Richard Bogren, Reames, Elizabeth S.
Turkey is the traditional choice for most Thanksgiving celebrations. There is no quality difference between a fresh or frozen turkey although fresh turkeys have shorter shelf lives, according to LSU AgCenter nutritionist Dr. Beth Reames.
By purchasing a frozen turkey, you can often take advantage of special sales. If you choose to buy a frozen bird, make sure you have adequate storage space in your freezer, Reames advises. If you buy a fresh turkey, be sure you purchase it no more than 1-2 days before cooking. Do not buy a prestuffed fresh turkey.
If you buy a frozen bird, Reames warns, you must follow proper thawing methods to prevent growth of harmful bacteria that may have been present prior to freezing the turkey. She points out three safe ways to thaw a turkey or other food – in the refrigerator at 40 degrees or less, in cold water and in a microwave.
“When thawing in the refrigerator, allow 24 hours of thawing time for every five pounds of turkey,” Reames says. “Place a frozen turkey – in its store wrap – on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator in a shallow pan or a baking sheet with a lip to catch any drips.”
To thaw a turkey in cold water, keep it in the original packaging, place it in a clean and sanitized sink or pan and submerge it in cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes.
When thawing a turkey in the microwave, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Plan to cook the turkey immediately because some areas of the turkey may become warm and begin to cook during microwave thawing.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture no longer recommends rinsing a raw turkey in cool, running water because heat during cooking will kill any bacteria,” Reames says. “Eliminating this step cuts the risk of cross contamination from rinse water splashed around the sink and on the counter.”
Always be sure to wash your hands after touching raw meat or poultry for 20 seconds in hot, soapy water, she adds. Also, be sure utensils, plates, work surfaces, etc., have been thoroughly cleaned.
The nutritionist warns to keep raw foods separate from cooked or ready-to-eat foods to avoid cross contamination.
“Raw meat and poultry products may contain harmful bacteria, so it is important that the juices from these products do not come into contact with food that will be consumed without cooking,” Reames says. “Never place cooked food on an unwashed plate that previously held raw meat or poultry.”
A 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, she 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.
For turkey breasts, check the internal temperature in the thickest part.
The color of cooked poultry is not always a sure sign of its safety, Reames points out. Turkey can remain pink even after cooking to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees. And the meat of smoked turkey is always pink.
If you’re using a cooking bag in the oven, follow the manufacturer's guidelines on the package. A turkey will cook faster in an oven bag with less cleanup afterwards, Reames says. A thermometer can be inserted through a hole in the bag so you can tell when the turkey is safely done.
For optimum safety, the LSU AgCenter nutritionist says, cook stuffing separately from the turkey, and cook it to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. If you choose to stuff a turkey, be sure to use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature in the center of the stuffing as well as the turkey.
“If the center of the stuffing has not reached 165 degrees, then continue cooking the turkey until it does,” Reames says. “Cooking stuffing separately will help prevent overcooking your turkey.”
Be sure to get the turkey to a safe position on the stovetop or in the oven to prevent being burned from the hot cooking pan or juices.
Reames does not recommend cooking a turkey overnight in a 200-degree oven and then holding it until serving time. At 200 degrees, meat remains in the “Temperature Danger Zone” between 40 and 140 degrees in which bacteria can multiply rapidly and form toxins.
To keep food-borne bacteria from growing, refrigerate or freeze your turkey leftovers within two hours of cooking. Cut it into small pieces and refrigerate stuffing and turkey separately in shallow containers. Use leftover turkey and stuffing within 3-4 days and gravy within 1-2 days or freeze these foods. Reheat them thoroughly to a temperature of 165 degrees or until they’re hot and steaming.
If you have food safety questions, you can call the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 888-674-6854. The hotline is available in English and Spanish and can be reached from l0 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Eastern Time) Monday through Friday. Recorded food safety messages are available 24 hours a day.
For additional information about cooking food safely, contact the LSU AgCenter office in your parish.