With this year’s string of frozen food recalls fresh in consumers’ minds, cooks and diners may be more concerned than usual about the safety of their Thanksgiving dinner.
The USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline, 888-674-6854, which has handled more than 2 million calls since it began in 1985, answers questions from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time Monday through Friday and will take calls on Thanksgiving Day from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
But for an immediate answer anytime, consumers can consult “Karen,” a virtual representative available 24/7 at www.fsis.usda.gov. Launched in 2004, the “Ask Karen” service taps into a database of more than 9,300 questions about the safe handling of meat, poultry and eggs and the prevention of food-borne illnesses. Here Karen addresses some typical Turkey Day dilemmas.
Question: Are frozen turkeys safe?
Answer: All turkeys found in retail stores are either inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture or by state systems which have standards equivalent to the federal government. Each turkey and its internal organs are inspected for evidence of disease. The Inspected for Wholesomeness by the U.S. Department of Agriculture seal ensures that it is wholesome, properly labeled and not adulterated.
Q: How should people thaw their Thanksgiving turkeys?
A: There are three safe ways to defrost food: in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave. It takes approximately one day for every four to five pounds of whole turkey to thaw it in the refrigerator. Cold water thawing is faster than refrigerator thawing but requires more attention. The turkey must be in a leak-proof package or plastic bag. The bag should be submerged in cold tap water and the water should be changed every 30 minutes. For whole turkeys, estimate about 30 minutes per pound. To thaw a turkey in the microwave, consult your oven manual. When microwave defrosting, plan to cook the turkey immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during the defrosting.
Q: Is it safe to stuff a turkey?
A: For safety and uniform doneness, cook stuffing separately in a casserole. Cooking a stuffed turkey is riskier than cooking one that hasn’t been stuffed. Harmful bacteria can survive in stuffing that has not reached the safe temperature of 165 degrees, possibly resulting in food-borne illness. Therefore, it is essential that you always use a food thermometer to check the temperature of the stuffing. If you choose to stuff your turkey, make sure it is stuffed loosely. The stuffing should be moist, not dry, since heat destroys bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment. Cook the turkey immediately after stuffing.
Q: Is it safe to make a turducken?
A: “Turducken” – a deboned stuffed chicken inside a deboned stuffed duck inside a deboned stuffed turkey – is an exceptionally risky holiday dish. Make the stuffing immediately before assembling the turducken. Make sure the birds and stuffing are not out of the refrigerator in the “danger zone” – between 40 degrees and 140 degrees – more than two hours while assembling the turducken. For home-prepared turducken, roast immediately after assembly in an oven set no lower than 325 degrees. Use a food thermometer to ensure that all layers of the turducken and stuffing reach at least 165 degrees.
Q: Is grilling an option?
A: Cooking a big bird outdoors is becoming a popular method. During grilling, a turkey cooks by indirect heat in an outdoor covered gas or charcoal grill and a pan of water is placed beneath the grilling surface to catch the fat and juices that drip from the turkey as it cooks. Cooking is done by the smoky, steamy air.
Q: What about deep frying a turkey?
A: A whole turkey can be successfully cooked by the deep-fat frying method, provided the turkey is not stuffed and has been completely thawed. Select a safe location – such as outdoors – for deep frying a turkey and set the fryer on a surface that will not burn. Carefully lower the turkey into the hot oil. Never leave the hot oil unattended. Allow approximately three to five minutes per pound cooking time.
Q: What’s the best way to make sure a turkey is done?
A: The best way to be sure a turkey – or any meat – is cooked safely is to use a food thermometer. A whole turkey is safe cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees as measured with a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. As a personal preference, consumers may choose to cook poultry to higher temperatures.
Q: Once cooked, how long can food be left out?
A: Food left out at room temperature will become unsafe in a matter of hours. Refrigerate leftovers or freeze as soon as possible, but never leave food out more than two hours; one hour if the outside temperature is above 90 degrees.
Q: How should Thanksgiving leftovers be stored?
A: Divide leftovers into shallow containers. This encourages rapid, even cooling. Cover with airtight lids or store in plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Use refrigerated leftovers within three to four days, or freeze them for longer storage.
On the Web:
www.fsis.usda.gov, the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
To access the virtual representative, click on Ask a Food Safety Question.
For “Let’s Talk Turkey – A Consumer Guide to Safely Roasting a Turkey,” scroll down to Spotlight: Fact Sheets.