Turkey safety for the holidays

By Marilyn C. Wells - NC Cooperative Extension

The holiday season is upon us and our thoughts turn toward the great feast ahead. Very often the star of the feast is the humble turkey, sitting pretty with its perfectly roasted golden brown skin. All is well as the family starts to partake of the delicious feast like a Norman Rockwell painting. To keep that feeling of satisfaction throughout the day, remember that the safe thawing and preparation of the turkey is vitally important. Let’s begin with the safe thawing methods for turkey!

The reason for safety in thawing poultry is the possible food-borne illnesses, such as salmonella, that can occur if raw meat juice comes in contact with other foods. Turkeys must be kept at a safe temperature (below 40 degrees) once it is removed from the freezer. While frozen, a turkey is safe, but as soon as it begins to thaw, any bacteria present when frozen will begin to grow again. There are three safe ways to thaw turkeys: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave.

For refrigerator thawing, allow at least 24 hours for each four to five pounds of turkey. Place the turkey wrapped in the original wrapper, and place in a container deep enough to prevent any juices from dripping onto other foods (otherwise known as cross-contamination). Plan ahead since large turkeys may take up to six days to thaw safely. A thawed turkey can stay in the refrigerator for one to two days before cooking.

The second safe thawing method is the cold water thawing which takes less time, but with more work involved. Place the turkey in a leak proof plastic bag to prevent cross-contamination and to prevent the turkey from absorbing too much water. Submerge the turkey in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. Generally, it takes 30 minutes per pound and two to 12 hours to thaw. The turkey must be cooked immediately after thawing.

The third safe thawing method is in the microwave oven. Since microwave ovens vary in power, it is recommended to follow the manufacturer’s directions for thawing. Plan to cook the turkey immediately since some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving. While this method is food safe, it is the least desirable defrosting method which can affect the quality of the meat. Remember for safety reasons, to always wash hands, utensils, the sink, and anything else that comes in contact with raw turkey and its juices with soap and water.

When deciding the amount of turkey needed, allow one pound of turkey per person to be served. Frozen turkeys can be bought anytime and kept in the freezer but fresh turkeys should be bought only one to two days before you plan to cook it. Store the fresh turkey in the refrigerator in a deep pan so it won’t leak on other foods. Do not buy a pre-stuffed, fresh turkey. Any harmful bacteria that may be in the stuffing can multiply quickly. USDA recommends only buying frozen pre-stuffed turkeys that display the USDA mark of inspection. These turkeys have been processed under controlled conditions and should be cooked frozen, not thawed.

Now to the preparation of the tasty bird! The conventional oven is used most often to cook a turkey, but the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline listed several methods to safely cook the big bird. Instead of the oven, try an electric roaster, a gas or charcoal grill, a smoker, or a deep fat turkey fryer. Don’t even think about cooking a turkey without a food thermometer! The meat of a turkey must always be cooked until the innermost part of the thigh, and the thickest part of the breast, read 165 degrees. If you like to stuff a turkey, do not remove the turkey from the heat source until the center of the stuffing reads 165 degrees to avoid contaminating the cooked meat.

The most often used cooking method for turkeys is roasting or baking which are forms of dry-heat cooking, generally inside an oven and at temperatures of 300 degrees or above. The terms of roasting and baking are frequently used interchangeably. Some chefs associate the term roasting with a higher temperature and a product with deeper browning than a baked product. An example would be a roasted turkey and a baked fish. Place the turkey on a rack in a shallow roasting pan and add ½ cup of water. Tuck the wing tips under the shoulders of the bird for even browning. If you have an oven-proof thermometer, insert before roasting. Cover with a lid or a tent of heavy duty aluminum foil. If you are using an oven cooking bag, follow the directions for the size of poultry you have.

Other alternative cooking methods may include smoking, and charcoal or gas grilling. If using a grill, place the turkey away from the direct heat and always keep it covered with the lid. An appliance thermometer is a handy item to be sure the temperature of the grill or smoker stays within the 225- to 300-degree range. The color of the meat is not an accurate indicator of doneness. This is evident in the smoked turkey which can have a pink color. A meat thermometer is the only way to determine doneness of the 165 degrees internal temperature. These slow cooking methods will produce tender turkeys especially when brined or marinated.

My favorite method of preparation is a deep fried turkey injected with marinade. What a gorgeous golden brown bird it is with juicy, tender and flavorful meat! A turkey cooked in a fryer should be completely thawed, unstuffed and 12 pounds or less in size. Extra safety precautions need to be taken when working with the hot oil in the turkey fryer. Select a safe location outside for the turkey fryer. Follow the directions from the manufacturer for the cooker. To find out the amount of peanut oil needed, place the turkey in the cooker and cover with water to 1 to 2 inches above the turkey. Remove the turkey and measure the water for the amount of oil needed. Dry out the water from the fryer and add the oil. Using a large deep fryer thermometer, preheat the oil until it reaches 350 degrees. Gently lower the turkey in the basket into the hot oil. Monitor the temperature throughout the cooking process to maintain a constant 350 degrees. Don’t leave the fryer unattended. Allow three to five minutes per pound of turkey for cooking time. With a meat thermometer, check the thigh and breast for the desired 165 degrees of doneness. Return to the oil immediately if needed for further cooking. When the turkey is done, place it on a sturdy tray with paper towels for draining. Let it rest for 20 minutes before cutting. Allow the used oil to cool before straining and pouring into containers. The oil may be reused within a month if it is strained, covered and stored in the refrigerator.

If you do not have time to thaw an unstuffed turkey, it can safely be roasted from the frozen state by allowing for extra time. Use the time needed for the size turkey you have and add an additional 50 percent of that time to the original time needed to roast to 165 degrees. Most whole turkeys have paper wrapped giblets inserted into the cavity and there is no safety concern if they are roasted inside. Do not use if the giblets were wrapped in a plastic bag and it melted or was altered in any way.

For turkey questions or further information call to N. C. Cooperative Extension, Yadkin County Center, 336-849-7908 and ask for Marilyn Wells, Family and Consumer Agent. Follow these suggestions for a happy, food safe holiday.

By Marilyn C. Wells

NC Cooperative Extension