Don’t overlook turkey safety at Thanksgiving

Richard Bogren, Reames, Elizabeth S.  |  1/4/2011 1:10:43 AM

News Release Distributed 11/15/10

For most Americans, Thanksgiving wouldn’t be complete without turkey. But cooking a big bird requires care, says LSU AgCenter nutritionist Beth Reames.

“There is no quality difference between a fresh or frozen turkey, although fresh turkeys have shorter shelf lives,” Reames says. “By purchasing a frozen turkey, you can often take advantage of special sales.”

To make sure you have enough turkey for the feast and for leftovers too, purchase at least one pound of uncooked turkey per person,

If you choose to buy a frozen bird, make sure you have adequate storage space in your freezer. If you buy a fresh turkey, be sure you purchase it only one to two days before cooking.

Proper thawing is important to prevent growth of harmful bacteria that may have been present prior to freezing a turkey. Reames says three safe ways to thaw a turkey safely are in the refrigerator at 40 degrees or less, in cold water and in a microwave oven.

When thawing a turkey in the refrigerator, allow 24 hours of thawing time for every 5 pounds of turkey, she says. Place a frozen turkey – still in its store wrap – in a baking sheet with a lip or a shallow pan on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator.

To thaw a bird in cold water, keep the turkey in the original packaging, place it in a clean and sanitized sink or pan, and submerge it in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes.

For microwave thawing, follow the oven manufacturer’s instructions. “Plan to cook the turkey immediately after thawing in a microwave because some areas of the turkey may become warm and begin to cook during microwave thawing,” Reames says.

For safety’s sake, wash your hands for 20 seconds in hot, soapy water after handling raw poultry or meat, she says. Also, be sure that utensils, plates, work surfaces, etc. have been thoroughly cleaned.

Keep raw foods separate from cooked or ready-to-eat foods to avoid cross-contamination, Reames warns. It is important that the juices from raw meat and poultry do not come into contact with food that will be eaten without cooking. Also, never place cooked food on an unwashed plate that previously held raw meat or poultry.

To cook a turkey safely, set the oven temperature no lower than 325 degrees, Reames says. To make sure a whole turkey has reached a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees, use a food thermometer to check the innermost part of the thigh and wing and thickest part of the breast.

An unstuffed turkey that weighs 14 to 18 pounds will need to cook approximately 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours in a 325-degree oven.

“The color of cooked poultry is not always a sure sign of its safety,” Reames says. “Turkey can remain pink even after cooking to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees. The meat of smoked turkey is always pink.”

If you decide to stuff a turkey, prepare the stuffing and stuff it into the cavity immediately before it's placed in the oven.

When you cook a stuffed turkey, use a food thermometer to check the internal temperatures of both the turkey and the center of the stuffing, the nutritionist says. If the turkey is done and the stuffing has not reached 165 degrees, remove the stuffing from the turkey and place it in a greased casserole dish to continue cooking.

For optimum safety, cook stuffing separately from the turkey, Reames says. Cooking stuffing separately also will help prevent overcooking the bird.

Take care of leftovers promptly to keep foodborne bacteria from growing. Cut the turkey into small pieces and refrigerate stuffing and turkey separately in shallow containers. Use leftover turkey and stuffing within three to four days and gravy within one to two days, or freeze these foods.

Consumers with food safety questions can call the toll-free U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Meat and Poultry Hotline at 888-674-6854. The hotline is available in English and Spanish and can be reached from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time Monday–Friday and from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. Recorded food safety messages are available 24 hours a day.

Rick Bogren
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