How to Cook a Turkey Without Serving Up a Side of Food Poisoning
5 steps for cooking a turkey safely this holiday season
Cooking a juicy, golden turkey for your next holiday feast? Yum. Just be sure you don’t serve your guests a nasty dose of food poisoning along with the bird.
Like any poultry, turkey can harbor germs that can make people sick. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), infections from the bacterium C. perfingens, a leading cause of food poisoning, are most common during the holiday season.
Take these steps to ensure your meal is as safe as it is delicious.
Buy right, store smart
At the store, keep the turkey away from other items in your cart to avoid transferring bacteria that may leak from the packaging to other foods. At home, store the bird on the bottom shelf on a tray or in a shallow pan to catch any drips.
If you want to cook a fresh (not frozen) turkey, plan to pick it up within a day or two of cooking it, and store it in the fridge. You can buy a frozen turkey as far ahead as you like. It will keep in the freezer for up to year without losing quality.
The big thaw
Plan ahead to thaw that big bird. The easiest way to thaw it safely is in the refrigerator. Allow 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds. If you have a 20-pound bird, you'll need to move it into the refrigerator at least five days before cooking it.
If you’re crunched for time, try the cold-water method: Keep the turkey in its original packaging and submerge it in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes until it thaws. Allow 30 minutes per pound, or about 10 hours for a 20-pound bird.
You can also thaw the turkey in the microwave, if it fits. Remove the outer packaging and check your microwave’s owner's manual for guidelines.
Whatever you do, don’t leave the turkey to thaw on the counter, says Shelley Feist, spokesperson for the Partnership for Food Safety Education. You’ll invite bacteria to multiply.
Before you cook
Some cooks get themselves intro trouble when handling the turkey before it goes into the oven. It’s easy to accidentally transfer bacteria from the bird to other foods and surfaces.
"Cross-contamination is the big concern," says Feist. "You're juggling lots of dishes, preparing a much larger volume of food than usual, and there are often multiple cooks in the kitchen."
Start with the obvious: Wash your hands in hot, soapy water before and after handling the turkey. A University of California, Davis study found that 65 percent of home cooks don't wash their hands before handling poultry and 40 percent don't wash up after. That’s a recipe for spreading bacteria around your kitchen.
Definitely avoid this common mistake: rinsing the turkey first. Don’t do it! Washing the bird just spreads bacteria all over the sink and other surfaces.
Remember to wash knives, cutting boards and other surfaces that come into contact with the raw turkey.
How to safely cook a turkey
Thorough cooking is the only way to kill bacteria. That means cooking the turkey to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F.
“You can't tell if the turkey is cooked by looking at it or cutting into it,” says Feist. “A meat thermometer is the only way to gauge if it's cooked thoroughly.”
To stuff the bird or not? “For food safety, it's better not to cook the stuffing in the turkey," says Feist. It takes heat longer to travel to the stuffing, so it’s hard to thoroughly cook it without overcooking the meat.
Instead, cook the stuffing in a casserole dish or, suggests Craig "Meathead" Goldwyn, the grilling expert behind AmazingRibs.com, in muffin tins.
If you insist on stuffing the bird, follow these tips:
- Stuff the turkey right before you cook it. Never stuff it ahead of time. That creates a fertile breeding ground for bacteria.
- Stuff the cavity loosely so the stuffing cooks evenly and thoroughly.
- Cook the bird until the stuffing reaches 165 degrees F. A digital instant-read thermometer will tell you when you’re there.
Cooking temperatures for the turkey vary, depending on the whether you’re using an oven, grill or smoker. One cooking method you should skip: the turkey fryer. These cause house fires and injuries every year. The National Fire Protection Association advises against using them.
Love your leftovers
Leftovers are one of the best things about the holiday feast. Transfer leftover turkey into shallow containers (so it cools faster) and get them into the fridge within two hours of cooking. Refrigerate for up to four days or freeze for up to three months.
When you reheat the turkey, make sure it reaches — you guessed it — 165 degrees F.