Can you believe it? Thanksgiving is almost here! If you are preparing your family’s traditional turkey dinner, don’t panic yet. You still have a few days to prepare. Here are a few simple steps from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service that will not only ease your holiday fears but will ensure a delicious and safe meal for you and your family.
*Do you want a fresh or frozen turkey? Do you have enough space to store a frozen bird if purchased in advance? If you choose a frozen turkey, remember that it will take a few days to thaw in the refrigerator. Place the frozen bird in the original wrapper in the refrigerator on a large tray to catch the juices and allow approximately 24 hours per 4-5 pounds of turkey. For example, a 4-12 pound turkey will take 1-3 days to thaw; a 12-16 pound turkey will take 3-4 days while a 16-20 pound turkey will take 4-5 days. A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for 1-2 days before roasting.
*If you forget to thaw the turkey or don’t have space in the refrigerator, don’t panic. You can submerge the turkey in cold water and change the water every 30 minutes. Allow about 30 minutes defrosting time per pound of turkey. For example, a 4-12 pound turkey will take 2-6 hours to thaw; a 12-16 pound turkey will take 6-8 hours while a 16-20 pound turkey will take 8-10 hours. Be sure to set a timer so that you don’t forget to change the water every 30 minutes. Roast immediately after thawing.
*If you purchase a fresh turkey, be sure to purchase it only 1-2 days before cooking. Don’t buy a prestuffed fresh turkey. Bacteria that cause food borne illness just love the moist environment found in the cavity of a turkey.
*The day or two before Thanksgiving, check to make sure you have everything you need to prepare your meal. This includes a roasting pan large enough to hold your turkey and a food thermometer. Wet and dry stuffing or dressing ingredients may be prepared one or two days ahead and refrigerated separately. On the day you want to roast your turkey, just combine all ingredients and bake.
*If you choose to stuff your turkey, stuff loosely. The stuffing should be moist, not dry, since heat destroys bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment. Place the stuffed turkey in the oven immediately. Stuffing may also be cooked outside the bird in a casserole, which is the recommended practice since you can readily check to make sure it’s cooked thoroughly and to the correct temperature.
*Cook your turkey in a 325 degree oven. A whole turkey is safe cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees F throughout the bird. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. All turkey meat, including any that remains pink, is safe to eat as soon as all parts reach at least 165 degrees. The stuffing should also reach 165 degrees, whether cooked inside the bird or in a separate dish. When turkey is removed from the oven, let it stand for 20 minutes. If you stuffed the turkey, remove the stuffing and carve the turkey.
*When storing leftovers, cut the turkey into small slices. Refrigerate the stuffing and turkey separately in shallow containers within two hours of cooking. Use leftover turkey and stuffing within 3-4 days or freeze. Gravy can also be refrigerated and used within 3 days. But it probably won’t freeze very well, especially if it contains hard cooked eggs or giblets. Reheat all leftovers thoroughly to a temperature of 165 degrees or until hot and steamy. I always look forward to hot turkey sandwiches the weekend following Thanksgiving. I also freeze leftover chopped turkey in 2 cup amounts to use in casseroles; this helps to get dinner on the table in just a few minutes. If you have plans like this for your leftover turkey, be sure to refrigerate or freeze within the recommended time periods.
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.