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Safe Turkey Preparation Tips

How to safely thaw, store, prepare, cook, and store leftovers of turkey

bulletThe news story - Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) tests
bulletTurkey Thawing, Preparation, Cooking, and Storing Tips
bulletHow cook a turkey - easy, illustrated, step-by-step directions!
bulletProducers home pages: bulletButterball
bulletLinks to other good turkey web pages
bulletRelated stories -  bulletDid you know that (according to the US FDA, cattle are being fed chicken manure?  No kidding - here are the facts, and evidence)
bulletDoes eating turkey make you sleepy?
bulletLinks to other web sites with turkey related information
bulletLooking for a real Christmas tree?  Click here to find a cut-your-own Christmas tree farm near you! And if you'd rather, they will cut it for you!) bulletWant to make your own pumpkin pie from a fresh pumpkin? You won't believe how easy it is with these fully illustrated instructions, and your guests won't believe how good it tastes!

Turkey Thawing, Preparation, Cooking, and Storing Tips

Thawing Safely

In the refrigerator

bulletThaw the turkey in its original wrap on a tray placed in the bottom section of the refrigerator.bulletAllow about 24 hours of defrost time for every 5 pounds of turkey. Example: a 20 pound turkey will take 4 to 5 days to thaw.bulletDo not thaw on the counter. Thawing at room temperature increases the risk of bacteria growth.bulletAt room temperature, bacteria on the turkey can grow rapidly when the outside portion of the bird begins to thaw. These bacteria can multiply to dangerously high levels producing toxins that cooking may not destroy.

In cold water

bulletThawing in cold water is safe too. Submerge the bird in its wrapper in a deep sink of cold water and change the water every 30 minutes to keep it cold.bulletAllow 30 minutes per pound to defrost a turkey in cold water. Do not use warm or hot water.

Microwave Thawing

bulletMicrowave thawing is another option. Make sure your microwave oven is large enough to hold the turkey especially if the oven has a rotating tray.bulletCheck manufacturer's instructions for the size turkey that will fit into your oven.bulletCaution: Microwave defrosting is irregular, creating hot spots, which may encourage bacterial growth. Cook the turkey immediately after defrosting. Do not store in the refrigerator for cooking later.
Stuffing Safely

  bulletNever stuff the turkey in advance in an effort to save time.bulletOnce you have decided on a stuffing recipe, mix ingredients quickly and lightly stuff the washed cavity just before placing the bird in the oven.bulletChopping vegetable ingredients and bread preparation can be done in advance, but liquids and/or moist ingredients should not be added to dry ingredients until just before stuffing the turkey .bulletAllow 1/2 to 3/4 cup stuffing per pound of turkey .bulletStuffing needs room to expand during cooking, do not over-stuff.bulletThe stuffing recipe may be more than your turkey can hold. Place extra stuffing in a greased pan or casserole dish and bake separately.bulletStuffing contains potentially hazardous ingredients, such as broth, eggs and meat, etc. That means these ingredients could cause illness if not properly cooked and stored.bulletStuffing must be cooked to a minimum temperature of 165 degrees F to be safe.bulletStuffing should be removed from the cavity of the bird to a separate dish before carving the turkey bulletDo not leave stuffing and other leftovers out for more than 2 hours. Refrigerate leftovers immediately following the meal.bulletStore leftover stuffing in the refrigerator and use within 1 to 2 days.bulletReheat leftover stuffing to 165 degrees F before serving.


Cooking Turkey Safely

  bulletDecide how much turkey you will need before you shop. Buy one pound per person or 1 1/2 pounds per person if you have hearty eaters or want ample leftovers.bulletBuy and use a meat thermometer (see Using a Thermometer). Dark meat takes longer to cook so always insert the thermometer in the thickest part of the turkey thigh. It will register 180 degrees F when the turkey is done.bulletMake sure you have a roasting pan large enough for the turkey .bulletAllow an adequate number of days to refrigerator-defrost a frozen turkey bulletWash hands, sinks, counters, utensils and platters thoroughly with soap and hot water before and after working with raw turkey bulletRemember to remove the giblet bag from inside the turkey bulletStuff just before roasting or cook stuffing separate from the turkeybulletAllow the cooked turkey to sit for at least 20 minutes before carving. During this time juices will be redistributed and the turkey will be easier to carve.bulletAfter the meal, cover and store leftovers in the refrigerator as soon as possible.bulletRemember the safest margin is 2 hours from the time you take the bird out of the oven.bulletLeftover turkey will keep in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days.


Holding Time

  bulletIf the turkey is done ahead of schedule, it is safe to hold it in the oven at a reduced temperature, 200 degrees F.bulletLeave the thermometer in the turkey and make sure that the temperature of the turkey does not drop below 140 degrees F during holding time.bulletKeep the turkey covered so it does not dry out.


Storing Leftovers

  bulletPlan ahead, clean out the refrigerator and make room for leftovers several days before the holiday feast.bulletLeftovers should be stored in the refrigerator within 2 hours after cooking is completed. Why just 2 hours? Because bacteria that cause food poisoning can multiply to undesirable levels on perishable foods left at room temperature for longer than that.bulletLarge quantities should be divided into smaller portions and stored in several shallow containers. Food in small amounts will chill faster keeping it safer and fresher.bulletIf a large amount of turkey is left, consider freezing some for later use. Do not wait until the turkey has been in the refrigerator for 4 days to freeze it. Freezing will not improve the quality of the turkey . If the turkey is frozen while it is fresh the quality will be better upon defrosting.


Using a Thermometer

  bulletMeat thermometers can be found in the housewares section of most grocery stores, in department stores and in specialty stores. Buy a thermometer, it is a sound investment in food safety.bulletAn instant read thermometer can be digital or dial gauge and it comes in a storage case. Read the information on the package. Instant read thermometers have plastic heads and cannot go into the oven while the turkey is cooking. However, it will register the temperature of food within 15 seconds when the metal tip is inserted up to the dimple on the stem, thus the name "instant read." Always clean the tip before returning it to the case.bulletStandard meat thermometers are metal and designed to withstand oven temperatures. The sensing area is from the tip to a half-inch past the dimple. This area registers the temperature of the food. Examine the thermometer and familiarize yourself with the dial settings.bulletPositioning the thermometer in the turkey is not difficult. Always place the thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh because the dark meat of turkey thigh takes longer to cook than any other part.bulletPlace the thermometer tip in the thick part of the thigh away from the bone. The thigh area closest to the body of the turkey is the thickest part. While you are washing the untrussed turkey , look for a spot to position the thermometer.bulletGently spin the head or dial of the meat thermometer around so you can easily see the reading without removing the turkey from the oven. As the turkey roasts, the thermometer may move out of position, don't worry, simply reposition the thermometer. The turkey is done when the temperature reads 180 degrees F.bulletOven thermometers read the temperature of the air inside of the oven. They are also useful for monitoring the temperature under the lid of a grill. If the oven thermometer registers a higher or lower temperature than the setting, adjust the oven temperature.bulletCheck the accuracy of the thermometer (especially an old one) by placing it in a large cup of 50/50 ice and water slush for 10 minutes. It should read 32 degrees F. Thermometers are considered accurate if they are within two degrees on the plus or minus side.bulletTo correct the temperature, use a small wrench to turn the calibration nut until the thermometer reads 32 degrees F. For a digital thermometer, simply change the battery.

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FAQs - Questions and Answers


Is pink turkey meat safe?
Numerous callers to the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline report being alarmed when seeing "pink". To them, it means "unsafe" or "under-done".

"I cooked my turkey until done according to the directions, but when I sliced the breast meat, it was still pink near the bone," said an Oklahoma caller. "Is it safe?"

The color of cooked meat and poultry is not always a sure sign of its degree of doneness. Only by using a meat thermometer can one accurately determine that a meat has reached a safe temperature. Turkey, fresh pork, ground beef or veal can remain pink even after cooking to temperatures of 160 degrees F. and higher. The meat of smoked turkey is always pink.

I didn't realize I was not supposed to leave the turkey on the counter to thaw. Will it be okay to use?
Next time, thaw the turkey in the refrigerator so that it stays safe. In your case, if the turkey is still cold to the touch and smells okay, it should be fine. Be sure to cook it properly and use a meat thermometer to check for doneness.

Can turkeys be roasted overnight at a low temperature?
The turkey industry does not recommend roasting a turkey at a temperature lower then 325�F., where harmful bacteria thrive.

Can I partially roast my whole turkey the day before and complete the roasting just before the meal?
From a food safety standpoint, the National Turkey Federation does not recommend partially roasting a whole turkey. Partially cooked meat and stuffing are ideal mediums for bacteria growth.

We forgot to put the turkey away after dinner and it has been sitting out all night. Can we still eat it?
No. Hazardous bacterial growth may have developed at room temperature after that long of a time.

You hear so much about salmonella poisoning these days. How can I be sure my family will not get it?
First, raw poultry should always be refrigerated at 40� F. or below. Second, it should be cooked properly to internal temperatures of 170� F. in the breast and 180� F. in the thigh. Wash all counters, utensils, and surfaces that come in contact with the raw turkey and its juices with hot, soapy water.

Our turkey is done and we are not planning to eat it for a while. What should we do?
Remove the turkey from the oven, leaving the stuffing in it. Cover with foil and clean towels to hold in the heat. If it will be a few hours before you will be eating the turkey, remove the turkey from the oven and cool the oven down to 150-200� F. Cover the turkey with aluminum foil and keep it in the warm oven until you are ready to eat it. It will be less juicy than if it had been served on time, but it will be safe to eat.



bulletLooking for a real Christmas tree?  Click here to find a cut-your-own Christmas tree farm near you! And if you'd rather, they will cut it for you!) bulletWant to make your own pumpkin pie from a fresh pumpkin? You won't believe how easy it is with these fully illustrated instructions, and your guests won't believe how good it tastes!bulletFood Safety Facts: Turkey Basics  bulletTurkey Basics: Stuffing (November 2000) bulletTurkey Basics: Thawing (November 2000) bulletTurkey Basics: Safe Cooking (November 2000) bulletTurkey Basics: Handling Precooked Dinners (November 2000)

Turkey Basics In Spanish

bulletPrincipios B�sicos de la Preparaci�n del Pavo: El Relleno (Noviembre 2001) bulletPrincipios B�sicos de la Preparaci�n del Pavo: Descongelaci�n Correcta (Noviembre 2001) bulletPrincipios B�sicos de la Preparaci�n del Pavo: Cocinar Correctamente (Noviembre  2001) bulletPrincipios B�sicos de la Preparaci�n del Pavo: Manejo de las Comidas Precocinadas (Noviembre 2001)bulletNews Features bulletCooking Turkey Is A Family Affair�With The Right Food Safety Tools (November 13, 2002) bulletFSIS Offers Food Safety Fundamentals For Safe And Festive Holiday Meals (December 10, 2001) bulletUSDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline Gives Advice on Sending Food Gifts to U.S. Military (December 6, 2001) bulletUSDA Teaches Turkey Basics for Safe Holiday Cooking (November 8, 2001) bulletUSDA Says Use "Thermy�" For Holiday Cooking Safety (November 2, 2000)  bulletVideo News Releases (Multimedia) - Includes "Food Safety for Holiday Buffets" (December 2001; English and Spanish); "Turkey Basics from USDA Hotline" (November 2001), "Sending Perishable Food By Mail" (November 2000) and "USDA Says Use 'Thermy�' For Turkey Safety and Quality" (November 2000)bulletGifts and Holiday Celebrations bulletRoasting Those "Other" Holiday Meats (October 2001) bulletHoliday or Party Buffets (October 2000) bulletMail Order Food Safety ( November 1999) bulletSafe Handling of Complete Meals to Go (September 1998)
Brochure also available in PDF (for duplicating).bulletFrom the Partnership for Food Safety Education bulletKeep the Holidays Happy [PDF] (November 2001) bulletThe Joy of Giving Food Safely  [(PDF* file, 589 KB, 1 page] bulletThe Buffet Bonanza: Keeping Food Safe, Page 1 [PDF file, 1776 KB, 1 page]
The Buffet Bonanza: Keeping Food Safe, Page 2 [PDF file, 2255 KB, 1 page]



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