It’s Turkey Time: Safely Prepare Your Holiday Meal

Turkey dinner
     Photo courtesy of UF/IFAS
Extension University of Florida

By Shelley Swenson
UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension

Whether you are a seasoned chef or a novice preparing your first holiday meal, make sure you know the safest ways to thaw, prepare, stuff and cook your turkey. Make it a goal to utilize good food safety practices during the preparation and clean up with all of your guests and family members.

These are the typical questions that are asked each year as we anticipate the holidays which many times includes the preparation of a turkey.

I always run out of time while preparing the turkey. How can I thaw the bird when time is running out? Thawing turkeys must be kept at a safe temperature. The “danger zone” is between 40 and 140°. This is the temperature range where foodborne bacteria multiply rapidly. While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely, but as soon as it begins to thaw, bacteria that may have been present from freezing can begin to grow again. There are only three safe ways to thaw food:

In the refrigerator: Make sure the juices don’t drip on other foods. This takes about 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey. Cook within two days.

In the microwave: Check the manufacturer’s instructions for the size turkey that will fit into your oven, the minutes per pound and the power level to use for thawing. Remove any outside wrapping and place on a microwave-safe dish to catch any juice that may drip. Cook turkey immediately after defrosting in the microwave.

In cold water: Leave turkey in its airtight package and submerge in cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes. This takes about 30 minutes for every pound of turkey. Cook within two days.

I am a novice at roasting a turkey. How can I tell when the bird is done cooking?

Set your oven temperature no lower than 325°F. Place your turkey on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Cook to the safe minimum internal temperature of 165° throughout the bird. Make sure you check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.

Even if your turkey has a “pop-up” temperature indicator, also check the internal temperature in all of the same spots.

My family always goes to the game room immediately after the meal? Can I clean up the food and dishes later?

The dishes can wait but the food certainly cannot! Cut the turkey into small pieces, refrigerate stuffing, turkey and gravy separately in shallow containers within 2 hours of cooking (or 1 hour for temperature above 90°F. If left out longer, discard all of the food.

Use turkey, stuffing and gravy within 3 to 4 days or freeze these foods. Use frozen leftover within 2 to 6 months for best quality.

My mother quit stuffing her turkey several years ago and cooks it separately? Why?

For more even cooking, cook the stuffing outside the bird in a casserole dish. Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the stuffing. The center should reach 165°. Research has shown that it is a safer product if the stuffing is prepared in a separate cooking dish.

There is nothing better than having turkey broth for soups later. Place the turkey carcass in a large pot with water and boil it up until most of the meat comes off, remove the bones and you can make soup or freeze it for later use.

Remember to remove the giblets from the turkey cavities after thawing. There is no doubt in my mind that many share the history of cooking a turkey without removing the giblets!   If you forget and cook the giblets in the bird, remove them at the completion of the cooking process and use them. If you take them out before cooking the turkey, cook them separately. I simmer them in water, chop them into small pieces and add them to my dressing. The broth is a great addition to the gravy.

No doubt about it, millions of Americans view holiday time as “turkey time”. Of the millions of turkeys produced every year, 30% are served at Thanksgiving and Christmas. But no matter when you are preparing and serving turkey, practice food safety steps to prevent foodborne illness.   Happy holidays.

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