Turkey 101: How to cook a turkey
There’s a big cooking day coming up next Thursday, and you want to plan ahead. So you’ve already bought your fresh turkey.
But then all those pesky food-safety stories come out, and they say you shouldn’t buy a fresh turkey before next Tuesday.
The fresh-turkey question is coming up more often this year. Fresh is in, and more people want fresh turkeys than those frozen bowling balls. But that’s causing confusion. So we asked state and federal food safety experts to explain.
“The official guideline we tell consumers is that if you’re going to buy a fresh turkey, you do it only one or two days before you plan to cook it,” says Tina Hanes, the team leader for the USDA’s Meat & Poultry Hotline. “Some stores allow you to pre-order it. If they do, don’t pick it up before Tuesday.”
No, it isn’t convenient. But it’s reality.
The issue with keeping a fresh, raw turkey in your refrigerator for more than a couple of days isn’t the pathogens that cause food poisoning, says Ben Chapman, the N.C. State University food-safety extension specialist. The problem is spoiled meat.
“You’re going to get off-flavors, off-smells,” he says. Those aren’t necessarily dangerous, “but it’s going to ruin your Thanksgiving. It’s not going to be good.”
Hanes says the hotline, at 888-674-6854, get calls like that every year. Someone unwraps their fresh turkey on Thursday morning and it smells like rotten eggs, or it’s slimy or sticky instead of just wet.
“Poultry is very perishable,” she says. “You don’t want a disaster on Thursday morning.”
The pathogens that cause spoiled meat won’t make you as sick as the ones that cause foodborne illnesses like salmonella, but they won’t taste good, either.
“Who wants to eat a spoiled turkey?” says Hanes. “It’s not going to be appetizing.”
So why can stores sell fresh turkeys so long in advance? The answer is refrigeration: Stores keep fresh meat in coolers that are colder than your refrigerator at home. Their coolers also are inspected and maintained, so they know exactly how cold they are.
Home refrigerators may be a little warmer than the 41 degrees required to keep meat longer without spoiling. You’re also opening and closing the door a lot, which lets the cold air out.
“The confusion comes because the stores are thinking from their perspective,” says Hanes. “They can keep them much longer. Every consumer’s refrigerator is a little different. In the home kitchen, we have to be a little more conservative. People cooking in a home kitchen aren’t food-safety experts.”
On Thanksgiving, we also cook for a wide variety of people. A healthy adult can eat something spoiled and get nothing more than a stomach ache. An elderly person, a small child, or someone with a medical condition could get much sicker.
So if you’re buying your fresh turkey this weekend, what should you do? You can stretch the time a little by putting it in a refrigerator that isn’t opened often, and by putting it in the coldest area, which tends to be at the back on a lower shelf. Put it on a pan or dish with an edge, to catch any juices that might leak out.
If you really want to be safe, though, there’s one thing that will definitely help: Freeze it for a couple of days, then start thawing it next week.
Yep, sorry: Your fresh turkey will still need to be a frozen turkey.
Cook it safely
The bacteria that cause serious foodborne illnesses are just as likely to be on an unspoiled turkey as a spoiled one. So even if a turkey is very fresh, you still need to make sure you cook it correctly and don’t cross-contaminate by letting anything uncooked come in contact with raw poultry.
For questions, call the USDA’s Meat & Poultry Hotline, 888-674-6854, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays or 8 a.m.-2 p.m. on Thanksgiving.
For food-safety fact sheets from the USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection Service, go to www.fsis.usda.gov.
For videos on how to prepare and cook a turkey safely, such as the one here on using a thermometer, go to www.youtube.com and search on “NC State Food Safety at Thanksgiving.”