Gourmet Turkey Safety
by Liz Tarditi
Holiday Stuffing Recipes
Thanksgiving for Less
Frugal Thanksgiving Dinner
My beautiful and wise mother tried to kill us for years with her turkey. Not intentionally, of course, she just didn't know any better. Do you remember getting the flu during the weeks leading up to Christmas? When I was little, we all just assumed that getting sick around the holidays was the result of sitting out in the cold watching the Thanksgiving Day Parade. With all the running around during the weeks before Christmas, the bad cold would never really go away, and then, after Christmas Dinner (also turkey at our house), I'd really get sick. Full blown flu, the kind that takes weeks to recover from. Now that I'm older, and a bit more educated about safe handling procedures for my holiday feast, I don't get "the flu" after Thanksgiving. It was mild food poisoning, which then weakened my resistance to colds, and then another dose of food poisoning again, for all those years. This year, when you roast your delicious Thanksgiving bird, take a couple of precautions used in the professional kitchen to insure your holiday is as healthy as it is happy.
First, determine if you are going to go with a fresh turkey or a frozen one. I'm not going to debate which is better: for some, the cost per pound savings of frozen outweighs the supposed "taste difference" of the fresh. Others insist only fresh turkey is best. I personally never met a Thanksgiving dinner I didn't like. And as a connoisseur of delectable, crisp turkey skin, may I just say that when I get that first bite in my mouth, I'm in rapture. I don't care what part of the fridge the bird hung out in for the week before, as long as it was properly refrigerated. The only reason why I mention it here is, if your preferred turkey is fresh, you may need to reserve it at your supermarket in advance. If it is frozen, you need to give it enough time to thaw properly in the refrigerator. That's 4 or more full days, depending on the size of the bird. I know what you're wondering: if I pick up a small frozen turkey on Saturday with my regular food shopping, can I put it directly into the fridge to thaw for more than 3 days? Yes. Just like buying a whole chicken, turkey will stay good in the fridge for a couple days after it's fully thawed. If the turkey is thawed completely by Tuesday, it will still be excellent Thursday.
Next, a little pre-holiday strategy: clean out your fridge before you go food shopping, and wipe it down with a bleach rag. Get a large sheet pan to set the turkey in to catch the raw run off drippings while it sits in the fridge. Clear out the bottom shelf and make room for the bird and the sheet pan before you go to the grocery store, so that the turkey won't sit out while you try to make room for it after you bring it home. This is both safe handling and proper temperature control of your turkey.
Bring your turkey home, leave it in the wrappings, and immediately place the bird in the fridge, on the sheet pan. If you get a turkey that's been sealed in plastic, it may still drip as it rests, so it's best to always place any turkey on a drip catching pan. Let your turkey (if it's frozen) thaw naturally in the fridge. Don't take it out and leave it on the counter for hours to "speed it up," don't try to quick thaw it by placing it into the oven at a low temperature, (or try "blasting" it at 500 degrees F on Thanksgiving day) or by using blow dryers or whatever else you've heard rumor of that supposedly helps get the bird thawed faster. There is one correct and safe way: in the fridge, on a sheet pan, for several days. The other ways invite salmonella to grow and spread in the thawed meat while part of the meat is still frozen, and worse, may keep the bird from being fully cooked when you take it out of the oven. Once the bird is completely thawed, don't forget to remove the package of giblets from the body cavity!
A word on stuffing the turkey: don't. Think about what you are doing when you put a soft, bready mixture into a raw turkey carcass. As the bird cooks, juices will be dripping into the stuffing mixture. The stuffing is "steaming hot" when you spoon it out of the bird, so you think that it's full cooked, right? It's not. Turkey needs to cook to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. If the bird is stuffed while it is raw, the stuffing also needs to be brought up to 165 degrees F, because it is "contaminated" with uncooked and undercooked turkey juices. I know, I'm not going to be very popular with this advice. And if you want to tell me to "stuff it", so to speak, and go ahead and roast your stuffed turkey the way our mothers and grandmothers always did, then I understand. But think back to the turkeys your grandmother made…was the white meat moist, or really dry? Like dust? Did you need the gravy to moisten it (not just for flavor)? Did she check to see if it was done by wiggling the drumstick? Does the phrase "cook it till the meat falls off the bones" bring back fond memories? Turkey was cooked to a much higher internal temperature by our grandmothers (over 185 degrees F!). I remember white meat so dry you could choke on it (I miss it so!) - and everyone pouring on lots and lots of gravy. And the stuffing was dry, too. It got gravy poured on it, too, before the days of fat grams and fax machines. Today, we cook the turkey until the meat is done, but it is still moist and tender (and much lower in temperature when it is "finished"). That means the internal temperature of the stuffing is lower. Think of a stuffed bird as a solid object; if you put it into a hot oven, you're cooking it from the outside in. So when the meat reads 165 degrees , the stuffing in the very center is probably at 135 degrees (steaming hot!). Which means the juices in the stuffing are still 30 degrees too raw when you stop cooking and pull the bird out of the oven.
So how do you make delicious stuffing for your turkey? The same way you always have, but then bake it in a separate foil-covered roasting pan, while the turkey's in the oven. Use some turkey stock to give it that great flavor we all know and love. After the bird is fully cooked and out of the oven, mix some of the roasting pan drippings and fat into the stuffing before you make the gravy. You'll find two distinct advantages to cooking an unstuffed bird: the turkey cooks faster and more evenly, because hot air can circulate inside the body cavity (thus, also cooking it from the inside out) and the you have perfect control over the moistness/ dryness of your stuffing. You can add more stock if it gets a bit dried out, and you can add less if you like the stuffing fluffy and crisp. And, because it wasn't placed inside the raw turkey, you don't need to cook the stuffing to 165 degrees F. Especially if the sausage you mixed in was already browned before making the stuffing.
If you want to add more flavor to the bird as it roasts, rub it inside and out with butter and a mixture of salt, pepper, and chopped fresh herbs (like rosemary, sage and thyme) before you put it in the oven. Rub the same flavors as those in the sausage of your stuffing onto the bird, and they will also be infused into the gravy, through the pan drippings. You want to still roast your turkey to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F on your meat thermometer. Only use the roasting time directions as a guide line; the real test of doneness is with your handy, all-purpose temp that you keep clipped to your shirt pocket. The place to temp your turkey is the body meat under the thigh, but be careful that the thermometer doesn't touch a bone when you stick it in. That is the slowest place to heat up on the turkey carcass. The breast meat cooks much faster than the inside dark meat, both because white meat is less dense, and because the dark meat is protected from the oven's heat by the legs. If you temp the breast meat about an hour before the time the turkey should be "done" (according to the time guidelines) you may notice that the breast meat is significantly hotter than the thigh meat. To slow the cooking down, carefully cover the breast area loosely with a sheet of aluminum foil.
The time guidelines, for slowly roasting your unstuffed turkey to juicy, delicious perfection are:
- Oven at 325 degrees F
- Approximately 3 hours for a 6 pound turkey, add 10-12 minutes for each pound over 6. Up to 6 hours total for a 25 pound bird.
- For crisp, dark browned skin, don't baste.
- Temp the bird 2/3 the way through cooking to gage how it's doing. Your oven may run a little hot or cold. 165 degrees F is Done.
- Always sanitize your thermometer before and after you stick it into the bird, even between checking the breast meat vs. the thigh meat. (One section may be cooked while one is still raw.)
- Let the bird rest for 20 minutes or so before carving, for juicier and more flavorful meat.
Don't be intimidated if you're roasting a turkey for the first time. Just think of it as a great big fat chicken. And safety first: after you put the turkey in the oven to roast, don't leave the house for any reason. Let someone else run out for the cranberry sauce. There are worse things than Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner without some forgotten ingredient… your local firefighters would really like to spend the night with their families, too. Have a healthy, safe and happy holiday, and make sure you have a big helping of stuffing for me. Good Luck!
Chef Liz Tarditi is the President and Executive Chef of Today's Gourmet, a personal chef service based in Kirkland, Washington which provides delicious, home-cooked gourmet meals everyday for busy clients all over the Eastside. © 1999, Liz Tarditi