Published on 12/03/03

Holiday turkey can bite back if you're not careful

By Dan Rahn
University of Georgia

While you're feasting your eyes on your holiday turkey and pondering biting into it, it's already "thinking" about biting you back. If you're not careful, it will.

Think of the time after the turkey is cooked as a race that starts when you take it out of the oven, said Judy Harrison, an Extension Service foods specialist with the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Not putting leftovers into the refrigerator fast enough is just one of the costly mistakes people make in buying, cooking, serving and storing turkeys. "Between the store and the leftovers," she said, "a number of mistakes can make foodborne illness possible."

Behind the bite

Behind virtually all of the things people do wrong with turkeys, Harrison said, is the fact that the bacteria with the bite, the ones that cause foodborne illnesses, multiply fast between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

These tips can help you avoid being bitten by a foodborne illness:

  • Check and adhere to use-by dates on fresh poultry packages. "Fresh turkeys are highly perishable," she said. "If you buy it too far in advance or don't use it by the date specified, it may start to spoil in your refrigerator before you're ready to cook it."
  • Don't stuff a turkey until you're ready to cook it. Stuffing it a day early can be a costly shortcut. "If you stuff your turkey," Harrison said, "do it right before cooking and stuff it loosely."
  • Thaw it in the fridge. Don't thaw a frozen turkey at room temperature. Thaw it in the refrigerator, where it will stay cooler than 40 degrees, or in cold water, changing the water every 20 to 30 minutes.
  • Serve no turkey before its time. The safe way to tell when poultry is cooked thoroughly is to use a food thermometer.

    "Insert a food thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh muscle without touching the bone," Harrison said. "When it registers 180 degrees Fahrenheit, the bird is done. If you're cooking only white meat pieces, they're done at 170 degrees."

    Stuffing should reach at least 165 degrees, Harrison said. You can check it by inserting the food thermometer into the thickest part of the stuffing.

  • Get the stuffing out. As soon as the turkey's done, remove all of the stuffing. Harmful bacteria are more likely to grow in the stuffing if it stays in the bird after cooking.

    If you don't need all the stuffing for the first serving, keep the rest either in the refrigerator or above 140 degrees in the oven, if you will be serving it soon.

  • Don't leave the turkey out after the meal. From the time the turkey comes out of the oven, you have about 2 hours to carve it, serve it and then refrigerate or freeze the leftovers.

    When refrigerating meat or stuffing, store it in shallow covered containers so it will cool quicker. It's best to slice the leftover meat or turkey so it cools fast.

    "Leftover turkey will keep in the refrigerator for three or four days," Harrison said. "Use the stuffing and gravy within one or two days. Bring leftover gravy to a rolling boil before you serve it, and reheat stuffing to 165 degrees."

    For longer storage, she said, package leftovers in freezer containers, freezer paper or heavy-duty aluminum foil and freeze them. Use frozen turkey, stuffing and gravy within one month.

(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.