Have a plan: Preparing a turkey takes a bit of planning. Before buying your turkey, make room in your refrigerator and find a plate or platter big enough to put the uncooked turkey on so any leaking juices won’t contaminate other foods in the refrigerator. At the store, buy the turkey last, put it in a separate plastic bag to avoid contaminating other foods, and refrigerate it immediately when you get home. If you are combining food shopping with other holiday shopping, make the grocery store the last stop so food is not left in the car while you are searching for the perfect gifts.
Defrosting: When using a frozen turkey, the safest way to defrost it is in the refrigerator, but keep in mind you need to allow 24 hours of defrosting for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. For Thanksgiving, that means a 20-pound frozen turkey must start defrosting as early as Sunday. Don’t defrost the turkey on the counter. Buy a fresh turkey only one or two days before you plan to cook it, and don’t forget to remove the neck and giblets from the turkey and cook these separately. Do not buy fresh pre-stuffed turkeys, as there may be harmful bacteria in the stuffing. Frozen pre-stuffed turkeys should display the federal or state mark of inspection and should be cooked without being thawed.
Start out clean: Before preparing the turkey, clear and thoroughly clean the counter, as well as the cooking equipment that you might not have used since preparing last year’s turkey. Clean everything, including sponges and hands, that comes in contact with the raw turkey or its juice immediately with hot, soapy water. Sanitize sponges by running them through your dishwasher.
Cooking: When cooking a turkey, use a meat thermometer. Even if the turkey has a “pop-up” thermometer, it’s a good idea to check the temperature with a conventional meat thermometer, such as an oven-safe, dial instant-read, or digital thermometer. If you don’t have one, pick one up at the grocery store as you’re searching for the holiday items. Set the oven no lower than 325°F and cook the turkey until the thermometer registers 165°F, taking the reading in the thick part of the thigh. Here are approximate cooking times for turkey, but use a meat thermometer to be certain that your turkey is done:
Serving your meal: To keep the food safe, make sure it isn’t left out for longer than two hours or 1 hour in temperatures higher than 90°F. Planning to graze? Don’t serve all the food at once. Keep the extra servings either above 140°F in the oven or below 40°F in the refrigerator. Whenever possible, put additional food out on clean platters instead of adding it to the platters already on the table.
Take-out food: More and more people are opting for pre-cooked holiday meals. Be sure to keep the turkey and other hot foods at 140°F or above if you will be eating them within two hours of picking them up. Other cold foods, such as salads, should be kept in the refrigerator below 40°F until you are ready to eat them. If you will be eating dinner more than two hours later, you should dismantle your meal, refrigerate, and reheat it in the same manner as with leftovers.
Safety for Sides
Stuffing: For many people stuffing is the best part of Thanksgiving. But it is warm and moist — a perfect environment for bacteria to grow. Stuffing can be contaminated by bacteria from eggs and shellfish in the stuffing or the turkey itself. If preparing the stuffing ahead of time, wet and dry ingredients should be refrigerated separately and mixed just before cooking. The safest way to cook stuffing is on the stove or in the oven, but separate from the turkey. If cooking the stuffing inside the bird, loosely stuff the turkey just before you stick it in the oven with 3/4 cup stuffing per pound of turkey. Use a meat thermometer to make sure the center of the stuffing reaches 165°F. A “pop-up” thermometer that comes with a turkey won’t tell you the temperature of the stuffing. Avoid pre-stuffed fresh turkeys.
Cider: Unpasteurized apple cider is another holiday food that may contain harmful bacteria. Check the label to see if the cider is unpasteurized. If serving cider to the elderly or young or those with weakened immune systems, buy pasteurized apple cider. If you want to buy unpasteurized cider or are unsure if the cider is pasteurized, mull the cider by heating it to 160°F or boiling it if you don’t have a thermometer. Serve it warm or cold.
Eggnog: If homemade, this creamy treat could be contaminated with bacteria sometimes found in raw eggs. To be sure the eggnog is safe, use pasteurized egg products or buy ready-made eggnog, which is pasteurized. If you want to make eggnog with whole eggs safely, gradually heat the egg-milk mixture to 160°F or until it coats a metal spoon.
Time and temperature: Although you might not feel like doing much after a big meal, it is very important that you refrigerate or freeze leftovers within two hours of cooking the food. Bacteria multiply fastest at warm temperatures in the range between 40°F and 140°F. Therefore, leaving cooked food at room temperature is an invitation for bacteria like Clostridium perfringens and Staphylococcus aureus to grow in your food. If cooked food has been left out for more than two hours, throw it away, because reheating will be unsafe.
Dismantling the meal: Food should be chilled as quickly as possible in the refrigerator. Divide the turkey into smaller pieces and store the turkey separately from the stuffing and gravy. To drop the temperature fast, store leftovers at a shallow depth — about 2 inches. Shallow containers allow food to cool more evenly and quickly in the refrigerator or freezer. This is also useful for later eating in smaller portions.
Using leftovers later: Use leftovers within 4 days, except stuffing and gravy, which should be used within 2 days. If that is an impossible feat, freeze the leftovers in shallow containers. If reheating leftovers, heat them to 165°F and bring to a boil any soups, sauces, and gravies.