cooked turkey

For many families, it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without turkey. But proper food preparation and handling is necessary to avoid an unwanted guest for the holiday: foodborne illness.

According to Dr. Omar Oyarzabal, University of Vermont Extension food safety specialist, the best way to defrost or thaw a frozen turkey depends on its size.

"For large turkeys, the most practical option is to thaw the bird in its original wrapping in the refrigerator set at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below," he explains. "Placing the turkey in a pan to catch any drippings will prevent cross-contamination with other foods. As a rule of thumb, plan on approximately 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds of turkey."

You can thaw smaller amounts of meat, 5-7 pounds or less, in a sink filled with cold tap water. To prevent the water from touching the meat, do not remove the wrapping on the turkey. Aim to change the water every 30-40 minutes, but do not add hot water to hasten thawing.

"When using a water bath, you can add ice to keep the water temperature below 42 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid having to change the water as frequently," Oyarzabal points out. "Using this approach, you can thaw around two pounds of meat per hour, so for a 6-pound turkey, plan on approximately three hours. For four pounds of turkey or less, you can also use a microwave to thaw the meat."

Before cooking, always test the internal temperature in different parts of the bird to ensure that it has completely thawed. Partially frozen portions will not cook properly, and you will end up with an uncooked, and potentially unsafe, main course.

Once thawed, remove the turkey from the plastic wrapping. Dry the surface and the internal cavity of the carcass by patting with paper towels before placing in a preheated oven at a minimum of 325 degrees Fahrenheit. By removing surface water before seasoning, the skin will brown more evenly.

"If stuffing is on the menu, the safest method is to cook the stuffing separately," the food safety specialist says. "If stuffing your turkey, loosely spoon it inside the cavity just prior to cooking."

Follow the cooking instructions on the plastic wrapping covering the turkey. If you do not find instructions, cook an 8- to 12-pound unstuffed bird for approximately three hours and a 20- to 24-pound unstuffed turkey for approximately five hours. Allow 15 to 30 additional minutes of cooking time for a stuffed bird.

"Turkey should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit," Oyarzabal says. "To check the temperature, place the food thermometer in the thickest part of the turkey. It should not touch bone, fat or gristle."

Start checking the temperature toward the end of cooking but before you expect it to be done. Be sure to clean your food thermometer with hot soapy water before and after each use.

Refrigerate the stuffing and turkey (with the meat removed from the carcass) separately in shallow containers within two hours of cooking. Leftover turkey will keep in the refrigerator for three to four days, stuffing and gravy one or two days. Turkey also can be frozen for up to one month with no loss of flavor.

For answers to food safety questions or help in preparing your Thanksgiving turkey, call the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Hotline toll-free at (888) 674-6854. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. Hotline services also are available for Spanish-speaking callers.

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