To make sure you have enough turkey for the feast and for leftovers too, purchase at least one pound of uncooked turkey per person, says LSU AgCenter nutritionist Beth Reames.
“There’s no quality difference between a fresh or frozen turkey although fresh turkeys have shorter shelf lives,” Reames said. “And 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. If you buy a fresh turkey, be sure you purchase it only one or two days before cooking, she said.
Frozen, pre-stuffed, uncooked or cooked whole poultry that displays the USDA or state inspection mark has been processed under controlled conditions and, therefore, is safe to buy, Reames said. Keep it stored in the freezer and follow the package directions for safe handling and cooking.
Proper thawing methods are important to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria that may have been present prior to freezing a turkey, Reames said.
Three safe ways to thaw a turkey are in the refrigerator at 40 degrees or less, in cold water and in the microwave.
When thawing in the refrigerator, allow 24 hours of thawing time for every five pounds of turkey, Reames said. Place a frozen turkey in its store wrap on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator in a shallow pan or a baking sheet, that has a lip, to catch 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 cold water every 30 minutes.
When thawing a bird in the microwave, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Plan to cook the turkey immediately after microwave thawing because some areas may become warm and begin to cook in the microwave.
“Do not thaw a commercially pre-stuffed frozen turkey before cooking,” Reames said. “If this product has been placed in the refrigerator and has completely thawed, discard both the turkey and the stuffing. Harmful bacteria may be present and can grow in the turkey as it thaws.”
If the turkey has ice crystals and the stuffing is still frozen, however, it is safe to cook. Both the turkey and the stuffing should be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees as measured with a food thermometer.
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 said. Eliminating this step cuts the risk of cross contamination from rinse water splashed around the sink and on the counter.
To be safe after touching raw poultry or meat, Reames said, wash your hands for 20 seconds in hot, soapy water. 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, the nutritionist warned. Raw meat and poultry products may contain harmful bacteria, so it is important that the raw juices don’t come into contact with food that will be consumed without cooking. Also, never place cooked food on an unwashed plate that previously held raw meat or poultry.
To cook turkey safely, set the oven temperature no lower than 325 degrees. An unstuffed turkey that weighs 14 to 18 pounds will need to cook approximately 3¾ to 4¼ hours in a 325-degree oven.
A food thermometer is the only way to make sure that turkey has reached a high-enough temperature to destroy harmful bacteria, Reames said. To make sure a whole turkey has reached a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees, check the innermost part of the thigh and wing and thickest part of the breast.
If you prefer, you may cook turkey to higher temperatures, but don’t exceed 170 degrees in the breast and 180 degrees in the thigh.
“The color of cooked poultry is not always a sure sign of its safety,” Reames said. “Turkey can remain pink even after cooking to a safe temperature. And the meat of smoked turkey is always pink.”
If using an oven cooking bag, follow the manufacturer’s guidelines on the package. A turkey will cook faster in an oven bag with less cleanup afterwards. A thermometer can be inserted through a hole in the oven bag so you can tell when your turkey is safely done.
Reames recommends cooking stuffing separately to help prevent overcooking the turkey. Cook stuffing to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
If you choose to stuff a turkey, prepare the stuffing and put it into the turkey immediately before it’s placed in the oven. Mix the wet and dry ingredients separately and combine them just before stuffing the turkey loosely.
If the turkey is done and the stuffing is not yet 165 degrees at the center, remove the stuffing and place it in a greased casserole dish to continue cooking to temperature.
Take care of leftovers promptly to keep foodborne bacteria from growing, Reames said.
“Refrigerate or freeze perishables, prepared food and leftovers within two hours of cooking,” she said. “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 them.”
Consumers with food safety questions 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 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays to Fridays and from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. Recorded food safety messages are available 24 hours a day.