You're probably familiar with some of the basic Thanksgiving turkey mistakes, like forgetting to thaw your frozen bird ahead of time or not letting it rest after it's cooked. But many people are still making a sneaky turkey-cooking mistake that can actually make them (and their dinner guests) sick. The mistake in question? Stuffing the turkey.
If you add stuffing to the center cavity of the bird, it takes the longest amount of time to cook (read: when your bird reaches an internal temperature of 165°F, your stuffing will likely be undercooked). The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service says that the turkey and stuffing should both reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F: "Do not remove the stuffing from the turkey before it reaches 165°F because the undercooked stuffing could contaminate the cooked meat."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also notes, "Bacteria can survive in stuffing that has not reached 165°F and may then cause food poisoning." According to the CDC, the bacteria Clostridium perfringens can grow in foods kept at an unsafe temperature and cause symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting and stomach cramps. C. perfringens is also the second most common cause of food poisoning, and research shows that outbreaks tend to occur most during the holiday months.
According to the CDC, "Cooking stuffing separately from the turkey in a casserole dish makes it easy to be sure it is thoroughly cooked." We may be partial, but we're big fans of making our Simple Herb Stuffing, Caramelized Onion & Apple Stuffing or Classic Slow-Cooker Stuffing on Thanksgiving.
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The CDC notes that it's possible to safely cook stuffing inside of your turkey, but our Test Kitchen advises against it (by the time your stuffing reaches a CDC-approved internal temp of 165°F, your turkey meat is likely going to be overcooked and dry). However, if you really want to cook your stuffing inside the turkey, here are some safety tips to abide by, according to the FSIS.
Prepare your stuffing safely: If you plan to use meat or shellfish in your stuffing, cook it ahead of time to reduce the risk of foodborne illness from the bacteria found in raw ingredients. The wet ingredients for stuffing can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated until ready to use.
Do not mix wet and dry ingredients: Wait to mix them until just before stuffing your turkey. If your stuffing is prepared ahead of time, cook it immediately and refrigerate it in shallow containers. Do not stuff your turkey with cooked stuffing.
Stuff your turkey loosely: The general rule, according to the USDA, is using ¾ cup of stuffing per pound of turkey. The stuffing should be loosely packed and moist, since heat destroys bacteria faster in a moist environment.
Only stuff turkeys that are going to be roasted: Don't stuff turkeys that are going to be grilled, smoked, fried or microwaved.
Cook at high heat: Your stuffed, raw turkey should be roasted in an oven set no lower than 325°F.
Let it rest: Let your cooked turkey stand for at least 20 minutes before removing the stuffing and carving.
Refrigerate after cooking: Don't let your turkey or stuffing stay out for more than 2 hours after cooking. Place leftovers in shallow containers and use within 3 to 4 days of cooking. Reheat leftovers to an internal temperature of 165°F.
The Bottom Line
To avoid contamination, your best bet is to cook your stuffing separate from your turkey. We have plenty of tips for making the best homemade stuffing and delicious stuffing recipes to inspire you. However, if you're set on using a family recipe that calls for stuffing your bird, follow these tips to keep everyone safe this holiday season.