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Practices -- Cooking

How do I safely prepare a whole turkey?

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It is well known that raw turkey and other poultry are highly contaminated with pathogens such as Campylobacter spp (80-90%), Salmonella spp. (15%), Escherichia coli 0157:H7 (5%), and Clostridium perfringens (40%) that survives the cooking process, etc. Thus, you as the cook must handle poultry safely and destroy the pathogens in order to avoid making your family and guest ill with diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. The following is a step-by-step process for assuring that you control the hazards and that the poultry you serve will be safe.

1. Purchasing the turkey or chicken. Frozen chicken or turkey will have slightly fewer pathogens because freezing does reduce the number of pathogens on the bird, but it does not kill all of them. However, the turkey must then be thawed, which is a critical control point, because the contaminated drip can get all over the kitchen. If you buy fresh poultry or a thawed turkey, be very sure that none of the juice drips on any other foods that you purchase.

2. Thawing. The USDA and FDA say that poultry should be thawed in the refrigerator. In today's cold refrigerator, this may take 4 days, and the highly contaminated juice from the bird can easily contaminate other foods in the refrigerator. Poultry should always be thawed on the bottom shelf so that there are minimal chances of cross-contamination. Many foodborne illnesses associated with turkey cooking are due to the fact that the bird is not totally thawed. When it is put into the oven, the middle, frozen part never cooks thoroughly, and pathogens survive.

3. Stuffing. It is better not to stuff the turkey, but rather to cook the stuffing in a separate pan. Just put some herbs and spices in the cavity of the bird. They give plenty of flavor. However, if you wish to stuff the turkey, remember it is more difficult to head the middle of the bird thoroughly and it will take a longer time to cook.

4. Washing the poultry. Do not wash the poultry. When you wash poultry, the pathogens contaminate the sink, the facet, other parts of the kitchen, your hands, etc. Washing poultry greatly increases the risk of foodborne illness from cross-contamination. The critical step is to get the turkey in the oven and kill the pathogenic bacteria as soon as possible. If you must wash the turkey, it is critically important that, when you are finished washing, you use soap and a lot of water to wash the sink thoroughly. It is not necessary, but you may wish to sanitize the sink by using 1 tablespoon of unscented chlorine bleach per one gallon of warm water. Let the solution dry on the surface, do not wipe. 5. Cooking the thawed turkey. Put the turkey in the oven at 325 F. Cook until the breast is at 170 degrees F and the thigh at 180 degrees F.

6. Cooking the turkey from the frozen state. A very safe practice is to cook the turkey from the frozen state. Use the same oven temperature of 325 F. Take off the plastic wrap. Cook it in the roasting pan, covered. After about 1 1/2 hours in the oven, the bird will be thawed. It will be hot on the outside, so use rubber gloves to handle the bird.

7. Hot holding after cooking. It is much better to get the turkey done a little early and hold it hot than to be late and try to get it done by turning up the oven. You cannot rush the cooking. Plan so that the turkey is done 30-60 minutes before you want to serve it. If the oven is available, simple turn the control to 140 F to hot hold. You may want to open the oven and cool it for 10 minutes. Otherwise, the turkey will continue to cook.

8. After cooking. Take the turkey out of the oven with clean utensils. Put it on a platter for service. Now is the tie that your hands must be scrupulously clean. Before you start to carve the turkey, you must wash your hands thoroughly to remove any raw food bacteria that have contaminated your hands. Using clean, sanitized utensils, carve the turkey off of the bone. Now it is ready to serve. If there is stuffing, serve it with the turkey.

9. Enjoying your guests. You have about 2 hours of time between removing the turkey from the oven and taking it back to the kitchen after the meal is finished to put the turkey leftovers into the refrigerator. One organism, Clostridium perfringens, does survive the cooking process. It has a "lag" time of about 2 hours before it begins to multiply. When it does begin to multiply, it does so once every 15 minutes. Hence, it is critically important to begin to finish carving the rest of the bird in preparation for storage in the refrigerator. Do not package your turkey leftovers over 2 inches thick. If you are careless about this, you could cause a foodborne illness. Slice the turkey into desired portions, preferably for 1 or 2 people. Freeze any portions that will not be eaten within 24 hours.

10. Using the turkey meat. If you have followed the above steps after the turkey was cooked and served, and it was stored promptly in the refrigerator, reheating is not a critical control point for safety, and you can eat the leftover turkey in any way you wish. If you have "abused" the turkey, and it sat out for many hours, reheating will not guarantee the safety of your leftover turkey. Even if it tastes fine, you can become very ill with vomiting and diarrhea. Illness-causing microorganisms do not normally cause food to smell or taste bad.

PREPARED BY: Angela M. Fraser, Ph.D., Associate Professor/Food Safety Specialist, NC State University in July 2004

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