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Thanksgiving Food Safety: From Fridge to Table and Back Again

The turkey is in the fridge (or on the counter in cold water), thawed and ready for preparation. You’ve selected the perfect size of bird for your guests, be it 18, 20 or maybe even 25. Hopefully, there will be enough for leftovers.

As you cook your Thanksgiving meal today, Food Safety News reminds you to take precautions to keep your friends and family safe from foodborne Illness. Here are some tips to make sure you have a healthy holiday. Happy Thanksgiving!

Prepping the Bird: Wash Your Hands, Not the Turkey

Ideally, the turkey has been thawing (or is still fresh) in the refrigerator for 24 hours prior to cooking. If the bird is frozen, it can be cooked from this state, but will need to cook for 50 percent longer than the advised time (see below).

Do not rinse raw poultry before cooking. The heat of the oven will destroy bacteria, and washing the bird could cause  pathogens to splash onto countertops and other surrounding objects.

“Washing these foods makes it more likely for bacteria to spread to areas around the sink and countertops,” explains Marjorie Davidson, consumer educator for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the agency’s holiday food safety tip page.

Preheat the oven to 325 °F or higher.

Stuffing: Ins and Outs 

The dry and wet ingredients for stuffing can be prepared separately ahead of time and chilled, but should not be mixed until it is time to cook. The safest way to cook stuffing is outside the turkey in a casserole dish.

If you are going to stuff your turkey, wait to prepare the stuffing until right before cooking.

Warns FSIS, “Never stuff poultry with frozen or pre-cooked stuffing! When needed, cook frozen stuffing directly from the frozen state without thawing first.”

The dry and wet ingredients can be prepared separately ahead of time and chilled, but should not be mixed until it is time to cook. The stuffing should be moist, not dry, because heat destroys bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment.

If you have chosen to cook the stuffing in the bird, thee cook time will increase (see table below), and you should ensure that the stuffing reaches 165 °F along with the meat.

Cooking

The bigger the bird, the longer it needs to be cooked. Approximate cook times for turkey in an oven at 325 °F are as follows (time in hours):

Unstuffed

4 to 6 lb. breast …… 1 1/2 to 2 1/4 hours
6 to 8 lb. breast …… 2 1/4 to 3 1/4 hours
8 to 12 lbs. ………… 2 3/4 to 3 hours
12 to 14 lbs. ………… 3 to 3 3/4 hours
14 to 18 lbs. ………… 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours
18 to 20 lbs. ………… 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours
20 to 24 lbs. ………… 4 1/2 to 5 hours

Stuffed

8 to 12 lbs. …… 3 to 3 1/2 hours
12 to 14 lbs. …… 3 1/2 to 4 hours
14 to 18 lbs. …… 4 to 4 1/4 hours
18 to 20 lbs. …… 4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours
20 to 24 lbs. …… 4 3/4 to 5 1/4 hours

A turkey will not necessarily be ready after this amount of time. It is safe to eat once it reaches an internal temperature of 165 °F. In order to be sure the bird is fully cooked, use a food thermometer to measure the temperature at the innermost part of the thigh and wing and thickest part of the breast, advises FDA. Be sure to check the temperature of both of these parts, since one may have reached the right temperature while the other may not have.

If meat is still pink but has reached the proper temperature, it is still safe to eat. Pinkness is not necessarily an indication of how cooked the bird is. According to FSIS, ”Turkey can remain pink even after cooking to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F.”

Leftovers: Don’t Leave Them Out

Don’t leave dishes sitting at room temperature for more than two hours after taking them out of the oven or refrigerator. Refrigerate any foods made with perishable ingredients, such as meat, milk or eggs. This includes pumpkin pie.

Refrigerators should be at a temperature of 40 °F or below. For freezers this temperature is 0 °F.

When storing leftovers, portion them out into shallow dishes so that they cool rapidly in the refrigerator or freezer. Cut breast meat into smaller pieces. Wings and legs can be left whole, says FSIS on its Leftovers and Food Safety page.

When thawing leftovers, use the refrigerator, cold water or the microwave, rather than leaving frozen food out on the counter, advises FSIS.

© Food Safety News