ANSWER: Sometimes it’s easier to prepare your turkey a day or two before you plan to serve it. I always prepare my turkey usually on Tuesday before Thanksgiving. This makes it a lot easier since I don’t have to get up early that morning to put it on. My family always has our celebration at lunch and we need a big bird that sometimes takes more than 3 hours to prepare. Plus I like a lot of turkey leftovers for future meals. If you want to try to do this, the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension has these guidelines to ensure that your turkey is as good as if you roasted it on Thanksgiving:
*Roast as usual, making sure that the turkey is completely done. Wait about 20 minutes after removing the turkey from the oven to allow the juices to distribute.
*Remove the meat from the carcass after it’s cooled enough to handle. It’s not food safe to leave the meat on the carcass. Slice the breast meat. The legs and wings may be left whole. Place turkey in shallow metal containers; limit the depth to less than two inches. Metal containers cool faster than glass-type containers. Be sure to wash your hands with soap and warm water for about 20 seconds before beginning to slice the turkey.
*Pour broth over the turkey to prevent drying. Then refrigerate, loosely covered. You can place the loosely covered containers in the refrigerator while the food is still warm. Just remember to cover tightly when the food is completely cooled.
*On the day of your meal, cover the pan with an oven-proof lid or foil and reheat thoroughly in a 350 degree F oven until hot and steaming throughout. If you are planning to travel and bring the turkey, it’s safest and easiest to travel with it already cooked and cold. Carry it in an insulated cooler with lots of ice or frozen gel packs to keep the cooler temperature under 40 degrees F. Then reheat the turkey at your final destination.
*Either freeze leftover turkey or plan to eat the cooked turkey within three to four days of the day that it was originally prepared. Once removed from the oven, the turkey should not set at room temperature longer than two hours total time. For best safety and quality, avoid reheating and cooling turkey multiple times. Just reheat the amount that’s needed for each meal.
*If you make the gravy the day before, refrigerate it in a shallow container. Bring the gravy to a rolling boil when reheating it. Eat gravy within one to two days of the original preparation date. In order to make sure that the turkey has been heated long so that it is steaming, use a food thermometer. Insert it at an angle 2 to 2 1/2-inches deep through several slices of turkey so that it measures the center of a layer of slices without touching the bottom of the container. If you are heating your turkey in a glass-type container, it’s safest to transfer the turkey to the container just before heating. For some glass-type baking dishes, you run the risk of the glass breaking if you put the cold dish from the refrigerator directly into the oven. It’s not safe to let the turkey warm at room temperature before reheating it.
Keep in mind that it’s recommended that the stuffing or dressing be made as a separate dish and not stuffed in the turkey. Heat dressing until the center reaches 165 degrees F. Be sure to eat dressing within one to two days of preparation.
I try to do as much as possible in the two days before our family meal to make things easier on me. On Thanksgiving Day, I’m reheating turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, veggies…everything except for the dressing and rolls which are baked in time for lunch. If you want to do this, just make sure that you follow recommended food safety practices to keep your family safe from foodborne illness. By doing so much ahead of time, cleanup after the meal goes a lot quicker and is much easier since you don’t have as many pots and pans.
Carrie T. Brazeal is the County Extension Agent for Family and Consumer Sciences for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 972.424.1460, Ext. 4233.