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Talking Turkey
By John Havel

It's time to talk turkey. If you're cooking one for the first time this Thanksgiving or even if you've cooked one before, do you know if you're preparing it safely?

Raw or undercooked meat and poultry may contain harmful bacteria, and therefore improper thawing, handling, cooking or storing of that Thanksgiving bird can put hosts and dinner guests at risk for food poisoning. Here is a top 10 list of common mistakes people make when preparing a holiday turkey.

1. Buying fresh turkeys too early. If you want fresh, don't buy it more than 2 days prior to Thanksgiving. You can only keep a fresh turkey refrigerated 1 to 2 days before cooking. (However, a whole frozen turkey can be stored in your home freezer at 0 degrees for up to 1 year.)

2. Cross contamination. Don't put raw meat or poultry with raw vegetables. Although you may not intentionally have these items in contact, if it happens, there is high risk of cross contamination, that can spell food poisoning. Make sure to wash your hands and the food preparation surface thoroughly in-between preparing the turkey and a salad, for example.

3. Thawing a frozen bird at room temperature. This can lead to a potentially unsafe turkey. As the turkey starts to defrost, bacteria will grow on the surface, multiplying to high levels that may not be destroyed during cooking. There are three proper ways to thaw; one is in the refrigerator, allowing 1 day for every 5 pounds of turkey. An 8-pound bird would take 1 to 2 days to thaw. If you need a quicker way, use cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes. The same 8-pound bird would take about 4 to 6 hours to defrost this way. The third method is to microwave the turkey - if you can get it in there. Follow the manufacturer's directions and roast immediately after thawing.

4. Partial cooking or prestuffing the night before. Do not partially cook a turkey, because interrupted cooking may increase bacterial growth. Do not prestuff, either, because that can also create a hotbed for organisms to multiply. In addition, the cavity of the bird insulates the stuffing and may prevent it from heating to the proper temperature. If you want a jump on Thanksgiving dinner, pre-mix the dry and wet stuffing ingredients (to prevent cross contamination) and store them in separate containers the night before.

5. Overstuffing the turkey. You'll either wind up with undercooked stuffing or an overcooked bird because you'll have to cook beyond the cooking time for the stuffing to reach a safe temperature.

6. Cooking the turkey at low temperatures overnight. Cooking a turkey below an oven temperature of 325F is unsafe because temperatures lower than this may encourage bacteria to grow inside the turkey where temperatures could stay below the danger zone of 140F.

7. Cooking the turkey ahead of time and letting it sit in the refrigerator. Cooking a turkey ahead of time is all right, but leaving it whole in the refrigerator is not recommended because a cooked bird is just too big to cool quickly enough in a home refrigerator. The solution is to remove the stuffing if the turkey is stuffed, and to carve the turkey and store the slices in covered shallow pans in the refrigerator. When reheating the slices, reheat to 165F.

8. Forgetting the food thermometer. A food thermometer is a must. Temperature is the true indicator that the turkey is done. Time is just a gauge. The temperature is going to tell you it's ready. The turkey should reach an internal temperature of at least 180F.

9. Predicting the exact time your turkey will be ready. Get over the notion that you can predict when the bird is going to be ready. If it is done too early, you can hold it in the oven at 140F.

10. Leaving out the leftovers. People tend to think that once they've cooked the turkey, they can leave it out forever, and they cannot. Leftovers shouldn't be left on the table beyond 2 hours. When you're done with your meal, take the turkey off the bone, divide into portions so that it will cool, and refrigerate. Turkey will keep three to four days in the refrigerator. Use stuffing and gravy within one to two days.

Music By John Havel

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