How to handle and cook your Thanksgiving turkey safely

Maribel Alonso, food safety specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s meat and poultry hotline, said there will be a lot more people attempting to cook turkeys at home this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We know this year is going to be the first time for some consumers to be cooking their turkey, and this big meal by themselves,” Alonso said. “And a lot more people trying new things at home.”

Because of that, Alonso said the USDA felt it was important to remind people how important it is to handle foods correctly. She gave four simple steps for people to follow to avoid food poisoning.

“Cleaning and washing hands and cleaning surfaces, separating meat and poultry from ready-to-eat foods, cooking to the right temperature and chill quickly,” Alonso said. “Making sure that food is back in the refrigerator within two hours.”

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Many calls to the USDA’s meat and poultry hotline this time of year have to do with buying the right turkey at the right time, said Alonso. She said the USDA recommends buying a fresh turkey at least two days before planning to cook it.

“We don’t want to keep that fresh turkey for more than two days in your refrigerator,” she said.

However, if the package of the turkey has a use-by-date, that can be followed instead.

Alonso said if you are buying a frozen turkey, allow a day or two for it to thaw in your refrigerator before cooking. The best method to thaw turkey is in the refrigerator, she said, but turkeys can also be thawed in cold water or the microwave if it’s cooked immediately after.

Alonso recommends “about a pound and a half per person” when it comes to turkey, which would allow for leftovers.

It’s not recommended to wash your turkey before it goes in the oven, said Alonso.

“By washing your turkey or poultry in general, you are spreading bacteria around the sink and counter,” Alonso said.

That means when other ingredients were being washed in the same area, they risked being contaminated with salmonella and other bacteria that could be dangerous.

“(The turkey) has already been cleaned, and already been processed,” she said.

Turkeys should be cooked to 165 degrees, said Alonso, and that can be measured with a food thermometer or the popup thermometer inside the turkey. She said the USDA recommends using your own food thermometer, because popups have been found to be inaccurate in the past.

Along with taking the temperature in the thickest part of the breast, Alonso said you need to check the “innermost part of the thigh and the innermost part of the wing”, because those are the last parts of the turkey to cook.

“All those places have to reach 165 internal temperature,” she said.

Even though food safety experts know consumers will still do it, the USDA recommends not stuffing your turkey. Alonso said if you’re going to stuff a turkey, do it right before you cook it.

Alonso said the most common mistake made by consumers with turkeys is leaving them out at room temperature for too long.

“We are having good company and we are chatting and entertaining, so sometimes it’s really hard to remember that the food has to be put back in the refrigerator quickly,” Alonso said.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to call and ask for help. The USDA meat and poultry hotline is open on Thanksgiving.

“Feel free to chat with us or call us if you are experiencing any challenges during Thanksgiving,” Alonso said. “We are here to help.”

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