I am always amazed each Thanksgiving that my friends have questions on “cooking turkey.” I am even more amazed that they ask me questions, because I have a solid reputation for not being able to cook anything! That said, perhaps they ask because I do know how to make certain the turkey makes it safely to the table for Thanksgiving.
Many of us buy a frozen turkey, and the first challenge is remembering to thaw it! It takes a few days in the refrigerator for thawing. DO NOT THAW THE TURKEY AT ROOM TEMPERATURE! If you have already started thawing your turkey, great! If not, do not panic. You can place it in the refrigerator right now, and complete the thawing in COLD water. If you thaw it from a frozen state in cold water, it takes about 30 minutes per pound. I find many people become impatient with the cold water thawing method and start running warm water to hasten the process. We should not use warm water for thawing! Get that bird in the refrigerator today and finish the thawing in COLD water! Once the turkey is thawed, the giblets can be removed for cooking separately.
The turkey should be cooked in an oven that has been pre-heated to 325°F. It is recommended that the stuffing be cooked separately from the turkey. The internal temperature of the turkey should reach 165°F. A food thermometer should be used to measure the temperature of the turkey, taking the temperature at the thickest part of the breast. I recommend using a food thermometer even if the turkey has a pop-up timer. Many of my friends prefer the flavor of the turkey when it is cooked to higher temperature, but it is safe once it has reached 165°F. It is best to let the turkey stand for approximately 20 minutes before carving.
I have found that the only thing harder than remembering to thaw the turkey is cleaning the table after eating all the yummy food. However, food safety necessitates that leftovers be refrigerated promptly. If there is any leftover turkey, it should be put into the refrigerator within 2 hours of removing it from the oven. The leftover turkey will last in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days. If there are a lot of leftovers, they should be placed in the freezer, where they will last for 2 to 6 months.
Following these simple steps should provide for a safe turkey! Well, these steps, in addition to making sure your hands are clean and you do not cross contaminate the counter…However, if there are remaining questions, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has staff working to make sure everyone can have a safe holiday. They are available at 1-888-MPHotline or Ask Karen on the FSIS website. Happy Thanksgiving, and enjoy the safe turkey!
Before joining OFW Law, Dr. Masters served as Acting Administrator and then Administrator for the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) from March 2004 through January 2007.