Preparing and cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving is no easy feat, so when the time for carving comes, you’ll want everything to be perfect. But how do you know when the turkey is safe to eat especially before, during, and after your celebration? In this article, we give you an in-depth look into food safety preparation and address all your concerns regarding this holiday staple while addressing the question, “when is turkey safe to eat?”
A Helpful Reminder from the Experts
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), families can keep their meals safe from harmful bacteria and foodborne illnesses by following the proper food safety steps. These steps — outlined below — play a significant role in ensuring that your Thanksgiving dinner isn’t just a hit, but a safe one too. Using a meat thermometer will also help to guarantee that there’s no space for raw turkey at your dinner table.
Below are the four core food safety guidelines that provide the best way to protect your family from raw meat, as outlined by the United States Department of Agriculture.
This refers to cleaning your hands as well as the surfaces you plan to use during your meal prep. Be sure to wash both hands with soap before and after working with raw poultry. Next, rinse well with clean water and dry your hands with paper towels or clean towels. When using dishes, cutting boards, countertops, and utensils to prepare food, be sure to wash them with hot and soapy water.
Remember that you shouldn’t rinse the turkey — doing so may spread germs and encourage bacterial growth around your kitchen.
This step helps to prevent any cross-contamination around the kitchen by using a separate cutting board for all food items you will be cutting, along with others that don’t require cooking. Be sure to thoroughly clean all utensils, cutting boards, and countertops with soapy, hot water before and after you prepare turkey meat.
Keeping the proper internal temperature of the turkey is the only way to ensure that you have a cooked turkey. A safe internal temperature is 165°F; when working with a whole bird, be sure to check in these three key areas:
- The innermost part of the thigh
- The thickest part of the breast
- The innermost part of the wing
When making a stuffed turkey, use a food thermometer to ensure that the stuffing is also at 165°F. If you’re planning to serve breast meat, make sure that you also check for the proper temperature through the deepest part of the breast. Keep in mind that any leftover turkey and other ready-to-eat foods need to be cooked at higher temperatures to avoid spoilage bacteria.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s best to refrigerate turkey leftovers promptly. Perishable foods should also be refrigerated as quickly as possible, while any uneaten food should be discarded when left at room temperature for over two hours. It’s also important to freeze raw meat that won’t be used after two days of your purchase or by the expiration date stated on the label.
How to Thaw Turkey Safely
There are many ways to do this safely which are outlined below.
Using Cold Water
This method will need more attention from you but will have faster results. Start by submerging your turkey in cold tap water, allowing for 30 minutes for each pound of turkey; keep it within the original wrapping to prevent cross-contamination. Ensure that the water is changed every 30 minutes until the whole turkey thaws — cook it immediately after the thawing process.
Using a Microwave
When using a microwave to thaw a frozen turkey, it’s best to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. You’ll need to cook the thawed turkey immediately since some parts of the turkey could become warm enough to start cooking, bringing it to the “danger zone.” This represents the time frame in which bacteria can grow and thrive, so it’s important that you quickly get it out of these lower temperatures and start cooking them at a safe temperature.
Using a Refrigerator
For the safest way to thaw your turkey, simply leave it in your refrigerator, allowing it to thaw slowly but surely. Depending on the size of the turkey, allow for around 24 hours for the proper thawing process to take place. Once it’s done, you can safely store your turkey for an additional one or two days in your refrigerator.
- There’s no problem with cooking your turkey while frozen, but cooking turkey this way will take twice as long.
- Whenever thawing a turkey in your fridge, it’s best to use a bowl or a dish and then place it on the lowest shelf.
- You should never thaw turkey by the kitchen counter or leave it in hot water.
- After cooking, slice the turkey off the bone (but you can leave the thigh meat intact), then cover it and place it in the refrigerator immediately.
What is the Two-Hour Rule?
Make sure that your food doesn’t sit out at room temperature for too long — anything over two hours will send food items to the “danger zone.” Moreover, if the temperature of the environment is above 90°F, it will only take one hour for perishable foods to get bacteria which can then quickly multiply. The danger zone refers to temperatures between 40°F to 140°F, so remember to keep all your cold food cold and your hot food hot, not in between.
To ensure the best quality of food at your Thanksgiving feast, here are a few guidelines you can follow.
- Hot Foods: Food should be wrapped in aluminum foil inside an insulated, airtight container to keep its proper temperature.
- Cold Foods: Place food inside a cooler with gel packs or ice to maintain a temperature under 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
After the two-hour rule, all food must be refrigerated or placed in a freezer to stop bacteria from developing and spreading.
What to Do with Leftovers?
If there are delicious leftovers from your main course, you can cut them into smaller portions and place them in the refrigerator inside shallow containers. Your delicious turkey should provide safe meals for 3-4 days inside the refrigerator, while they can last 3-4 months inside the freezer.
Why You Need to Store Turkey Correctly
Storing your turkey properly means there’s less chance of bacterial growth. Just as you would cook the turkey to the proper temperature of 165°F to get rid of any bacteria, you’ll also need to think about any bacteria that could grow once your meat is sitting out for a long time. These bacteria can grow exponentially between 40°F to 140°F, and even inside the fridge, they can still grow even if their metabolism slows down.
This is the reason why food will always have an expiration date, even when they’re constantly refrigerated. There is a wide range of bacteria that grow in food that we eat every day; the most common types associated with food-related illness are the following:
- Bacteria clostridium perfringens
Unfortunately, these kinds of bacteria live inside various livestock, including turkeys, and are surprisingly found inside humans also. Illnesses usually occur when the body gets too many of these bacteria at any time, and when you leave your turkey out for too long, these bacteria can multiply at alarming rates. To lower your risk of food poisoning, be sure to store your leftovers properly and take every precaution you can when preparing a fresh turkey.
Here are some of the most commonly asked questions when it comes to turkey preparation and storage.
Should I Put a Whole Turkey in My Fridge?
It’s best not to store a whole turkey inside the refrigerator; instead, cut it up into smaller pieces. Storing the entire carcass in the refrigerator won’t leave you with a lot of space and it will take much longer before cooling down. When you cut up the turkey into smaller portions, you can help it cool faster and reheat quicker when needed; make sure to bring it back up to 165°F before eating.
Is it Safe to Freeze Turkey Leftovers after Cooking?
Yes, it is safe to freeze cooked leftover turkey, and you’ll have a maximum of six months to eat them. To avoid freezer burn, be sure to wrap it up in aluminum foil and place it inside a freezer bag and squeeze out any excess air. Once you’re ready to thaw it out again, put it in the fridge and repeat the proper thawing process.
Never thaw your turkey by leaving it on the kitchen counter, but you can reheat it directly while still being frozen. However, this will take longer compared to having it thaw first, and it’s still crucial that you check the temperature first before consuming it. Again, be sure to store any leftovers in smaller pieces to ensure effective reheating.
Is it Safe to Cook Turkey with Stuffing?
While it’s not recommended to stuff the inside of a turkey with stuffing, you can still do this using a safer method. You may put the stuffing outside the turkey if you wish to cook them both using the same tray. However, the USDA doesn’t advise purchasing a turkey that already has stuffing inside it.
If you still decide to cook the stuffing inside the turkey, be sure to check its temperature along with the bird. Just as the meat needs to be cooked at 165°F, so should the stuffing to keep it at a safe temperature before removing it from your stove. At the same time, stuffing should be stored carefully after two hours to ensure that it doesn’t reach the danger zone, moving it to a separate container from the turkey.
Enjoy Your Thanksgiving Turkey Without Worries
No matter how big your turkey is for Thanksgiving, nothing beats a celebration that’s full of smiles and laughter, knowing that your family is safe from any kind of foodborne illness. So make your cranberry sauce and prepare your stuffing just as you did last year, knowing that your turkey will be yummier and safer this time around! By following the tips and guidelines above, you can make sure that your turkey will be tasty and healthy for the days to come!
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