First you need to estimate the size of the bird to buy so that you will have plenty for all of your guests and avoid waste. Estimate one pound of turkey for each person. Larger turkeys (those more than 16 pounds) have more meat per pound, so estimate two people per pound of turkey.
With frozen turkeys, thawing is the next essential step. As soon as a turkey begins to thaw, any bacteria in the turkey can resume growing, so it is not safe to let a turkey thaw on the drain board. The outer portions can soon reach the temperature at which bacteria can multiply while the inside of the turkey remains frozen.
To thaw a turkey safely, place it in the refrigerator at 40 F. Use a refrigerator thermometer to make sure the temperature is no higher. Allow 24 hours of thawing for every five pounds of turkey, plus an extra day or two. Keep a thawed turkey in the refrigerator for only one or two days before cooking it.
When cooking the turkey, you need to maintain a minimum internal temperature of 165 F throughout the bird and stuffing (180 F for the thigh). Be sure to have a food thermometer on hand. Measure the temperature of the turkey at the innermost part of the thigh, the wing and the thickest part of the breast.
Roast your turkey for the length of time shown in the following guide at a temperature of at least 325 F. Below is a guide for cooking time for turkeys of various sizes unstuffed and stuffed:
• 8 to 12 pounds: 2 3/4 to 3 hours or 3 to 3 1/2 hours
• 12 to 14 pounds: 3 to 3 3/4 hours or 3 1/2 to 4 hours
• 14 to 18 pounds: 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours or 4 to 4 1/4 hours
• 18 to 20 pounds: 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours or 4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours
• 20 to 24 pounds: 4 1/2 to 5 hours or 4 3/4 to 5 1/4 hours
For optimum safety, cook stuffing separately. If you choose to cook the stuffing inside the turkey, however, use a cooking thermometer to ensure that the center of the stuffing reaches a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 F. This will remove the threat of bacteria and food-borne illness.
Use about 3/4 cup of stuffing per pound of turkey to avoid packing the stuffing too tightly.
Cook any ingredients such as meat, poultry or shellfish before stuffing the turkey with them. If you prepare wet ingredients for stuffing ahead of time, wait to mix them with the dry ingredients until you are ready to spoon the stuffing into the turkey. Once you prepare the stuffing, spoon it directly into the turkey for cooking without letting it cool. Make sure to stuff loosely.
Be sure that the stuffing is moist, not dry. Heat destroys bacteria more effectively in a moist environment.
As soon as you have stuffed the turkey, place it in an over set no lower than 325 F.
If the turkey appears done but the stuffing has not reached 165 degrees, continue to cook the turkey until the stuffing reaches that safe temperature.
Let the cooked turkey and stuffing stand for 20 minutes before removing the stuffing and carving.
Your family and guests can enjoy turkey dinner leftovers if you take a few steps to keep the food safe following cooking. Store any the leftovers in shallow containers and refrigerate or freeze them within two hours of cooking.
Leftover turkey and cooked dishes will retain their quality in the refrigerator for three or four days. Gravy should be used within one or two days of refrigeration. Refrigerate turkey and stuffing within two hours after it is removed from the oven. Store turkey and stuffing in separate containers. Freezing plain turkey slices or pieces will retain their quality for four months. Turkey covered with broth or gravy and frozen will retain its quality for six months. This refers only to quality; foods will remain safe for as long as they are frozen.
By keeping food safety in mind, you can help ensure that your family enjoys this special holiday to the fullest. For more ideas on cooking Thanksgiving dinner safely, visit www.foodsafety.gov/blog/thanksgiving_plan.html.
Keiko Case is a clinical dietitian at Northern Nevada Medical Center. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Central Washington University. For more information on nutrition, including healthy recipes, visit www.nnmc.com and click the “Health Info Library” tab.