Monday, November 21, 2011

To stuff or not to stuff? Food safety considerations for cooking the holiday bird

Do you want your holiday gathering to be unforgettable? As hosts, we all want to please our guests with great flavor and presentation. But don't overlook food safety basics when cooking the turkey.

Your holiday meal will bring back nothing but happy memories for your guests when you reduce the risk of foodborne illness by storing, thawing and cooking the turkey safely.

Safe thawing
Cooking times are based on fresh or completely thawed frozen birds at a refrigerator temperature of 40 degrees or below. (Frozen turkeys can be cooked from a frozen state. Follow package directions.) Defrost frozen turkeys in the refrigerator; allow 24 hours for each five pounds. Put the turkey in a pan or container to prevent juices from dripping on other food in the refrigerator. For faster thawing, immerse the frozen turkey in cold water, allowing about 30 minutes per pound. Change the water every half-hour.

To stuff or not to stuff?  
The stuffed turkey at Grandma's house was an annual tradition, but did you know you can get great results without cooking the stuffing inside the bird? According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, stuffing a turkey may increase the risk of foodborne illness. The stuffing, which is very densely stuffed in the turkey, might not reach 165 degrees, the temperature needed to kill any present bacteria.

The University of Georgia tested turkeys to determine cooking times and techniques. The study concluded that stuffing should be cooked separately, outside the bird, since there is no guarantee that the stuffing will reach 165 degrees at the same time the turkey reaches the same safe temperature. If the stuffing has not reached 165 degrees when the turkey is done, further cooking will be required, which could result in overcooked meat.

If you must stuff the turkey, precook stuffing to 165 degrees. Then loosely stuff into the turkey during the last half-hour of cooking. You will achieve the same flavor.

Safe roasting
Roasting a turkey in a conventional oven is the most common way to cook a turkey. Recipes abound for ways to add flavor with butter, herbs, spices and citrus. No matter which recipe you use, follow this basic process:
1. Set the oven temperature no lower than 325 degrees.  
2. Place turkey breast-side up on a flat wire rack in a shallow roasting pan 2 to 2 1/2 inches deep.
3. Allow 15 to 20 minutes per pound.
4. For safety and doneness, check the internal temperature with a food thermometer. The temperature must reach a minimum of 165 degrees in the thigh and thickest part of the breast before removing from the oven. Cooking to higher temperatures, 170 degrees in the breast and 180 degrees in the thigh, results in a more golden and tender bird. Juices should be clear. Let the bird stand 20 minutes before removing stuffing and carving.

For a handy reference guide on turkey basics from University of Minnesota Extension, visit To learn more about food safety, visit  - Suzanne Driessen if a food safety educator with University of Minnesota Extension.

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