WASHINGTON, Nov. 17, 2010—Seasoned chefs and rookies hosting their first Thanksgiving gatherings are all feeling undeniable pressure this time of year. The sentimentality and anticipation of this American holiday make it one that no cook wants to ruin for families and guests, and preparing a turkey, the cornerstone of most Thanksgiving meals, that does not disappoint can be daunting. USDA's Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) has a few pointers for anxious cooks to ensure that your turkey (or chicken, goose, or other poultry) is cooked safely and remembered for the right reasons—not because someone developed a foodborne illness.
"During this busy time of year, it is important to remember that safety comes first," recommends Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety. "When preparing Thanksgiving foods, take a minute to make sure you have a food thermometer and plan ahead so that you can fully and safely enjoy this holiday meal."
One Week in Advance: Get your turkey ready to cook!
Cooks buying a frozen turkey should make their purchase a few days in advance to allow time for thawing. If you plan to buy a fresh turkey, don't buy it too soon. Fresh, unfrozen poultry should be kept in the refrigerator no more than two days before cooking. This is also a good time to make sure you have a food thermometer for the big day. If not, pick up one at the store when you purchase your turkey.
The optimal, but most time consuming, place to thaw poultry is the refrigerator. Leave the frozen bird in its original wrapper, and place it on a tray to catch any juices that may leak from the package. Bacteria in meat juices can cross-contaminate other foods that will be eaten without further cooking or that are already cooked, possibly causing foodborne illness. Allow approximately 24 hours of thawing time for every four to five pounds of frozen poultry. Thawed poultry can remain in the refrigerator for 1-2 days before cooking.
If it's the day before Thanksgiving and your turkey is still in the freezer, or if there's no room in the refrigerator for thawing, don't panic! You can thaw your turkey by the cold water method. Submerge the turkey in a container with enough cold water to cover the bird, and change the water every 30 minutes. Calculate 30 minutes per pound of poultry for thawing time.
As a last resort, cook your turkey or chicken from the frozen state. It will thaw and cook in one step, but it will require 50% additional cooking time. The drawback: you can't stuff a frozen bird.
One to Two Days in Advance: Pick your stuffing method.
Turkey's most constant accompaniment, stuffing, requires the same food safety caution in its preparation as the bird itself. Bread stuffing, stuffing made from cornbread or rice, stuffing cooked inside the bird or browned in a casserole, or any other variation that your family likes is safest when prepared just before cooking. The dry and wet ingredients for stuffing can be prepared separately ahead of time and chilled, but not mixed until time to cook. The stuffing should be moist, not dry, because heat destroys bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment.
Baking stuffing outside the turkey in a casserole dish is the safest method and provides busy cooks with more flexibility to prepare ahead. If you don't plan to stuff your turkey, it is safe to prepare and immediately freeze or bake the mixture. Never stuff poultry with frozen or pre-cooked stuffing! When needed, cook frozen stuffing directly from the frozen state without thawing first, and heat frozen or pre-baked stuffing to a safe internal temperature of 165 °F before serving.
Thanksgiving Day: Heat it up!
Place your raw bird, stuffed or unstuffed, in a preheated oven set to 325 °F or higher. The turkey must reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F, as measured with a food thermometer in the innermost part of the thigh, the wing, the thickest part of the breast, and the stuffing in order to destroy bacteria that could be present. Bacteria can survive in poultry or stuffing—whether cooked inside or outside the turkey—that has not reached 165 °F, and it may cause foodborne illness.
All poultry meat, including any that remains pink, is safe to eat as soon as all parts reach at least 165 °F. For personal preference, cooks may choose to cook poultry to higher temperatures. When whole, stuffed poultry is removed from the oven, let it stand 20 minutes before removing the stuffing and carving the bird.
Right after Dinner: "Chill out" immediately.
After dinner is a wonderful time to relax with guests, but busy cooks should not "chill" until the leftovers do. Bacteria spread fastest at temperatures between 40 °F and 140 °F, so quickly chilling food after a meal reduces the risk of foodborne illness.
After Thanksgiving dinner, cut the leftover poultry into small pieces. Place the stuffing and poultry in shallow containers and refrigerate (40 °F or below) or freeze (0 °F or below) the poultry and stuffing within 2 hours after cooking. Use refrigerated leftovers within three to four days, or freeze them. Reheat leftovers to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F or until hot and steaming.
For more information about cooking turkey, other holiday meats such as pheasant, capon, duck, or goose, as well as stuffing, visit www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Seasonal_Food_Safety_Fact_Sheets/index.asp.
You can call the year-round hotline Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. EST (English or Spanish) at 1-888-MPHotline or 1-888-674-6854. Listen to timely recorded food safety messages at the same number 24 hours a day. Check out the FSIS website at www.fsis.usda.gov. E-mail questions can be answered by MPHotline.fsis@xxxxxxxx.
NOTE: Access news releases and other information at FSIS' website at www.fsis.usda.gov. Follow FSIS on Twitter at twitter.com/usdafoodsafety