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Turkey Safety

Posted in Food Safety on November 18, 2018

Did you volunteer or were you voluntold that this is the year YOU are responsible for the Thanksgiving turkey?  Yes you!  You might be a pro or possibly shaking in your fuzzy house slippers at the thought of being responsible for the most important part of the family meal.  Either way, MakeFoodSafe.com is here to help you make your holiday meal safely.  We are happy to share tips to safely thaw, stuff, cook, and store your beautiful bird. Turkey Safety at its finest!

Poultry and Salmonella

Poultry and Salmonella go way back.  Way back to the farm, that is.  The bird you get, whether from the grocery store or a local farmer is pretty much crawling with this nasty bug.  There really isn’t any way around it.  Taking common sense steps will help minimize the risk for harmful bacteria to make it into the final dish.

Thaw the Turkey Safely

You have a couple options for safely thawing your bird.  Either way you will want to plan in advance what approach you want to take so you can time it appropriately.  Don’t be tempted to pop a half-frozen turkey in the oven.

  • Refrigerator Method – If you plan to thaw your turkey in the refrigerator, make some room and book his stay in advance.  Tom the Turkey is going to be hanging out for a while.  You must allow about 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds of meat for the bird to thaw in a refrigerator set to the appropriate temperature of 40 ºF or below.  This means a 4 to 12 pound turkey will take between 1 to 3 days; a 12 to 16 pound turkey will take between 3 to 4 days; and so on.  Place the turkey in a container during its stay to prevent any juices from contaminating other foods in the refrigerator.  Always keep raw food separate from ready-to-eat foods in the refrigerator.  Once thawed, the turkey can chill for another day or 2 days max before cooking.
  • Sink Method – If you plan to thaw your turkey in the sink with the cold water thawing method, you will need to set aside about 30 minutes per pound to ensure proper thawing. The first step is to secure the turkey in a leak-proof plastic bag to keep germs in the bag and out of the sink as well as water off of the turkey, which might bloat it.  Once turkey is secured, submerge the bird in cold tap water.  Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed.  This is a bit of a commitment.  I recommend a timer.  A turkey thawed in the sink with cold water must be cooked immediately after it is thawed.  Plan your day accordingly.
  • Microwave Method – If you plan to thaw your turkey using the microwave method, I am going to have to defer to your microwave oven’s manufacturer instructions as each unit varies. Plan to cook your bird as soon as you pull it out of the microwave, as some areas might be warm and begin cooking during the thawing process.  It is dangerous to hold partially cooked food because bacteria present would not have been appropriately destroyed.

 Stuffing or Dressing Your Turkey Safely

Whether your family stuffs or dresses, this wonderful side dish completes the holiday meal.  What’s the difference?  Well that really depends on where you are from.  Where I come from, stuffing means the wonderful cornbread mixture is placed inside the cavity of the bird.  But then you are limited to how much you can stuff inside the turkey.  We like that dish too much to limit ourselves to the capacity of the bird.  We prefer dressing, which is essentially all of the same ingredients, but cooked in a casserole dish instead.  In my family, this is a BIG casserole dish.

If you plan to stuff, do so just before cooking.  Just as you would with meat, stuffing requires verifying internal temperature.  Bacteria can survive in stuffing that has doesn’t reach an internal temperature of 165 ⁰F.  Use a food thermometer inserted to the center of the stuffing to be sure internal temperature is 165 ⁰F. Wait for 20 minutes after removing the bird from the oven before removing the stuffing from the turkey’s cavity.

If you opt for the dressing style casserole, follow appropriate safety measures that you would for a casserole.  Cook to an internal temperature of 165 ⁰F and refrigerate after 2 hours.  There are a few extra safety measures to consider if you opt for the traditional “stuffing” style.

You do not want to prepare stuffing ahead of time.  Combining the wet and dry ingredients together creates a breeding ground for potentially harmful bacteria.  If you want to make your turkey day go a little quicker, you can measure out wet ingredients in one container and dry ingredients in another and store them chilled until you need them.  Wet and dry ingredients should be combined just before spooning the stuffing into the poultry cavity.  Prepared stuffing must be cooked immediately or immediately frozen.  If frozen, do not thaw stuffing before cooking.  Cook frozen stuffing until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 ⁰F.

A general ratio is about ¾ cup of stuffing per pound of meat.  Stuffing should be moist, not dry.  While this is may be for texture, it also helps the heat destroy the bacteria more rapidly.  Stuffed meat or poultry should be placed immediately in an oven set to a temperature no lower than 325 ⁰F.

What about fried turkey?  Unfortunately, deep-fat fried whole poultry fries very rapidly.  This does not produce sufficient heat to the center of the stuffing to completely destroy any potentially harmful bacteria.  Opt for the dressing casserole style side instead.

Cooking Your Turkey Safely

Begin with a preheated oven set to at least 325 ⁰F.  You will need a roasting pan that is at least 2 to 2 ½ inches deep.  Place the completely thawed turkey in the roasting pan, breast side up.  Tuck wing tips back under shoulders of the bird.  Add a half cup of water to the bottom of the pan.  In the first hour to hour and a half, bake with a tent of aluminum foil loosely over the breast.  Alternatively, the tent can be added once the outside of the turkey has reached the desired golden-brown color.  Cooking times will depend on the weight of your turkey and whether you have a stuffed or unstuffed bird.  Refer to the following tables for approximate cooking times.  Always check the internal temperature of the meat in the thickest portions of the breast, thigh, and wing joint to ensure meat is fully cooked.  If stuffed, allow turkey to stand for 20 minutes before removing stuffing.

Unstuffed

4 to 6 lb breast 1 ½ to 2 ¼ hours
6 to 8 lb breast 2 ¼ to 3 ¼ hours
8 to 12 lbs 2 ¾ to 3 hours
12 to 14 lbs 3 to 3 ¾ hours
14 to 18 lbs 3 ¾ to 4 ¼ hours
18 to 20 lbs 4 ¼ to 4 ½ hours
20 to 24 lbs 4 ½ to 5 hours

Stuffed

8 to 12 lbs 3 to 3 ½ hours
12 to 14 lbs 3 ½ to 4 hours
14 to 18 lbs 4 to 4 ¼ hours
18 to 20 lbs 4 ¼ to 4 ¾ hours
20 to 24 lbs 4 ¾ to 5 ¼ hours

Store Your Turkey Safely

Clostridium perfringens outbreaks occur most often in the months of November and December.  There is no surprise that holiday meals play a role in that phenomenon.  This bacterium, and many others grow in foods that are left at room temperature.  Leftovers should be packed up and refrigerated within 2 hours and stored in a refrigerator that is 40 ⁰F or colder.

You might be tempted to meet this 2-hour window by putting the whole turkey in the refrigerator.  If your turkey is stuffed, you are going to have to put in just a little more effort.  It takes too long for the stuffing to reach a safe temperature of 40 ⁰F inside the turkey.  You will need to remove the stuffing and place in another container for storage in the refrigerator.

Happy Holidays and Thanksgiving!

Happy Holidays and Thanksgiving from my family to yours.  Everyone at MakeFoodSafe.com wishes you all a happy and food safe holiday season.  Keep checking back for more food safety tips to get you through the holidays.

By: Heather Van Tassell, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)