Preparing a Thanksgiving meal is not exactly the easiest task. Nevertheless, it's something countless people will be doing next week, as food brand Jennie-O found that the majority of Americans are planning to attend at least one in-person Thanksgiving celebration in 2021. And despite concerns of potential shortages, most plan to cook and serve the most notable Thanksgiving dish at their feast this year: According to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans say they will be eating Thanksgiving turkey. If you find yourself a part of that majority, the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) has just sent out a warning you need to be aware of before the holiday. Read on to find out what the agency says you should never do with your Thanksgiving turkey.
The USDA says you should never leave your turkey out to thaw too long.
If you've purchased a frozen turkey for the upcoming holiday, it will take some time to thaw, but you can't just take it out of the freezer and hope for the best. Leaving your turkey out for too long can be dangerous to your health. "Never leave a raw turkey out at room temperature for more than two hours," the USDA warned in a Nov. 17 Thanksgiving safety press release. Any longer than two hours can cause harmful bacteria to grow and reproduce.
The USDA recommends thawing your turkey in a refrigerator, as this "allows for slow and safe thawing." Your poultry will need to thaw in the fridge about 24 hours for every four to five pounds of turkey, and then it will be safe to stay in the fridge unthawed for one to two days.
The agency says you can also thaw your turkey in a cold-water bath or the microwave. For the cold-water method, the turkey will need to be submerged in its original wrapping to avoid cross-contamination for 30 minutes per pound. But if you use either cold water or the microwave, your turkey will need to be cooked immediately after it finishes thawing.
"Never thaw a turkey on a counter or in hot water," the USDA warns. "It's safe to cook a turkey from its frozen state; however, it will take at least 50 percent longer to fully thaw."
You also need to practice proper safety measures when cooking your turkey.
Once your turkey is thawed, it should also be properly cooked. The USDA says you should make sure your turkey has reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit before serving. "Use a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature in three parts: the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing and the innermost part of the thigh," the agency recommends.
And if you're planning to stuff your turkey, know that doing so is not advised. "USDA does not recommend stuffing your turkey because it can be a breeding ground for bacteria if not prepared carefully," the agency explains.
If you're going to stuff your turkey anyway, the USDA says you should keep wet and dry ingredients for the stuffing prepared separately and refrigerated until they're ready to use; stuff the turkey loosely at about three-fourths cup of stuffing per pound of poultry; immediately place your stuffed, raw turkey in the oven at a setting no lower than 325 degrees Fahrenheit; and let your cooked turkey stand for 20 minutes before removing the stuffing.
The USDA also released other Thanksgiving safety tips.
Properly thawing and cooking your Thanksgiving turkey isn't the only thing to be mindful of this holiday. You should also make sure to always wash your hands before preparing and handling food, as well as clean and sanitize equipment to avoid cross contamination, the USDA advises.
According to the agency, recent research has found that 95 percent of people fail to properly wash their hands before handling food. You should be washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, per guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In a 2019 study, the USDA also found that 60 precent of kitchen sinks were contaminated with germs after people had washed or rinsed poultry. "USDA advises against washing your turkey," the agency states. "However, if you do wash your turkey in the sink, it must be fully cleaned and sanitized afterwards. To clean, rub down surfaces—including the sink, cutting boards and counter tops—with soap and hot water, and then sanitize them with a cleaning solution to remove any residual germs."
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Proper preparation and cooking will lessen your risk of a foodborne illness this Thanksgiving.
Raw or undercooked turkey can put you at risk for salmonella infection, according to the CDC. The agency estimates that this bacteria causes about 1.35 million infections, 26,500 hospitalizations, and 420 deaths in the U.S. every year. Just a little bit of extra caution when preparing and cooking items like turkey can prevent you from falling victim to foodborne illnesses from bacteria like Salmonella.
"Thanksgiving is one of my favorite times to remind people about food safety," Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary for the USDA, said in a statement. "I personally know how much effort it takes to prepare a full Thanksgiving meal, and I always ensure I'm following safe food practices like handwashing, using a food thermometer and avoiding cross-contamination."