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Holiday Food Safety: Don't wing it when handling turkey, UD expert cautions

NEWARK, DE.--From Thanksgiving Day through the New Year, many American families will enjoy good, old-fashioned turkey meals. Included in the traditional feast will be mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, and at the center of it all--a turkey.

Americans have been cooking this meal for hundreds of years, so we think we know how to do it.

"Not necessarily," says Sue Snider, UD Cooperative Extension food and nutrition specialist. "If improperly handled, turkey can be a haven for bacteria."

To avoid common mistakes made when preparing, cooking and storing a turkey, Snider offers four guidelines:

Defrosting the turkey

A raw turkey can be stored safely in the refrigerator at 40 degrees Fahrenheit for one or two days before use, or in the freezer at 0 F.

When it's time to defrost the turkey, use the refrigerator, or submerge the turkey in cold water, but don't place it out on the kitchen counter, she says.

"Bacteria can grow on the surface of the turkey when defrosting on the counter unless it is submerged in cold water," says Snider. "Cooking it doesn't get rid of some of the toxins bacteria leave behind."

To defrost a turkey in the refrigerator, allow one day for every 5 pounds of turkey. If you have room in the refrigerator, keep the bird submerged in water while it is defrosting.

For a quicker defrost outside the refrigerator, submerge the bird in cold water and add ice, or more cold water, every 30 minutes. It takes nine hours to defrost a 16-pound turkey using this method. Cook the turkey promptly after thawing it.

Preparing the turkey

Be extremely careful when preparing the turkey for the oven, Snider says. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), poultry inspection procedures minimize the likelihood of bacteria being present in poultry products, but some bacteria may linger. Keep raw meat separate from other foods to prevent cross-contamination. Always wash your hands after touching the bird, especially when moving on to prepare something else like an uncooked salad.

Snider also recommends washing the cutting boards, utensils and equipment used during preparations in hot, soapy water when finished.

Cooking the turkey

Everyone has a favorite way to cook a turkey, but whether it's in foil, in a bag, oven-roasted or cooked on the grill, the important thing to remember is to cook it at an appropriate temperature and cook it thoroughly, Snider says. Don't partially cook a turkey, then store and finish cooking it later. Cooking the bird adequately at a minimum of 325 F is critical, especially when it's stuffed.

"I have heard of people who put the turkey in the oven at 200 F and leave it overnight," she says. "They are just asking for trouble because at that temperature bacteria thrive."

Snider highly recommends a meat thermometer to measure the temperature. "It's the only sure way you can determine the temperature--especially the temperature of the stuffing inside. You can look at a turkey until its juices run clear, but that's not fool-proof," she says.

Cook the turkey to at least 180 F inside. Measure the temperature in the thigh or in the breast, she says. The stuffing should be 165 F, although Snider discourages stuffing the bird because of the bacteria that can lurk in that moist environment.

The USDA recommends stuffing the turkey just before cooking it. Mix dry ingredients with the other ingredients immediately prior to stuffing, and remove the stuffing from the bird immediately after cooking. Store the stuffing separate from the meat in the refrigerator.

Storing the turkey

After the meal, immediately refrigerate the leftovers. Never leave the turkey or any other food out for more than two hours. Keep cooked turkey hot at 140 F or keep it cold at 40 F or below.

"Whether it's a special holiday feast or an everyday meal, to be food safe just remember 'Keep it hot, keep it cold and keep it clean,'" she says.

Contacts: Pat McAdams, (302) 831-1356,;
Ginger Pinholster, (302) 831-6408,

Nov. 17, 1999