It’s three days to Thanksgiving and if your frozen turkey is 16 to 20 pounds it should be defrosting today if you want to use the safest thawing option: the fridge. (Note: if your turkey is above 20 pounds you may need to run it in a cold water bath first to get it thawed in time). We all look forward to a delicious Thanksgiving meal and the last thing we want is to give food poisoning to our family because we didn’t follow basic turkey safety tips.
- Wash your hands with warm water and soap before preparing turkey and other Thanksgiving day meal items. All your kitchen helpers need to wash their hands too and it needs to be repeated if you wander off and pet the dog or pick things up off the floor while cooking/preparing food.
- If you have a frozen turkey it is important for food safety that you thaw it properly, ideally in the fridge. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s refrigerator thawing times are as follows:
-5 to 6 days for turkeys 20-24 pounds;
-4 to 5 days for 16-20 pounds;
-3-4 days for 12-16 pounds;
-1-3 days for 4-12 pounds.
If necessary, you can thaw your turkey in a cold water bath but be prepared that a large turkey will still take about half a day to de-thaw. Microwave defrosting is not practical for large turkeys as they would not fit and even those that do could take a solid 60 to 90 minutes to fully defrost. Be especially careful to fully defrost a turkey headed to the deep fryer as ice crystals can explode in hot oil.
- If you are cooking a turkey 14 pounds or smaller, you may not have to defrost completely. Unwrap the bird and run cold water in the cavities to remove inserts. Place on baking pan in an oven heated to 325 degrees. If breast meat becomes too brown, place a foil tent over bird. Baking a frozen turkey means extended cooking time: up to six hours for a 14 pound turkey.
- Proper storage of a de-thawed turkey is just as important as how it is de-thawed. A defrosted turkey or a fresh turkey should not be held in a refrigerator for more than two days before cooking. Also, store it in a pan to prevent juices from dripping on and contaminating other foods.
- Almost half of all poultry purchased from a factory farm may be contaminated with bacteria that can cause food-borne illnesses. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not necessary and is potentially harmful to rinse a bird in the sink. It’s estimated that rinsing can spread bacteria as far as three feet away. After handling and preparing your turkey, be sure to thoroughly clean your hands, tools, and counter tops to decrease your risk of spreading dangerous bacteria.
- Cook your turkey properly. Following turkey cooking time-charts is a good start to estimating your cooking time but you should also insert a meat thermometer into the deepest parts of the turkey (thigh and breast) and check to make sure that the bird reaches 165 degrees. Another indication that your turkey is fully cooked is when the thigh pulls of easily and the juices run clear. Note that whether your turkey is covered or stuffed during cooking can affect cooking times. Here are the cooking time recommendations for an un-stuffed turkey:
-2 ¾-3 hours for 8-12 pounds;
-3-3 ¾ hours for 12-14 pounds;
-3 ¾-4 ¼ hours for 14-18 pounds;
-4 ¼-4 ½ hours for 18-20 pounds;
-4 ½-5 hours for 20-24 pounds.
According to Consumer Reports, the safest type of meat thermometer is an instant-read meat thermometer.
- Store leftovers promptly; even once meat is cooked it can still collect bacteria at room temperature. Two hours out of the oven is considered the limit for meats before refrigeration or freezing is needed. This means that after 20 minutes of resting, there is only 1 hour and 40 minutes to serve the turkey before it needs to go back in the refrigerator. Turkey meat should be eaten within three to four days after it is placed in the refrigerator.
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