AUBURN, Ala.—With Christmas right around the corner, it is time to start planning that special meal for the family and of course, cooking a turkey. However, it’s important to know the proper way to thaw, prepare, cook and save leftover turkey to keep your friends and family from getting sick. Janice Hall, a regional agent with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, explained why it is important to practice safe food handling skills and techniques when fixing that delicious home cooked turkey.
The first thing to consider is the difference between handling thawed turkey and a frozen turkey. First, keep the turkey in its original packaging.
“Place turkey in a pan or separate container to prevent cross contamination of blood and other contaminants from getting on other foods in the refrigerator, especially the ready to eat – no cook foods,” Hall said. A thawed turkey can normally be kept below 40°F for no more than three days. Following the three day rule will lower the risk of bacteria growth and spoilage. Hall added, “If you are handling a frozen turkey, you should plan ahead. It will take at least 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey that needs to be thawed.”
It is important to practice some safe food handling when preparing your turkey.
“The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not recommend washing turkeys before cooking,” Hall said. “The bird has already gone through a thorough process of cleaning before packaging. Washing your turkey will only increase the risk of spreading bacteria over the sink and other surfaces in the kitchen. This, in turn, will increase your risk of a foodborne illness (food poisoning).”
Making sure the turkey is right for that holiday meal can be stressful. Overcooked turkey may taste dry and tough, but undercooked can lead to illness.
“The USDA recommends that all poultry, including turkeys, be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F,” Hall said. “Make sure the oven is set no less than 325°F. Use a thermometer to ensure the turkey has been cooked to the correct temperature. Some turkeys have pop up thermometers. Those can also be used as an indicator of doneness, but should be used secondary to a meat thermometer.”
Aside from cooking a turkey, some families enjoy stuffing the turkey if they’re up for the extra effort. The ingredients for stuffing can be prepared ahead of time. According to the USDA, you should keep wet and dry ingredients separate. Chill all of the wet ingredients (butter, cooked celery and onions, broth, etc.), Mix wet and dry ingredients just before filling the turkey cavity. Fill the cavity loosely. Cook the turkey immediately. Use a food thermometer to make sure the center of the stuffing reaches a safe internal temperature of 165 F.
Besides the actual Christmas meal itself, people look forward to eating leftover turkey, along with all the side dishes for the next several days. If you plan to do this, don’t leave food out more than 2 hours after the meal. Instead, properly cool down those leftovers to prevent bacteria from growing. One way to properly cool is to make an ice water bath in your sink. Divide food into smaller portions, place the food in a stainless steel container, and sit the containers in the ice water. You can also place ice cubes on the food as long as it does not alter the taste of the food. Stir occasionally to mix the cold temperatures into the food. After leftovers have cooled, place in sealed containers in the refrigerator. Leftovers are easy to reheat on a plate in the microwave to at least 165°F.
“We recommend keeping leftovers in refrigerator no more than 4 days,” Hall said. If you see that all the turkey will not be eaten in that length of time, take it off the bone and freeze it in small, airtight containers. Leave it in freezer no longer than 6 months for best quality.
Be sure to keep these tips in mind to ensure a quality, illness-free, holiday meal.
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