Safe Turkey Prep for the Holidays

’Tis the season for planning big meals, tasty treats and of course, quality time with loved ones. Many folks love enjoying lots of delicious and nutritious foods this time of year (and all year-round, in fact), but to enjoy these foods in a safe way calls for following food safety guidelines.

The Center of Attention

Turkey is often front and center on the dinner table this time of year. So are other types of poultry and meat — chicken, duck, roast beef, lamb — the list goes on and on. If you purchase these items in advance of your holiday celebration, a great way to keep them fresh and safe before you are ready to cook them is by freezing. But what about when you are ready to defrost your “protein star,” or namely, the turkey?

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) advises that the proper way to thaw a turkey or any other type of meat is to NOT leave it out at room temperature or anywhere else that might fluctuate in temperature.

There are three ways to unthaw a turkey properly: in a refrigerator, in cold water or in a microwave.  

For using the refrigerator, the turkey is placed in a container (to prevent dripping on other foods or leaking onto shelves) and put it in the refrigerator set to 40 °F or below. For complete thawing, you will need to allow approximately 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds. Once thawed, the turkey can remain in the refrigerator for one to two days before cooking.

If the turkey is thawed in cold water, the time to thaw is much faster (approximately two hours for every two pounds). However, once the thawing is complete, the turkey must be prepped immediately for cooking. As with cold water thawing, a turkey thawed in the microwave must also be cooked immediately. To thaw the turkey correctly in the microwave, it is advised that you follow the microwave oven manufacturer's defrosting instructions.

If you choose to skip turkey this year or are just not a “turkey person,” USDA has more helpful advice on their website that shows the proper way to defrost food and enjoy it in a safe and healthy way.

It’s Getting Hot in Here

Now that you have clean hands, utensils and counter space to begin seasoning your bird, next comes the cooking! When your turkey is ready to be put into the oven, you should plan to cook it to a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F – as measured with a food thermometer – to destroy any bacteria, reducing the risk of foodborne illness. Check the temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. If it is stuffed, the stuffing temperature should also read 165 °F.

Using a food thermometer is the best way to ensure that your turkey has been cooked to proper temperature. You cannot tell that your turkey (or any other food) is safe just by its appearance. Using a food thermometer is the only sure way of knowing if your food has reached a high enough temperature to destroy harmful bacteria. The food thermometer can also help you avoid overcooking because nobody wants a dry bird!

This USDA Kitchen Thermometers Fact Sheet has more information about cooking meat, poultry and eggs to prevent undercooking. It is a great resource for the holidays and all year-round.

Reaching the Promised “Leftovers” Land

Once you’ve prepped, cooked and eaten your turkey and other festive foods, there are often leftovers. Personally, I think many foods taste even better the next day. But, they must all be stored properly to ensure the best taste and utmost safety. Here are some quick leftover tips from USDA on how to enjoy your turkey and other foods for the rest of the holiday week:

  • Refrigerate your turkey and other perishable foods within two hours after serving.
  • Check the temperature of your refrigerator and freezer with an appliance thermometer. The refrigerator should be at 40 °F or below and the freezer at 0 °F or below.
  • When storing the turkey (or other meat/poultry), it should be wrapped securely to maintain quality and to prevent meat juices from getting onto other food.
  • Eat your refrigerated leftovers within three to four days. If you freeze your turkey, the leftovers can be kept up to four months.
  • Be sure to reheat leftovers to 165 °F. You can use your food thermometer to check the temperature.

Happy Turkey Day

Enjoying food traditions can be one of the best things about holidays. But it is important to prepare foods in a safe and responsible manner to help keep the joy going! While the U.S. has one of the safest food supplies in the world, we still need to be diligent in practicing safe food handling during the holidays and all year-round.

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