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Going Cold Turkey

Outbreaks of food poisoning occur most often in November and December and meat and poultry accounted for 92% of outbreaks. The last thing you want to think about when sitting down to your Thanksgiving meal is whether or not your turkey is going to make you sick, but that won’t happen if you follow these easy tips to keep you and your family safe.

Buying Your Turkey

Generally, you will need 1 pound of bone-in turkey per person, or 1 ½ pounds if you want enough for leftovers. You can even buy two smaller turkeys and serve one at Thanksgiving dinner, and roast the second one for leftovers instead!

If your family just likes eating dark meat and doesn’t care about carving into a whole bird at the table, just roast turkey legs to make everyone happy. On the other hand, if you only like white meat, order a bone-in turkey breast instead.

It is also important to be sure that you have a roasting pan that is large enough for your turkey, and that your oven is large enough to accommodate the turkey and pan.

Buying a fresh turkey can be an option depending on your local markets. A fresh turkey has never been chilled below 26 degrees. These can be held for quite a while before they make it to the store, so they might not be as fresh as you think! Always check the sell by or use by date, and try to purchase these within 1 or 2 days of Thanksgiving. I recommend talking to your butcher a least a week in advance to see if they will have a supply of fresh turkeys, otherwise you will have to allow for thawing.

Thawing Your Turkey

The key to thawing your turkey safely is to keep the outside temperature of your bird at 41°F or lower. You can thaw your turkey safely in the refrigerator, in a cold water bath, or in the microwave.

It will take 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds, or up to 6 days for a 20-pound turkey to defrost your turkey in the fridge. You also must keep the turkey on a drip pan so that you can catch any juices, and prevent cross contamination of the other food in your fridge.

If you decide to thaw your turkey in a cold water bath, you must make sure it is securely wrapped so that no water can reach the turkey itself while it is submerged. Change the water every 30 minutes. It should take 8-10 hours to thaw a 20-pound turkey, or 30 minutes per pound with this method.

Another technique for thawing a turkey is the microwave, but this has its limitations. You will need to check your microwave owner’s manual to find out what size bird your microwave will thaw and how long per pound. Make sure to remove all the outside wrappings from the turkey and placing it on a microwave safe dish to catch drippings before placing it in your microwave.

Preparing Your Turkey

Don’t wash your turkey. This sounds counterintuitive, especially if you see feathers and such on the outside; however, you can spread Campylobacter and Salmonella up to three feet away from your sink from the water splashing off your turkey. Just wipe your turkey with a damp paper towel.

Cutting boards and utensils that have touched raw meat should be washed with soap and water and then sanitized in the dishwasher or with bleach water.

If you are going to stuff your turkey, which is not recommended, be sure to stuff it right before it goes into the oven and your stuffing ingredients are all chilled. Fill the cavities loosely and make sure that the internal temperature of your stuffing reaches 165°F.

Cooking Your Turkey

A whole turkey is safe to eat when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F.  Make sure that you take a thermometer reading from the innermost part of the thigh, and wing, as well as the thickest part of the breast. The leg portion has more surface area, so it’s going to cook a lot quicker than internal parts. Your leg may show 180°F while the breast hasn’t hit 165°F. If your turkey has a popup temperature indicator, it recommended that you still use a food thermometer to check the temperature.

Storing Your Turkey

Any extras left out at room temperature for over two hours should be thrown away. All leftovers should be divided into smaller portions so they can cool more quickly when placed in the freezer or refrigerator for storage. Use refrigerated turkey and gravy within four days, and frozen leftovers within two to six months.

Follow these simple tips for a safe, family and friends focused holiday.   


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Extension Educator:
Vicki Hayman – (307) 746-3531

University of Wyoming Extension

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Extension Educator:
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Issued in furtherance of extension work, acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Kelly Crane, Director, University of Wyoming Extension, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Wyoming Extension, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming 82071.

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