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The care and cooking of your Thanksgiving turkey

Updated: Nov 18, 2010 01:39 PM EST
Turkey is simple to prepare, but don't take shortcuts with food safety. (© Cowan) Turkey is simple to prepare, but don't take shortcuts with food safety. (© Cowan)

From the U. S. Department of Agriculture

A whole turkey is a large bird to handle. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers the following advice for safe handling of your holiday turkey to protect your dinner guests from foodborne ailments.

Safe Thawing

There are three safe ways to thaw food: in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave oven.

Store frozen turkeys in the freezer until time to thaw. While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely. However, if the turkey is allowed to thaw at a temperature above 40 °F, any harmful bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to multiply again unless proper thawing methods are used.

When thawing a turkey in the refrigerator, plan ahead. Place the turkey on a platter and place in the refrigerator. For every 5 pounds of turkey, allow approximately 24 hours of thawing in a refrigerator set at 40 °F.

For thawing in cold water, allow about 30 minutes per pound. Be sure the turkey is in leak-proof packaging and submerge it in cold tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey thaws.

When thawing in the microwave, follow the manufacturer's instructions.

For both defrosting in cold water and in the microwave, cook the turkey immediately after thawing because conditions were not temperature controlled.

Stuffing a Turkey

The safest way to cook stuffing is in a casserole, not inside a bird. Bake the casserole in an oven set no lower than 325 °F -- or in a microwave oven -- until the internal temperature reaches at least 165 °F on a food thermometer. Harmful bacteria can survive in stuffing that has not reached a safe temperature, possibly resulting in foodborne illness.

Cooking a stuffed turkey is riskier than cooking one not stuffed. However, if both the stuffing and turkey are handled safely and a food thermometer is used, it is possible to cook a stuffed turkey safely.

 Mix wet and dry stuffing ingredients just before spooning it loosely into the turkey cavity, and roast the turkey immediately. Check the temperature of both the stuffing and the turkey. Do not remove the turkey from the oven until the stuffing reaches 165 °F.

Cooking a Turkey Safely

Thawing and stuffing a turkey safely are the first two basics. But cooking is the only way to destroy bacteria. The oven temperature must be set no lower than 325 °F.

Overnight cooking of a turkey at a low temperature can result in foodborne illness.

The internal temperature, on a food thermometer, of a whole turkey must reach 180 °F in the innermost part of the thigh. If the turkey has a "pop-up" temperature indicator, it is also recommended that a food thermometer be used to test the turkey in several places. 

How long to cook?

The National Turkey Federation compiled the following guide to cooking times.

"Open Pan Method" NTF Roasting Guidelines for a Fresh or Thawed Turkey
Roast in a 325 degrees F Conventional Oven on the Lowest Oven Rack
Weight Unstuffed Turkey Stuffed Turkey  
8 to 12 pounds 2 3/4 to 3 hours 3 to 3 1/2 hours  
12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3 3/4 hours 3 1/2 to 4 hours  
14 to 18 pounds 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours 4 to 4 1/4 hours  
18 to 20 pounds 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours 4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours  
20 to 24 pounds 4 1/2 to 5 hours 4 3/4 to 5 1/4 hours  
24 to 30 pounds 5 to 5 1/4 hours 5 1/4 to 6 1/4 hours  

 Handling Precooked Dinners and Leftovers

Some cooks forego home-cooking a turkey altogether and choose to purchase precooked dinners. There are also basic safety measures for the safe handling of these holiday meals.

 If the dinners are to be picked up hot, keep the food hot. Keeping foods warm is not enough. Harmful bacteria multiply fastest in the "danger zone" between 40F and 140F. Set the oven temperature high enough to keep the internal temperature of the turkey and side dishes at 140 F or above. Eat the food within 2 hours of pickup.

When picking up cold turkey dinners, refrigerate them as soon as possible, always within 2 hours. Serve the meal within 1 to 2 days.

Turkey may be eaten cold, but reheating a whole turkey is not recommended. To reheat, slice breast meat (legs and wings may be left whole), and heat turkey pieces and side dishes thoroughly to 165 °F.

Perishable foods should not be left out of the refrigerator or oven for more than 2 hours. Refrigerate or freeze all leftovers promptly in shallow containers. It is safe to refreeze leftover turkey and trimmings even if they were previously frozen.

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