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Successful Turkey Dinner

Posted 11/15/2007

Defrosted on the counter, pre-stuffed, slow baked, partially cooked, stored whole without carving? If any of these situations sounds like your usual Thanksgiving dinner preparation plans, you may be putting your turkey in jeopardy.

Over the last 18 years, I've been asked a myriad of questions about preparing the Thanksgiving dinner. Here are the six most common mistakes people unknowingly make in preparing their Thanksgiving turkeys:

Mistake 1. Defrosting at Room Temperature "We've always done it that way...There's no room in the refrigerator...We forgot it was in the trunk of the car...It's in a cold basement." While there are many reasons why consumers find themselves with turkeys defrosted at room temperature, some planned and some unplanned, the result is the same--a potentially unsafe turkey. Bacteria grow rapidly at room temperature. Bacteria will begin to grow on the outside portion of the bird that defrosts first. These surface bacteria can multiply to dangerously high levels that cooking may not destroy.

Instead .... plan on one day of refrigerator defrost time for every five pounds of turkey. A 10-pound turkey will take approximately two days to defrost in the refrigerator, a 15-pound turkey three days and a 20-pound turkey four days. Some callers worry that a frozen turkey will spoil if left in the refrigerator for 4 days. Don't be concerned. Even after a turkey fully defrosts, it is safe in the refrigerator for an additional 1-2 days.

If you forget to take your turkey out of the freezer early enough, don't panic. You're not in hot water yet, especially if you remember to use the COLD WATER technique. Even a 20-pound frozen turkey can be defrosted in 10 hours using the cold water defrost method. Submerge the wrapped bird in cold water, adding ice or new cold water every 30 minutes.

Mistake 2. Prestuffing a Turkey the Night Before Stuffing a turkey the night before is risky business. The cavity of the bird actually insulates the stuffing from cold temperatures, and can keep the stuffing in a temperature range that encourages bacterial growth.

Instead .... prepare dry stuffing ingredients the day before. Tightly cover and leave at room temperature. The perishable ingredients such as butter, margarine, broth, mushrooms, oysters, and cooked celery and onion should be refrigerated. Combine the dry and wet ingredients and stuff the bird immediately before the turkey goes into the oven.

Mistake 3. Cooking at Low Temperature Overnight Every year I get callers asking how low can they set the oven temperature to roast their turkey. And, unfortunately, while numerous families sleep on Thanksgiving morning, bacteria are busily multiplying on their turkeys in 200°F ovens. Cooking below 325°F is unsafe because low temperatures permit the bird (and stuffing) to remain in the "danger zone" (140°F) too long. While in this "zone," bacteria can grow and some produce heat-resistant toxins.

Instead .... cook your turkey at an oven temperature no lower that 325°F.

Mistake 4. Partially Cooking a Bird the Day Before Some time-savers are safer than others. Partially cooking a turkey is not one of them. Interrupted cooking can actually increase the possibility of bacteria growth. The turkey may be heated long enough to activate bacterial growth, but not long enough to kill it.

Instead .... cook turkey completely in one operation. Several other ideas for SAFE time saving include: 1) Using oven cooking bags, 2) Baking stuffing separately from the turkey, 3) Cooking and carving turkey 1 to 2 days before the holiday, and storing it in the refrigerator for reheating on the big day.

Mistake 5. Cooking a Turkey Ahead of Time and Leaving It Whole in the Refrigerator Cooking the turkey a day or two before the holiday is fine, but refrigerating the bird whole, without carving, is another form of turkey jeopardy. A cooked turkey, stuffed or unstuffed, is too big and too dense to cool down quickly and efficiently in a home refrigerator. In addition, reheating the turkey the next day in a slow oven to prevent drying out could allow even more growth of potential food poisoning bacteria.

Instead .... roast the turkey 1 or 2 days before the holiday. Use a meat thermometer to make sure that the bird reaches 180°F. Remove stuffing immediately after taking bird out of the oven. Allow the turkey to sit for 20 to 30 minutes so that the meat juices can settle. Carve the bird into appropriate serving slices. Arrange turkey slices in shallow baking pans. Cover and refrigerate. Reheat Thanksgiving Day in a conventional oven or microwave. Make sure that meat and stuffing are reheated to "steamy hot", 165°F.

Mistake 6. Storing the Leftovers It seems after we've stuffed ourselves with the holiday feast, it's tradition to leave the turkey out all day for continuous nibbling. This is one of the riskiest things we do during holiday time is leaving food out too long which allows bacteria to multiply.

Solution .... store the turkey, stuffing, gravy, broth and other cooked foods properly within two hours after cooking. Wrap turkey slices and stuffing separately and use them within three days. If you can't use up all the turkey in that period of time, wrap turkey slices in heavy foil, freezer wrap or place in a freezer container and freeze it. For optimum taste, use stuffing within one month and turkey within two months.

In Logandale, Nevada, stop by the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension office at 1897 N. Moapa Valley Blvd. or call (702) 397-2604 or 346-7215 for a copy of "Talking About Turkey" for more information. You can also call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at: 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or send email to For those last minute emergency questions, the hotline will be available on Thanksgiving day from 5:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Pacific Time).

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