USDA Food Safety Advice for Busy Thanksgiving Hosts.
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 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.
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.firstname.lastname@example.org
Find thawing times, cooking times and a list of ingredients for basic stuffing below.
Frozen turkey thawing timetable
Weight In refrigerator In cold water
4 to 12 pounds 1 to 3 days 2 to 6 hours
12 to 16 pounds 3 to 4 days 6 to 8 hours
16 to 20 pounds 4 to 5 days 8 to 10 hours
20 to 24 pounds 5 to 6 days 10 to 12 hours
Cold water method: Keep the turkey in a food grade, leak-proof plastic bag that will not allow water to leak through the bag. The turkey must be submerged in cold water and the cold water changed every 30 minutes. Allow 30 minutes defrosting time per pound of turkey. Cook immediately.
Refrigerator method: Allow approximately 24 hours in the refrigerator set at 40 degrees or below for every 4 to 5 pounds of whole turkey weight. Keep the turkey in its original wrapper and place on a tray in the refrigerator so juices don’t leak onto other foods.
Approximate roasting times for turkey
Ready-to-cook: Approximate cooking time in 325-degree oven. For optimum results use a meat thermometer to check for doneness. Begin testing for the doneness you desire before you think the turkey will be done.
Stuffed Cooking time
8 to 12 pounds 3 to 3-1/2 hours
12 to 14 pounds 3-1/2 to 4 hours
14 to 18 pounds 4 to 4-1/4 hours
18 to 20 pounds 4-1/4 to 4-3/4 hours
20 to 24 pounds 4-3/4 to 5-1/4 hours
Unstuffed Cooking time
8 to 12 pounds 2-3/4 to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3-3/4 hours
14 to 18 pounds 3-3/4 to 4-1/4 hours
18 to 20 pounds 4-1/4 to 4-1/2 hours
20 to 24 pounds 4-1/2 to 5 hours
Note: Set the oven no lower than 325 degrees F. Roasting time, which is approximate, can be affected by many factors, including: accuracy of oven temperature; temperature of the bird when it goes in the oven, depth, size and type of the roasting pan; and whether the turkey is shielded with foil.
Place the turkey on a wire rack in a shallow pan, adding 1/2 cup water to the bottom of the pan, and loosely tent the breast with aluminum foil. Remove the foil after 1 to 1 and 1/2 hours so the turkey can brown.
A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees F. throughout the bird as measured with a food thermometer. Check the temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook poultry to higher temperatures. Turkey breasts must reach 165 degrees. If the turkey is stuffed, the temperature in the center of the stuffing must reach 165 degrees.
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For optimum safety, the USDA does not recommend stuffing a turkey. For more even cooking, it is recommended you cook the stuffing outside the bird in a casserole. Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the stuffing. The stuffing must reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees.
If you choose to stuff a turkey, the ingredients can be prepared ahead of time; however, keep wet and dry ingredients separate.
Chill all of the wet ingredients (butter,/margerine, cooked celery and onions, broth, etc.). Mix wet and dry ingredients just before filling the turkey cavities. Fill the cavities loosely. Cook the turkey immediately. Use a food thermometer to make sure the center of the stuffing reaches a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees.