Thanksgiving Day is fondly referred to as Turkey Day, and for good reason. The beautiful centerpiece of a traditional Thanksgiving feast is the turkey itself. Cooks slave away in the kitchen for hours, preparing for days to produce a succulent turkey. It would be a shame to spend all of that time and hard work perfecting the bird, just to have your dinner guests running to the restroom from foodborne illness (or food poisoning for all you lay people). Luckily here are a few detailed steps to keep Turkey Day from turning into a disaster….
Prep the Bird
Traditional knowledge would tell you to rinse your turkey under cold running water. The belief is that this process will help limit bacterial growth and keep your meal safe. But ask yourself, how? Cold running water will do nothing to limit the quantity of harmful pathogens on the interior or exterior of your turkey. What you might accomplish, however, is the fine spray and aerosolization of pathogens throughout your kitchen; on your sink, hands, apron, countertops, utensils… wherever the minuscule, salmonella-laden droplets might fall.
Instead, skip the rinsing and season the bird to your liking. If you’re intending to use butter, oil, or herbs, separate them into small bowls to avoid contaminating the entire stick, bottle, or jar respectively. Discard whatever you don’t use from the small bowls, as the remnants will likely be contaminated with salmonella and other icky stuff.
Stuff the Bird (if you’re brave)
If you’re ready to go “all in” and stuff the turkey, be sure to have your stuffing prepared ahead of time. If any meat items, such as sausage, are included in your recipe, make sure they are completely cooked and safely cooled (to 70 degrees within two hours and then down to 41 degrees within an additional 4 hours) before adding them to your dry ingredients. If you plan on preparing your stuffing immediately before cooking your turkey, you can skip the cooling step, but never–I repeat, NEVER–put raw or undercooked meats inside a turkey’s cavity. Stuffing is already dangerous enough, considering how difficult it is to raise the temperature of dense stuffing to appropriate temperatures, that adding raw sausage to the mix almost guarantees you a foodborne illness outbreak.
Cook the Bird
Deep fat frying a turkey? Why not! In fact, there are numerous ways to cook a turkey, such as in the oven, on the grill, using a smoker, in a pressure or slow cooker, and even in the microwave. The traditional method used to cook a turkey is in an indoor oven. This way, the aroma of the turkey can waft through the house, making everyone’s mouth water. The important thing to remember is to keep the turkey out of the danger zone at all times and to cook the turkey thoroughly to prevent foodborne illness.
In each cooking method, the rules are generally the same. Outdoor methods such as grilling and smoking the turkey must maintain a temperature of 225-300 degrees. The oil of a deep fryer heats to 350 degrees. Conventional ovens preheat at 325 degrees. Whichever method you choose, employ a food thermometer to ensure your turkey reaches a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. For the best measurement, take the bird’s temperature in the breast, the thickest part of the meat. Cooking times for the turkey are dependent on the weight and size of the bird. For specific cooking details, check out “Turkey: Alternate Routes to the Table” at www.fsis.usda.gov or visit www.eatturkey.com.
Using these thawing and cooking methods, families and dinner guests should be filled to the brim with safe and delicious turkey. Happy Thanksgiving and may your turkey and your holiday turn out beautifully.