Untold thousands of turkeys will be prepared for Thanksgiving dinner this year. Safe turkey preparation requires special knowledge since it is a large item that is typically frozen prior to cooking and, with the exception of holidays, is not commonly prepared.
Which is best fresh or frozen? This appears primarily to be personal preference. Prepared properly, either will provide a delicious main course. While it seems that fresh birds would automatically have the advantage, tasters from Cook’s Illustrated found that those labeled as “fresh” could actually be tougher than some that were frozen. Apparently “fresh” turkeys can be chilled to as low as 26 degrees causing the formation of ice crystals in the meat. If the temperature of the turkey fluctuates from freezing to above freezing repeatedly, damage to the meat causing dryness can occur. It is best to buy a fresh turkey just a day or two before cooking. Avoid buying a fresh pre-stuffed turkey since harmful bacteria can multiply in the bird’s cavity if it has not been properly processed. Keep frozen turkeys frozen until ready to thaw and prepare.
What’s the best way to thaw frozen turkey? There are three ways to thaw turkey safely – in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave oven. In order to get your turkey out of the freezer in time to thaw in the refrigerator, you should allow approximately 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds. For example, a 12 to 16 pound turkey would take 3 to 4 days to thaw and a 20 to 24 pound turkey would take 5 to 6 days to thaw. Keep the refrigerator at 40 degrees or lower while thawing with a pan or tray under the turkey to catch any leaking juices. If thawing the turkey in cold water, you should allow approximately 30 minutes per pound. This can shorten thawing times considerably with a 12 to 16 pound turkey requiring only 6 to 8 hours and a 20 to 24 pound turkey requiring 10-12 hours. A turkey thawed in cold water should be wrapped securely so that water is not able to leak through the wrapping and be kept completely submerged. Change the water every 30 minutes while thawing. Thawing in a microwave may be limited by the size of the oven. Since energy levels of various microwave ovens vary, it is best to check the owner’s manual for the minutes per pound and power level to use for thawing. Remove all outside wrapping prior to thawing in a microwave. Once thawed, the turkey should be cooked immediately and not refrigerated or refrozen. Always wash hands, utensils, the sink, and anything else that comes in contact with raw turkey or its juices with soap and water.
How do you know when a turkey is thoroughly cooked? Most cookbooks offer a guide for time required to roast turkeys of various weights. You can also find this information in the
Consumer Guide to Safely Roasting a Turkey from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At an oven temperature of 325 degrees, the lowest safe level for roasting, an unstuffed 18 to 20 pound bird will take from 4 ¼ hours to 4 ½ hours to cook thoroughly. A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F. It is always best to use a meat thermometer to confirm this. Check the temperature in the innermost portion of the thigh and at the thickest part of the breast. You should not depend on a “pop-up” temperature indicator alone since these are not as accurate as food thermometers. The turkey will carve more easily if allowed to stand for 20 minutes after roasting.
What about leftovers? There is nothing better than turkey sandwiches made from leftover turkey. However, numerous cases of food poisoning have resulted from improper handling of leftovers. Avoid leaving turkey dinner on the counter for family or guests for “grazing” after dinner. Discard any turkey, stuffing, or gravy left out at room temperature longer than 2 hours. Even refrigerated, these items should be eaten within 3 to 4 days after the Thanksgiving meal.
Have a Healthy and Happy Thanksgiving!