‘Don’t stuff that turkey’ and other Thanksgiving food safety tips

Sure, Thanksgiving is a joyful time spent with family and friends, but if you’re like me and you’re cooking two turkeys, eight side dishes, three desserts and an entire appetizer spread, it can be stressful too. Plus, now that I work in public health, my guests expect that the food I prepare will not make them sick!

Of course I know the basics – wash hands, avoid cross-contamination, wait 30 minutes after your meal before swimming – but I think there are probably some gaps in my knowledge. I ran downstairs to visit with our food safety inspectors to find out more. Luckily, Eyob Mazengia was willing to help me think through my Turkey Day food safety plan.

LB: It’s Wednesday, so how long will it take to defrost my turkey? Can’t I just stick it in the oven?
EM: You’ll definitely want to thaw the bird before cooking it because the turkey cooks from the outside in.  The outside will be cooked to the proper temperature, while the inside may still be frozen. A frozen turkey should be thawed in the refrigerator, allowing about 24 hours for every 4 pounds (a 12 pound turkey will take 3 days). If you don’t have that much time, you can thaw the turkey under cold, running water (less than 70oF).

LB: Should I wash my turkey?
EM: You do not need to wash the turkey. Turkey and other poultry may contain Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria, but washing the meat will not get rid of any contamination. In fact, washing a turkey is a great way to spread bacteria in your kitchen. Research shows that washing meat or poultry can splash bacteria around your kitchen by up to three feet!

LB: No turkey washing. Got it. What about stuffing? Is it okay to stuff the bird?
EM: You’re better off not stuffing the turkey. Even when turkey is cooked to the correct temperature (165° F!) the stuffing (which you may have contaminated with bacteria) may not be. It’s best to cook it separately.

LB: How do I know if my turkey is cooked all the way?
EM: As I mentioned, the turkey needs to be cooked to at least 165° F. Use a food thermometer and take the temperature in three areas: the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing, and the innermost part of the thigh. All three locations must reach 165° F. If they don’t, keep cooking – no matter what your recipe or the turkey’s packaging suggests.

LB: So approximately how long does that take? I want to allow plenty of time.
EM: Cooking time is about 15 minutes per pound of turkey.  The 12 pound turkey will take about 3 hours.

LB: After I cook and eat this huge meal, I’m going to be in a food stupor. How long can food sit out before going in the fridge? And do I need to cool things first?
EM: Perishable food shouldn’t sit out for more than two hours. Food that has been left out this long can reach temperatures that create breeding grounds for bacteria. Cool the turkey in the refrigerator uncovered until it reaches a temperature of 41oF.

LB: I love leftover turkey sandwiches with all the fixin’s! How long will my leftovers last?
EM: If you follow all the instructions I’ve provided, they should be okay for four days. After that, toss them out. You might be tired of all that turkey anyway!

LB: Eyob, just in case – will you be around on Thanksgiving? I may have more questions.
EM: Lindsay, I’ve got an even better option for you. If you have questions, you can call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at (1-888-674-6854) to talk to a food safety expert. You can also chat live at AskKaren.gov, available from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday, in English and Spanish.