What government agency is open on Thanksgiving Day? The United States Department of Agriculture, on the job to protect public health through food safety. For 25 years, the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline has helped Turkey Day cooks weather a variety of culinary storms and travails. In recent years, the Hotline has developed the innovative “Ask Karen” feature (www.AskKaren.gov) on the Web that allows consumers to type questions online and receive an immediate reply from USDA’s virtual representative 24 hours a day. And from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time, users can “chat” with a food safety expert.
These efforts are just part of a long-running campaign by USDA’s food safety educators to teach Americans about the dangers of foodborne illness and the importance of adopting safe cooking and food handling behaviors. The statistics show that approximately 5,000 Americans will die each year due to a foodborne illness – that’s almost 14 people a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Thanksgiving dinner is an ideal time to put food safety tips into practice because it is the most challenging for average American consumers to cook. Food safety considerations are often overlooked, especially since there may be several cooks preparing food for the celebration. “Food that is mishandled can cause very serious consequences for all, especially for “at-risk” groups – infants, young children, older adults, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems,” said Diane Van, USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline Manager.
“Thanksgiving dinner can be a challenging meal to prepare because it is so time-consuming and complex,” said Van. “When you factor in thawing the turkey, cooking the turkey, preparing side dishes and desserts – and making sure guests are accounted for – it is easy to forget that food safety is the most important ingredient to making the meal an enjoyable one.”
Five Tips for a Safe Thanksgiving Meal
1. Keep Everything Clean – Keep hands and surfaces clean. Wash hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before and after handling food. Run cutting boards and utensils through the dishwasher or wash them in hot soapy water after each use. Keep countertops clean by washing with hot soapy water after preparing food.
2. Don’t Cross Contaminate -When you prepare Thanksgiving dinner, keep the raw turkey away from vegetables and side dishes. Consider using one cutting board for fresh produce and bread and a separate one for raw meat, poultry, and seafood. Wash the cutting board with hot, soapy water after each use; then rinse with clear water and air dry or pat dry with clean paper towels.
3. Cook the Turkey and Stuffing to a Safe Temperature – Regardless of the method of cooking, you can’t tell if the bird is done by the color of the cooked poultry. The only way to know for sure if the turkey is safely cooked is to use a food thermometer. Every part of the turkey and the center of the stuffing should reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F. For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook poultry to higher temperatures.
4. Store Leftovers Safely – Discard any turkey, stuffing, side dishes and gravy left out at room temperature longer than 2 hours. Divide leftovers into smaller portions, and refrigerate them in covered, shallow containers for quicker cooling. Be sure to consume refrigerated turkey, stuffing, side dishes and gravy within 3 to 4 days or freeze the leftovers for later use.
5. Keep Egg-Rich Desserts Chilled – Pumpkin pie is as much a staple of the holiday meal as the turkey. Foods made with eggs and milk, such as pumpkin pie, must first be safely baked to a minimum internal temperature of 160 °F. Then, they must be refrigerated after baking. Eggs and milk have high protein and moisture content; when foods baked with these products are left at room temperature, conditions are ripe for bacteria to multiply.
From Start to Finish
Thawing Your Turkey
It is unsafe to thaw a frozen turkey at room temperature. Two safe ways to thaw your turkey are in the refrigerator or in cold water. See the chart below for estimated thawing times. Whether you have a frozen or a fresh turkey, cook it within 1 or 2 days of purchase or after thawing.
In the Refrigerator (40 °F or below)
Allow approximately 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds.
4 to 12 pounds 1 to 3 days
12 to 16 pounds 3 to 4 days
16 to 20 pounds 4 to 5 days
20 to 24 pounds 5 to 6 days
Keep the turkey in its original wrapper. Place it on a tray or in a pan to catch any juices that may leak. A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days. If necessary, a turkey that has been properly thawed in the refrigerator may be refrozen.
In Cold Water
Allow approximately 30 minutes per pound.
4 to 12 pounds 2 to 6 hours
12 to 16 pounds 6 to 8 hours
16 to 20 pounds 8 to 10 hours
20 to 24 pounds 10 to 12 hours
Wrap your turkey securely, making sure the water is not able to leak through the wrapping. Submerge your wrapped turkey in cold tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes. Cook the turkey immediately after it is thawed. Do not refreeze.
Cook It Your Way!
No matter which method you use to cook your turkey, use a food thermometer to insure that your turkey and stuffing are cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook turkey to higher temperatures.
These times are approximate and should always be used in conjunction with a properly placed thermometer.
Approximate Whole Turkey Cooking Times
Times for fresh or thawed turkey in a preheated 325 °F oven
Weight Unstuffed Timing Stuffed Timing
8 to 12 pounds 2 3/4 to 3 hours 3 to 3 1/2 hours
12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3 3/4 hours 3 1/2 to 4 hours
14 to 18 pounds 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours 4 to 4 1/4 hours
18 to 20 pounds 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours 4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours
20 to 24 pounds 4 1/2 to 5 hours 4 3/4 to 5 1/4 hours
Electric Roaster Oven
Generally, the cooking time and oven temperature setting are the same as for conventional cooking. Preheat the oven to at least 325 °F. Place the turkey on the roaster oven rack or other meat rack so the turkey is raised out of the juices that collect in the bottom of the oven liner. Leave the lid on throughout cooking, removing it as little as possible to avoid slowing the cooking process. Always check the roaster oven’s use and care manual for the manufacturer’s recommended temperature setting and time.
Grilling a Turkey
Outdoor cooking of a big bird for the holiday meal is becoming a popular cooking method. During grilling, a turkey cooks by indirect heat in an outdoor covered gas or charcoal grill, and a pan of water is placed beneath the grilling surface to catch the fat and juices that drip from the turkey as it cooks. Cooking is done by the hot, smoky, steamy air.
Turkeys that are 16 pounds or less are the recommended size for safe grilling. A larger turkey remains in the “Danger Zone” – between 40 and 140 °F – too long. Do not stuff the turkey. Because cooking is at a low temperature, it can take too long for the temperature of the stuffing to reach 165 °F. Also, smoked stuffing has an undesirable flavor.
More Ways to Cook a Turkey
Deep fat frying, smoking, using an oven cooking bag, roasting in aluminum foil, microwaving, using a pressure cooker, and cooking a frozen turkey without thawing it first are other ways to get the big bird done. For information about these methods, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline or read the publication “Turkey: Alternate Routes to the Table” at www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Turkey_Alt_Routes/index.asp.
Where to Get Information
-USDA features www.AskKaren.gov, a Web site where you can type and receive answers to your food safety questions 24 hours a day.
-Call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Eastern Time, year-round and on Thanksgiving from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
-Listen to “Food Safety at Home” Podcasts any time at www.fsis.usda.gov/News_&_Events/Food_Safety_at_Home_Podcasts/index.asp.
-“Let’s Talk Turkey” pamphlet is available at www.fsis.usda.gov/PDF/Lets_Talk_Turkey.pdf.
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