How to Safely Cook Your Thanksgiving Turkey
Brine it, inject it, smoke it, or fry it. Just remember to use a meat thermometer.
Are you in charge of cooking the turkey this Thanksgiving? There are many recipes to choose from that will yield a delicious bird, but whether you use Mama’s favorite method or want to experiment with a new one, be sure and follow the basic food safety guidelines for safely cooking a Thanksgiving turkey. Studying up on safe turkey temps and food handling mistakes may not be as exciting as coordinating your holiday table settings, but it is essential to pulling off a delicious and satisfying thanksgiving feast.
Thaw and Handle the Turkey Properly
It takes a lot of advance planning to pull off a successful holiday feast, how many side dishes do you need, what type centerpieces to use, etc. One of the first items on the list should be how and when to thaw the turkey. Frozen turkeys take at least three days to completely thaw, so don’t wait until the day before Thanksgiving to take it out of the freezer. A good rule of thumb to follow is to allow 24 hours for every 4-5 lbs of frozen turkey. There are three ways recommended by the USDA to safely defrost a frozen turkey (in the refrigerator over several days, in a container of cold water, or in the microwave). Don’t ever try to thaw a frozen turkey, or any frozen meat by just leaving it out on the countertop or putting it outside in the sun.
Food scientists now say there is no need to rinse poultry before cooking. Water can splash from the turkey or chicken onto kitchen countertops and other areas, contaminating nearby surfaces. Also, remember not to use the turkey cutting board and utensils for other food items, and wash your hands thoroughly after handling the raw turkey.
Use A Meat Thermometer Regardless of Your Cooking Method
Thanksgiving turkeys have a bad reputation for being dry and tasteless but, when prepared properly, they can be juicy and full of flavor. Choose one of several methods to produce a delicious holiday turkey this year. Wet or dry brines, injections or rubs enhance the flavor and moistness of the bird. You can roast it in the oven and attain a beautiful, golden and crispy skin. That method takes up a lot of room (and time) in the oven so you may need to cook your side dishes in a slow cooker. Many families have a tradition of smoking or frying the turkey outside.
Regardless of the method, always use a meat thermometer, the most accurate way to determine when the turkey is fully cooked. Even if your bird comes with a pop-up timer, make double sure and use a meat thermometer. Test the temperature by inserting a thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, without hitting the bone. The USDA recommends that turkey be cooked until it reaches a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F in order to destroy bacteria and prevent foodborne illness.
Don’t Put the Turkey in the Oven Too Early
It can be a logistical nightmare figuring out which casseroles can go in the oven first and which ones need more time. Don’t think you can get ahead by putting the turkey in so early that it is done hours before mealtime; you don’t want cooked meat to sit out for too long before serving because not only will it cool down to room temperature, but it can potentially be unsafe. Letting cooked food come to room temperature is in what the USDA calls the "Danger Zone," between 40°F and 140°F. In this range of temperatures, bacteria grows quickly and the food can become unsafe to eat, so it should be left out no more than two hours.
Don’t Set the Oven Too High
Everyone loves a crispy, golden skin on a turkey, but if start off cooking at a high temperature, you will only get burnt skin and undercooked meat. Keep the oven at a steady, moderate temperature (temperature should never be below 325°F)to get perfectly cooked meat and crisp skin. Your prep method, such as dry brining, can also lead to crispy skin.
WATCH: How To Carve A Turkey
It’s Best Not to Stuff the Turkey
For optimal safety and uniform doneness, the USDA recommends that you cook stuffing in a separate dish (that is why Southerners call it "dressing," not "stuffing.") If you do prefer to stuff a turkey, however, use a food thermometer to make sure the center of the stuffing reaches a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F. According to the USDA, “Cooking a home-stuffed turkey is riskier than cooking one not stuffed. Even if the turkey itself has reached the safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F as measured in the innermost part of the thigh, the wing and the thickest part of the breast, the stuffing may not have reached a temperature high enough to destroy bacteria that may be present.”