It’s that time of year when we all think about heading out to the relatives for Thanksgiving dinner. Grandma, Mom, or you may have been planning this meal for some time now. You have purchased all the food and the refrigerator is packed full. Hopefully you have everything planned and everything will go smoothly.

Here are some tips from the USDA to keep you safe this year. Turkeys must be kept at a safe temperature during “the big thaw.” While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely. However, as soon as it begins to thaw, any bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to grow again. A package of frozen meat or poultry left thawing on the counter more than two hours is not at a safe temperature. Even though the center of the package may still be frozen, the outer layer of the food is in the “Danger Zone” between 40 and 140 °F — at a temperature where foodborne bacteria multiply rapidly. There are three safe ways to thaw food: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave oven. Here are some of the safe methods for thawing your frozen turkey. Immediately after grocery store checkout, take the frozen turkey home and store it in the freezer. Frozen turkeys should not be left on the back porch, in the car trunk, in the basement, or any place else where temperatures cannot be constantly monitored. Some good tips to use if you’re going to use the refrigerator for thawing your bird out are; allowing approximately 24 hours for each four to five pounds in a refrigerator set at 40 °F or below, placing the turkey in a container to prevent the juices from dripping on other foods, thawing times for a whole turkey are 4 to 12 pounds — 1 to 3 days, 12 to 16 pounds — 3 to 4 days, 16 to 20 pounds — 4 to 5 days and 20 to 24 pounds —5 to 6 days. A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for one or two days before cooking. Foods thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking but there may be some loss of quality. Another way to defrost the big bird is by cold water thawing. Allow about 30 minutes per pound. First be sure the turkey is in a leak-proof plastic bag to prevent cross-contamination and to prevent the turkey from absorbing water, resulting in a watery product. Submerge the wrapped turkey in cold tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. Cook the turkey immediately after it is thawed. Cold water thawing times will be 4 to 12 pounds — 2 to 6 hours, 12 to 16 pounds — 6 to 8 hours, 16 to 20 pounds — 8 to 10 hours and 20 to 24 pounds — 10 to 12 hours. A turkey thawed by the cold water method should be cooked immediately.

After cooking, meat from the turkey can be refrozen. Using the microwave thawing method includes follow the microwave oven manufacturer’s instruction when defrosting a turkey. Plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving. Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn’t have been destroyed. A turkey thawed in the microwave must be cooked immediately with no exceptions.

 Once it is thawed it’s time to stuff the bird. Make sure you use a food thermometer when stuffing a turkey. For optimal safety and uniform doneness, cook stuffing separately. However, if stuffing a turkey, it’s essential to use a food thermometer to make sure the center of the stuffing reaches a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F. 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. Bacteria can survive in stuffing that has not reached 165 °F, possibly resulting in foodborne illness. The USDA does not recommend buying retail stuffed, uncooked turkeys from a store or restaurant. However, some turkeys purchased frozen have been stuffed at a plant under USDA inspection. These turkeys are safe when cooked from the frozen state as per the manufacturer’s package directions. If you plan to prepare stuffing using raw meat, poultry, or shellfish, you should cook these ingredients before stuffing the turkey to reduce the risk of foodborne illness from bacteria that may be found in raw ingredients. The wet ingredients for stuffing can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated. However, do not mix wet and dry ingredients until just before spooning the stuffing mixture into the turkey cavity. If stuffing is prepared ahead of time, it must be cooked immediately and refrigerated in shallow containers. Do not stuff whole poultry with cooked stuffing. Do not cool the stuffing. Spoon it directly into the turkey cavity right after preparation. Stuff the turkey loosely — about 3/4 cup of stuffing per pound. The stuffing should be moist, not dry, because heat destroys bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment. Immediately place the stuffed, raw turkey in an oven set no lower than 325 °F. For safety and doneness, check the internal temperature of the turkey and stuffing with a food thermometer. If the temperature of the turkey and the center of the stuffing have not reached a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F, further cooking will be required. Do not remove the stuffing from the turkey before it reaches 165 °F because the undercooked stuffing could contaminate the cooked meat. Continue to cook the turkey until the stuffing is safely cooked.

 Let the cooked turkey stand 20 minutes before removing the stuffing and carving. Refrigerate the cooked turkey and stuffing within two hours after cooking. Place leftovers in shallow containers and use within three to four days. Reheat leftovers to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F. Many variables can affect the roasting time of a whole turkey, a partially frozen turkey requires longer cooking. A stuffed turkey takes longer to cook and the oven may heat food unevenly. Temperature of the oven may be inaccurate also dark roasting pans cook faster than shiny metals. The depth and size of the pan can reduce heat circulation to all areas of the turkey. The use of a foil tent for the entire time can slow cooking and the use of the roasting pan’s lid speeds cooking. An oven cooking bag can accelerate cooking time. The rack position can influence even cooking and heat circulation. A turkey or its pan may be too large for the oven, thus blocking heat circulation. Set the oven temperature no lower than 325 °F. Preheating is not necessary. Be sure the turkey is completely thawed. Times are based on fresh or thawed birds at a refrigerator temperature of 40 °F or below. Place turkey breast-side up on a flat wire rack in a shallow roasting pan 2 to 2 1/2 inches deep. Other options include, tuck wing tips back under shoulders of bird. Add one-half cup water to the bottom of the pan. In the beginning, a tent of aluminum foil may be placed loosely over the breast of the turkey for the first 1 to 1 1/2 hours then removed for browning. Or, a tent of foil may be placed over the turkey after the turkey has reached the desired golden brown color. For safety and doneness, the internal temperature should be checked with a food thermometer. The temperature of the turkey and the center of the stuffing must reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F. Check the temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. Let the bird stand 20 minutes before removing stuffing and carving. Enjoy the meal and make sure to put leftovers away immediately to prevent food from spoiling.

Until next week, stay safe

Chief Rindfleisch