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How to prepare the Thanksgiving dinner

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By The Staff

As Thanksgiving approaches, cooking the traditional turkey dinner gives rise to all the wonderful smells and sounds of the holiday season: friends and families gathering together, renewing old acquaintances, and lots of cooking and eating wonderful foods, including the turkey feast with all the trimmings that have become the focal point of our Thanksgiving holiday.

The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline says turkey is the most often asked about food category by consumers. Poultry has more types and higher counts of microorganisms than other meat. Therefore, with a few simple steps from USDA and Virginia Cooperative Extension, we?ll try to ease the guess work and worry out of cooking to ensure a tasty and safe meal that you whole family and friends will enjoy.

The most crucial aspects of cooking turkey correctly and serving it safely are planning and cleanliness. Preparing the Thanksgiving meal often is a group project, with many people in the kitchen to help with the chores. Where there?s a crowd and noisy chatter, there is a greater chance to overlook proper food handling methods during rushed preparations.

Most foodborne illness breakouts are caused by improper cooling before, during, and after preparation and serving; lapse of a day or more between preparation and service; poor personal hygiene practices; insufficient cooking times; improper reheating techniques; cross-contamination; and improper cleaning of equipment and surfaces.

Clean and wash hands and surfaces often. Always wash hands, cutting boards, and utensils with hot soapy water after they come in contact with raw meat, poultry, and seafood.

Separate: don?t cross-contaminate. When handling raw meat, poultry, and seafood, keep these foods and their juices away from ready-to-eat foods. Keep raw meats separate from other refrigerated items.

Cook foods to proper temperatures. A food thermometer may be the single most important tool in your kitchen. One of the biggest factors in foodborne-illness outbreaks is time-temperature abuse. Disease-causing microorganisms grown and multiply at temperatures between 41F and 135F (5C and 57C), which is why this range is known as The Temperature Danger Zone.

Refrigerate food properly after purchasing, during preparation, and promptly after serving for safe, enjoyable holiday meals.

Fresh or Frozen?

If you choose to buy a frozen bird you may do so at any time, but make sure you have adequate storage space in your freezer.

If you buy a fresh turkey, be sure to cook it within two days, or freeze it. Do not buy a pre-stuffed fresh turkey.

Use the following chart as a helpful guide:

What Size Turkey to Purchase:

Whole bird, 1 pound per person;

Boneless breast of turkey, 1/2 pound per person;

Breast of turkey, 3/4 pound per person;

Pre-stuffed frozen turkey, 1 1/4 pounds per person ? keep frozen until ready to cook.

Thawing Frozen Turkeys

Immediately after grocery store checkout, take the frozen turkey home and store it in the freezer until ready to use. Frozen turkeys should not be thawed on the back porch, in the car trunk, in the basement or on the kitchen counter. It is extremely important, when shopping at super center stores where non-perishable items are being purchased (i.e. clothing, toys, house wares, etc.) as well as perishable goods such as meat and dairy, to make sure that you shop for all non-perishables first, leaving perishable items for last as you are preparing to check out.

Turkeys must be kept at a safe temperature during thawing. While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely. However, for optimal quality in taste and texture, poultry should be kept frozen at 0F for no more than one year. If the turkey is allowed to thaw at a temperature above 40 F, any harmful bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to grow again unless proper thawing methods are used.

A package of frozen meat or poultry thawing on the counter longer than two hours is not safe. Even though the center of the package may still be frozen, the outer layer of the food is in the "danger zone," between 40 and 140F ? a temperature range where harmful bacteria multiply rapidly.

There are three safe ways to thaw turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave oven. One new item on the market is said to go from freezer to oven without thawing, using an oven-proof pre-packaging system. As with any new product, please read and follow all label instructions carefully.

Refrigerator Thawing

When thawing a turkey in the refrigerator, plan ahead. Start now to thaw a frozen bird (see Thawing Chart below). It?s always wise to check the temperature of your refrigerator prior to planning a large meal to make sure there?s adequate space as well as proper cooling. If you want your foods to be at 40F, you need to set your refrigerator temperature at 38F. Refrigerator thermometers are highly recommended; they are inexpensive and readily available.

Keeping the turkey in the original packaging, place it in a non-porous (i.e. stainless steel, plastic, bake ware, etc.) container in a refrigerator at 40F or below. This prevents cross-contamination from raw meat juices running onto other refrigerated items.

Allow approximately 24 hours per five pounds of turkey. After thawing, keep turkey refrigerated for only one to two days, or use this chart to help you countdown to the holiday.

Thawing Time in the Refrigerator:

8 to 12 pounds, 1 to 2 days;

12 to 16 pounds, 2 to 3 days;

16 to 20 pounds, 3 to 4 days; or

20 to 24 pounds, 4 to 5 days.

Microwave Thawing

Microwave thawing is safe if the turkey is not too large. Check the manufacturer?s instructions for the size turkey that will fit into your oven, the minutes per pound, and the power level to use for thawing. Plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the turkey may become warm and begin to cook during microwave thawing.

Cold Water Thawing

If you forget to thaw the turkey or don?t have room in the refrigerator for thawing, don?t panic. You can submerge the turkey in cold water and change the water every 30 minutes. Be sure all outer packaging has been removed, noting that the inner cavity parts will be difficult to remove until the bird has thawed. Before submerging your turkey in the sink and again after the thawing process is complete, please wash and sanitize (1 teaspoon chlorine bleach to 1 quart water) the sink and counters.

Allow about 30 minutes defrosting time per pound of turkey. The following times are suggested for thawing turkey in water.

Thawing Time in Cold Water:

8 to 12 pounds, 4 to 6 hours;

12 to 16 pounds, 6 to 8 hours;

16 to 20 pounds, 8 to 10 hours; or

20 to 24 pounds, 10 to 12 hours.

Turkeys thawed by the cold water method should be cooked immediately because conditions were not temperature controlled.

Preparation: The day before Thanksgiving

Make sure you have all the ingredients you need to prepare your holiday meal. Check to make sure you have all the equipment you will need, including a roasting pan large enough to hold your turkey and a meat thermometer. The turkey may be rinsed in cold water the night before and re-wrapped for roasting the next day if you wish. Wet and dry stuffing ingredients can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated separately. This may also be done on Thanksgiving Day. Mix ingredients just before placing the stuffing inside the turkey cavity or into a casserole dish.

Overstocking a refrigerator and frequently opening the refrigerator door will dramatically and quickly raise the temperature inside. At large family gatherings, plan ahead and make sure you have adequate refrigeration and/or insulated coolers with plenty of ice packs and ice on hand. Coolers are especially good for drinks and beverages, which are served frequently, and will allow more refrigerator space and help in keeping the refrigerator door closed.

Thanksgiving Day: Stuffing Your Turkey

Cooking a stuffed turkey is riskier than cooking one not stuffed. Stuffing poses a hazard because it acts as insulation, preventing heat from reaching the center of meat or poultry. Harmful bacteria can survive in stuffing that has not reached the safe temperature of 165F, possibly resulting in foodborne illness. Therefore, it is essential that you always use a food thermometer to check the temperature of the stuffing.

For optimal safety and uniform doneness, cook stuffing separately. Even if the innermost part of the turkey thigh has reached a safe internal temperature of 180F, the center of the stuffing inside the turkey may not have reached 165F and can cause foodborne illness. Continue to cook the stuffed turkey until the stuffing has reached 165F. A turkey breast roast should reach a minimum temperature of 170F. Cook any poultry until all juices run clear.

IF YOU CHOOSE TO STUFF YOUR TURKEY, STUFF LOOSELY. The stuffing should be moist, not dry, since heat destroys bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment. Place stuffed turkey in oven immediately. You may also cook the stuffing outside the bird in a casserole. Judging cooking time for your turkey will be easier if the following chart is used. The times listed are for a fresh or thawed turkey in an oven at 325F. These times are approximate.

When turkey is removed from the oven, let it stand 20 minutes. Remove stuffing and carve turkey.

THE SAFEST WAY TO COOK STUFFING is in a casserole in a 325-350F oven. The internal temperature of the stuffing must reach 165F.

Unstuffed turkey preparation times:

8 to 12 pounds, 2 3/4 to 3 hours;

12 to 14 pounds, 3 to 3 3/4 hours;

14 to 18 pounds, 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours;

18 to 20 pounds, 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours; or

20 to 24 pounds, 4 1/2 to 5 hours.

Stuffed turkey preparation times:

8 to 12 pounds, 3 to 3 1/2 hours;

12 to 14 pounds, 3 1/2 to 4 hours;

14 to 18 pounds, 4 to 4 1/4 hours;

18 to 20 pounds, 4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours; or

20 to 24 pounds, 4 3/4 to 5 1/4 hours.

Use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of the turkey.

When cooking whole poultry, the food thermometer should be inserted into the thickest part of the thigh (avoiding the bone). If stuffed, the center of the stuffing should be checked after the thigh reads 180 F (stuffing must reach 165 F). If cooking poultry parts, insert food thermometer into the thickest area, avoiding the bone. The food thermometer may be inserted sideways if necessary. When the food is irregularly shaped, the temperature should be checked in several places.

When the temperature of the poultry (as measured in the thigh) has reached 180F, there is usually no other site in the bird lower than the safe temperature of 160F. Check the temperature in several locations, being sure to include the wing joint. All turkey meat, including any that remains pink, is safe to eat as soon as all parts reach at least 160F. The stuffing should reach 165F, whether cooked inside the bird or, as recommended, in a separate dish.

Pop-Up Timers:

Commonly used in turkeys and roasting chickens since 1965, the "pop-up" temperature device is constructed from a food-approved nylon. This indicates that the food has reached the final temperature for safety and doneness. Pop-up timers are reliable within 1 to 2F if accurately placed in a food; however, checking the temperature of other parts of the food with a conventional food thermometer is highly recommended.

Purchasing Precooked Dinners

For those who pick up precooked dinners, it is extremely important to keep those prepared foods hot or, depending on the food item, cold. When you pick up the food, it should be piping hot, not at room temperature, and be immediately served within a two-hour period of time. Most precooked dinners are picked up a day or two before the actual holiday meal. It is very important to get those items home and properly refrigerated as soon as possible. Bulky, thick food items such as mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravies, and of course the meat or poultry, should be repackaged in shallow containers to facilitate rapid cooling once refrigerated.

Special attention needs to be placed on reheating these items for best quality of flavor as well as food safety aspects. Any food item being reheated in the microwave should be heated to 165F, piping hot and steaming. As soon as these foods are served and the meal is completed, be sure to promptly refrigerate leftovers.

Handling Food Safely on the Road

Plan Ahead: If you are traveling to Grandma?s house with perishable food, place it in a cooler with ice or freezer packs. When carrying drinks, consider packing them in a separate cooler so the food cooler is not opened frequently. Have plenty of ice or frozen gel-packs on hand before starting to pack food. If you take perishable foods along (for example, meat, poultry, eggs, and salads) for eating on the road or to cook at your destination, plan to keep everything on ice in your cooler. Is there sufficient refrigeration available at the destination?

Pack Safely: Pack perishable foods directly from the refrigerator or freezer into the cooler. Meat and poultry may be packed while it is still frozen; in that way it stays colder longer. Also, a full cooler will maintain its cold temperatures longer than one that is partially filled. Be sure to keep raw meat and poultry wrapped separately from cooked foods, or foods meant to be eaten raw such as fruits.

Avoid placing a cooler right next to a heating vent in your vehicle. Limit the times the cooler is opened. Open and close the lid quickly.

Storing Leftovers

Perishable foods should not be left out of the refrigerator for more than two hours. Cut the turkey into small pieces; refrigerate stuffing and turkey separately in shallow containers within 2 hours of cooking. Use leftover turkey and stuffing within 3-4 days; gravy within 1-2 days.

Or freeze these foods. Freeze leftovers promptly in shallow containers. It is safe to refreeze leftover turkey and trimmings--even if you purchased them frozen. Wrap tightly for best quality.

Reheat thoroughly to a temperature of 165F or until hot and steaming.

Storage Times for Leftovers

Refrigerator (40 F or slightly below)

Cooked Turkey, 3 to 4 days;

Stuffing and Gravy, 1 to 2 days; and

Other Cooked Dishes, 3 to 4 days.

Freezer (0 F or below)

Turkey slices/pieces, plain, 4 months;

Turkey covered with broth/gravy, 6 months;

Cooked poultry dishes, 4 to 6 months; and

Stuffing and gravy, 1 month.

(Foods frozen for a longer period remain safe, but may become dry and lose flavor.)

For more information:

The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, which is staffed by food safety experts weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time. Experts will be available Thanksgiving Day from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.; you should expect a wait for assistance on the holiday. Food safety recordings can be heard 24 hours a day using a touch-tone phone. 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854), 1-800-256-7072 (TTY) or by E-mail: mphotline@fsis.usda.gov. The lFDA Seafood Hotline: (1-800-3324010).

The above information compiled from: USDA Food Safety Inspection Service, Partners for Food Safety Education, National Restaurant Association.