mg per serving with the lighter version.
Alternatives to Butter and Salt
You may be stuck on the idea of basting with butter, and butter is certainly the best option for getting a picture-perfect golden skin. But you can baste with any liquid, including the juices that are dripping into your roasting pan. Instead of butter – which isn’t bad in moderation but can be overused in holiday cooking – try the apple cider method outlined above, or use the juices from the roasting pan as your turkey cooks. You could also baste with low-sodium chicken or turkey stock. Basting helps keep the bird moist, but butter isn’t crucial to the equation. If you want crispier skin with a healthier fat, use olive oil in the last few minutes of cooking.
Likewise, don’t feel the need to load up your turkey with a salty rubbing solution. Turkeys sold in grocery stores, especially ones from major brands, usually come packaged in a brining solution already, meaning they’ve got plenty of sodium as is. You don’t need to add much more. For flavor, try using crushed fresh herbs pressed into the skin or whole cloves of garlic and onions in the roasting pan. These will add irresistible savor without clogging your arteries.
There’s a fine line between a turkey that’s done and a turkey that’s as dry as the table you’re serving it on. Overcooking your turkey won’t create any health problems, but we thought we’d include a few tips on preparing your bird like a pro. For starters, check for doneness earlier than the recipe says. Using a digital or analog meat thermometer – not the pop-up timer that might be included in your package – check the thighs for an internal temperature of 170F. Once the thighs hit this amount, you can remove the turkey from the pan and let it rest on a cutting board for about half an hour. Tenting it with foil will trap in the juices, giving you a perfectly moist turkey (even the white meat).
If you want to keep your turkey even lighter, skip the traditional fat-laden gravy and use a homemade cranberry sauce instead. Whipping up cranberry sauce is simple, and most commercial cranberry packages come with an easy recipe right on the bag. This holiday season, serve up your turkey without the excess calories and sodium – to save room for your famous pumpkin pie, of course.