Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

Vital food-safety tips for preparing your turkey dinner

Turkey is the ultimate holiday entrée – a labour-intensive but reliable crowd-pleaser.

But taking shortcuts before, during and after cooking your bird could turn your delicious dinner into a meal your guests – sickened by the likes of salmonella and campylobacter bacteria – will talk about for years.

Daniel Brasileiro (Culinary Arts ’06), a Culinary Arts lab tech, suggests keeping the holidays happy by following these turkey safety tips.

How to thaw a turkey

Most mistakes happen when thawing a bird, says Brasileiro. A turkey needs to be perfectly thawed before cooking. If not, you may end up with a “turkey popsicle,” he warns. Out of the oven, it will have a nice, golden crust but it will be raw inside.

“You need to thaw it in the fridge or put it in the microwave,” said Brasileiro, “but make sure the microwave is on the ‘thaw’ function [or it will cook].” Be patient when thawing a large bird in the fridge. Frozen turkeys need 24 hours for each 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds) of bird, says Health Canada (e.g., if you have a 7-kg (15-lb) bird, it will require 3 days of thawing in the fridge).

In either case, cook the turkey as soon as it is thawed so nasty bacteria won’t have a chance to grow.

Keep your hands and cooking area clean

“Cross-contamination is a big thing many people overlook,” says Brasileiro. A cook might neglect to wash hands before, during or after handling a turkey. Or a host might forget to disinfect a counter or table in the kitchen before preparing, carving and plating the bird. “You need to wash your hands or wear gloves.”

Once he’s done preparing the turkey, Brasileiro uses hot, soapy water to wash everything within a 3-metre (10-foot) radius of his work area. He washes his hands for 20 seconds with soap before and after touching raw turkey and uses separate cutting boards for meat and produce.

Safe stuffing

Thinking about cramming a raw bird full of homemade stuffing? Don’t. Just don’t, says Brasileiro. “You are providing the perfect opportunity for bacteria growth.” In the oven, the cavity insulates the stuffing and protects harmful bacteria that may lurk there, allowing them to multiply. “It’s best to cook both separately.”

Proper cooking

Cook a perfectly thawed turkey at 325 F (168 C), says Brasileiro. The standard rule is 20 minutes per pound, so for a 7-kg (15-pound) turkey, you will need about 5 hours.

Use a meat thermometer to determine when it’s done, placing it into the fleshiest part of the bird’s thigh without hitting bones. The minimum safe internal temperature for a turkey is 85 C (185 F). Digital thermometers sell for about $5 to $10.

Protect the leftovers

Alberta Health Services suggests refrigerating leftovers within 2 hours of serving. Eat them within 2 or 3 days. If you don’t plan to do so, freeze them immediately.

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