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Be prepared for the big cooking day

By Toi Degree

Rowan Cooperative Extension

We are entering the holiday season, and Thanksgiving is less than a week away. So let’s make sure we are all set for it.

First things first: Make sure your turkey is completely thawed. Since it’s Thanksgiving, the turkey is the star of the meal; it’s important to begin safely so that we end that way.

When thawing your turkey, it is a must that it be kept at a safe temperature the entire time.  In its frozen state, a turkey is safe indefinitely. But as soon as the thawing process beings, any bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to grow again. Immediately after grocery-store checkout, take the frozen turkey home and store it in the freezer until you are ready to thaw it for cooking.

How do I go about thawing my turkey? There are only three safe ways to thaw a turkey — in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave oven. Let’s take a look at the how and why for each method.

Refrigerator thawing: When thawing in the refrigerator, planning ahead is of the utmost importance to make sure that you allow enough time for the entire bird to thaw. The general rule is that it takes about 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds in the refrigerator set at 40 degrees or below. You will also need to place the turkey in a container to prevent the juices from dripping onto other foods, which could lead to cross-contamination with ready-to-eat foods.

Refrigerator thawing: A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for one to two days before cooking. Foods thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking, but there may be some loss of quality.

For a whole turkey, the thawing time depends on the size:

• 4 to 12 pounds, one to three days.

• 12 to 16 pounds, three to four days.

• 16 to 20 pounds, four to five days.

• 20 to 24 pounds, five to six days.

Cold water thawing: This method of thawing may be used as a quick way or as a way to finish thawing. It does require time and attention be done correctly. Allow about 30 minutes per pound. Before beginning with this method, be sure the turkey is in a leak-proof plastic bag to prevent cross-contamination and to prevent the turkey from absorbing water.

Submerge the wrapped turkey in cold tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. This ensures that the turkey stays below the danger zone during thawing.

Cook the turkey immediately after it is thawed.

The thawing time depends on the size:

• 4 to 12 pounds, two to six hours.

• 12 to 16 pounds, six to eight hours.

• 16 to 20 pounds, eight to 10 hours.

• 20 to 24 pounds, 10 to 12 hours.

Microwave thawing: This is the most unpredictable of all the methods because microwaves bounce back and forth off the reflective metal walls of the food compartment. When the microwaves reach the food itself, radio waves can pass straight through the walls of your house so microwaves penetrate the food while it is spinning on the turntable, thus making the thawing and even some of the cooking uneven.

Follow the microwave oven manufacturer’s instructions when defrosting a turkey. Plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving. Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn’t have been destroyed.

Now that your turkey is properly thawed, it’s up to you how you choose to prepare: roast, brine, smoke, grill or deep-fry.  Thawing is the first critical step; cooking to a safe internal temperature is the next.

A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees as measured with a food thermometer. Roast it in a 325-degree oven from 1½ to 5 hours depending on weight. Be sure to check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.

Proper storage is the final stage. Here is how to do that:

• Store leftovers in the refrigerator within two hours of cooking.

• Discard any turkey, stuffing and gravy left out at room temperature longer than two hours, or one hour in temperatures above 90 degrees.

• Divide leftovers into smaller portions. Refrigerate or freeze in covered shallow containers for quicker cooling.

• Use refrigerated turkey, stuffing and gravy within three to four days.

• If freezing leftovers, use within two to six months for best quality.

Cooked turkey may be eaten cold or reheated.

To reheat it in the oven, set the oven temperature no lower than 325 degrees. Reheat the turkey to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature. To keep the turkey moist, add a little broth or water and cover.

To reheat in the microwave oven, cover your food and rotate it for even heating. Allow standing time. Check the internal temperature with a food thermometer to make sure it reaches 165 degrees. Consult your microwave oven owner’s manual for recommended times and power levels.

I wish you all a very happy and healthy Thanksgiving.

For more information or assistance with your Thanksgiving turkey, here is the link to additional fact sheets and the Meat and Poultry Hotline:

https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/3635881b-85f0-4937-8ee9-6d0715a6b33f/Countdown_to_Thanksgiving_Holiday.pdf?MOD=AJPERES

https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/90c55d1c-ab13-4281-809f-3f630b570e70/Lets_Talk_Turkey.pdf?MOD=AJPERES

https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/de15ef1f-71cc-4ec7-964f-31fd26d036e1/Roasting_Those_Other_Holiday_Meats.pdf?MOD=AJPERES

https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/bb55864d-79ae-4536-9b10-1a79b9777066/Stuffing_and_Food_Safety.pdf?MOD=AJPERES

Or call 888-674-6854, AskKaren.gov

Toi N. Degree is the family and consumer education agent at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Rowan County Center. Call 704-216-8970 or email at toi_degree@ncsu.edu.

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