Lately, my husband and I have taken to calling our son “Turkey.” I can’t really pinpoint what started it, but he’s at that age (almost 2) where the nickname just fits (parents, you know what I’m talking about). Speaking of turkeys, those majestically hideous yet delicious birds, there’s nothing that would ruin a good post-feast coma like my little Turkey spewing masticated turkey all over his mother (ahem, me). Fortunately, there is a cornucopia of tips, tricks, and guidelines all over the interwebs for preparing a safe (and delicious) holiday spread.
Foodborne illness (or colloquially, “food poisoning”) can happen any time of the year as a result of improper production, manufacture, preparation, cooking, or storage of any number of foodstuffs. Using the Center for Disease Control’s Foodborne Outbreak Online Database, one can see that foodborne illness outbreaks linked to various preparations of turkey have been significantly higher in the months of November and December, and that’s no coincidence since it is the holiday season where turkey dinners are a mainstay. Among the bacterial culprits involved are Campylobacter jejuni, Clostridium perfringens, and several species of Salmonella. We can, however, take the following steps in our own kitchens to prevent post-turkey trauma by these little terrors through the proper storing, prepping, and cooking of those holiday meals, and by an appropriate storage of leftovers:
Storage. Whether you buy a frozen or fresh turkey, it’s important to keep the bird stored below 40°F (4°C) until it’s time to cook—and no, this doesn’t mean you can store it in your garage or your apartment veranda because it’s cold outside. If you buy a frozen turkey, keep it frozen until 24-72 hours before you plan to cook to give it enough time to thaw. The “Danger Zone”, as identified by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), is when its stored between 40° and 140°F (4° – 60°C). This is the temperature range at which certain pathogenic bacteria can proliferate quickly and cause illness.
Preparation. If you purchased a frozen turkey, you’ll need to thaw it safely via one of the following methods:
In the refrigerator: I highly recommend this method for the following reason: it’s fairly foolproof. Place the turkey in the refrigerator and give it about 24 hours per 4-5 lbs of bird (e.g. give it 3 full days for a 12-15 lb turkey). This is my favorite method of thawing as it takes the least amount of effort besides planning ahead. You can set a reminder on your phone so you don’t forget. Just be sure you a) have plenty of room in your fridge, and b) place it in a container on the bottom shelf to avoid turkey juice dripping on to other foods.
- Cold water: While this is a valid method, it’s a pain in the butt. In order to safely thaw a turkey (or any frozen meat), you need to change out the water every 30 minutes per pound of turkey. Ain’t nobody got time for that. The water needs to be cold (like, 40° or below—remember the Danger Zone?), the turkey needs to be sealed in a watertight plastic bag, and you’ll need to allow almost 8 hours of thaw time for a 15 lb bird. Yes, that’s fifteen water changes, fifteen times you get to wash your hands, and fifteen interruptions from any other multitude of Thanksgiving tasks. Need I say more?
- Microwave: If you happen to be the proud owner of the largest microwave known to man, you have the option to thaw your gobbler using one. Refer to your microwave’s instruction manual for thawing times. If you choose this method, you need to cook the turkey immediately after thawing.
Cooking. Always, always, always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water before and after handling
raw meat. This is a great opportunity to teach the kids the importance of good hand washing technique, too. Use a 5% bleach solution to sanitize your counter before and after it comes in contact with any raw meat—sodium hypochlorite (household bleach) is likely the most effective disinfectant you have in your house and is effective against a range of food-borne pathogens.
Before cooking the bird, you can use a marinade, rub butter underneath the skin, dry brine, traditional brine to enhance the flavor/texture, or simply do nothing. Depending on the pre-cook method you choose, you will need to plan 1-3 days in advance for some marinate or brining methods, meaning you’ll need to plan on thawing your turkey several days before that if you choose the refrigerator method.
There are a multitude of ways to cook a turkey: smoke, fry, roast, grill, and a special roasting method whose name might make your grandmother blush: spatchcock. Foodsafety.gov has cooking times and temperature guidelines for roasting a turkey as well as alternative cooking methods. Any way you choose to cook your turkey, the following key points apply:
- The meat must come to an internal temperature of
165°F (about 74°C). Use a calibrated meat thermometer and probe the thickest part of the breast and thigh.
- Most importantly: Don’t. Stuff. The. Turkey (!!!) The reason for this throws back to the first point: the stuffing needs to come to an internal, uniform temperature of at least 165°F to be safe from foodborne pathogens. By the time it takes to get that smoldering stuffing up to temp, the best part of your turkey is dry as a bone. Don’t risk a possible after-dinner stomach upheaval from salmonella or disgruntled family members as a result of a charred bird.
The bottom line? While I’m not in charge of the turkey this Thanksgiving, I’m petitioning for a dry brine and the spatchcock method. Quick, dirty, and delicious.
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