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Nov. 21, 2011

USDA Teaches Turkey Basics for Safe Holiday Cooking

A large crowd to cook for, a big bird to roast, and too many cooks in the kitchen can lead to food borne illness from holiday dining. But handling and cooking a turkey needn't be an illness waiting to happen.

"Following basic USDA recommendations will help ensure safe, confident cooking and prevent food borne illness for your holiday guests," says Dr. Dennis Norfleet, Oswego County Health Director.

Dr. Norfleet advises cooks to follow these steps, recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

Safe Thawing

There are three safe ways to thaw food: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave oven. Store frozen turkeys in the freezer until time to thaw. While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely. However, if the turkey is allowed to thaw at a temperature above 40º F, any harmful bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to multiply again unless proper thawing methods are used.

When thawing a turkey in the refrigerator, plan ahead. Place the turkey on a platter and place in the refrigerator. For every 5 pounds of turkey, allow approximately 24 hours of thawing in a refrigerator set at 40º F.

For thawing in cold water, allow about 30 minutes per pound. Be sure the turkey is in leak-proof packaging and submerge it in cold tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey thaws.

When thawing in the microwave, follow the manufacturer's instructions. For both defrosting in cold water and in the microwave, cook the turkey immediately after thawing because conditions were not temperature controlled.

Stuffing a Turkey

The safest way to cook stuffing is in a casserole, not inside a bird. Bake the casserole in an oven set no lower than 325º F -- or in a microwave oven -- until the internal temperature reaches at least 165º F on a food thermometer. Harmful bacteria can survive in stuffing that has not reached a safe temperature, possibly resulting in foodborne illness.

Cooking a stuffed turkey is riskier than cooking one not stuffed. However, if both the stuffing and turkey are handled safely and a food thermometer is used, it is possible to cook a stuffed turkey safely. Mix wet and dry stuffing ingredients just before spooning it loosely into the turkey cavity, and roast the turkey immediately. Check the temperature of both the stuffing and the turkey. Do not remove the turkey from the oven until the stuffing reaches 165º F.

Cooking a Turkey Safely

Thawing and stuffing a turkey safely are the first two basics. But cooking is the only way to destroy bacteria. The oven temperature must be set no lower than 325º F. Overnight cooking of a turkey at a low temperature can result in foodborne illness.

The internal temperature, on a food thermometer, of a whole turkey must reach 165º F. If the turkey has a "pop-up" temperature indicator, it is also recommended that a food thermometer be used to test the turkey in several places. To read more "Turkey Basics" and print a cooking time chart, go to www.fsis.usda.gov/oa/pubs/tbcook.htm.

Handling Precooked Dinners and Leftovers

Some cooks forego home-cooking a turkey altogether and choose to purchase precooked dinners. There are also basic safety measures for the safe handling of these holiday meals. If the dinners are to be picked up hot, keep the food hot. Keeping foods warm is not enough. Harmful bacteria multiply fastest in the "danger zone" between 40 and 140º F. Set the oven temperature high enough to keep the internal temperature of the turkey and side dishes at 140º F or above.

Eat the food within 2 hours of pickup.

When picking up cold turkey dinners, refrigerate them as soon as possible, always within 2 hours. Serve the meal within 1 to 2 days. Turkey may be eaten cold, but reheating a whole turkey is not recommended. To reheat, slice breast meat (legs and wings may be left whole), and heat turkey pieces and side dishes thoroughly to 165º F.

Perishable foods should not be left out of the refrigerator or oven for more than 2 hours. Refrigerate or freeze all leftovers promptly in shallow containers. It is safe to refreeze leftover turkey and trimmings even if they were previously frozen.

For additional food safety information about meat, poultry, or egg products, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline's toll-free number 1 (800) 535-4555; Washington D.C. area (202) 720-3333. The toll-free number for the hearing impaired (TTY) is 1 (800) 256-7072. The Hotline is staffed by food safety experts, weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Eastern time. In addition, food safety information is available on the FSIS Web site at http://www.fsis.usda.gov.

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