Turkey Handling, Safety & Storage

Contamination Prevention | Cooking Safety | Proper Storage

Contamination Prevention

Shopping

When shopping for fresh turkey, make sure it is among the last items selected so that the length of time it is without refrigeration is as short as possible. This will help reduce the growth of harmful bacteria on the turkey between the time when it is purchased and when it is placed in the refrigerator at home. If the turkey is without refrigeration for more than an hour, because of the travel time from the market, a cooler with ice should be used to transport it, and any other perishable items, for the duration of the travel time. This is also true with frozen turkey as it may begin to thaw if it is away from the freezer compartment for more than an hour.

Avoid purchasing a fresh turkey that has been placed too high in an open refrigeration case in a food store. The temperature of the turkey may not be low enough to prevent the rapid growth of harmful bacteria. Any temperature between 40°F and 140°F is considered unsafe for storing turkey. If a frozen turkey is purchased, it should be placed in the home freezer compartment as soon as possible.

Cleanliness

It is important to follow the basic rules of cleanliness when preparing turkey. Work surfaces, dishes, and utensils should be washed thoroughly with soap and hot water after using them. Bleach can be used as a disinfectant for cutting boards and other work surfaces or an antibacterial spray may be used. When taste testing food, do not use the same utensil that was used during preparation and be sure that a clean spoon or fork is used for each taste to eliminate the spread of germs. Beware of kitchen washcloths and towels that have been used on multiple surfaces because they can spread germs. Use paper towels or other disposable cloths whenever possible.

Cross Contamination

The following points should be considered to reduce the risk of cross contamination when preparing turkey:

  • Various types of foods should be kept separate from each other during storage and preparation. Never store ready to eat foods next to raw meats. Bacteria that may be present on raw turkey may contaminate the ready to eat foods.

  • It is very important to wash your hands often during food preparation to avoid transferring harmful bacteria from one food item to the next. If you were handling raw turkey, for example, you would want to wash your hands thoroughly before chopping vegetables to reduce the risk of transferring bacteria from the turkey to the vegetables.

  • If cutting boards are used in your kitchen, it is a good idea to use one for meats and a different one for fruits and vegetables. Cutting surfaces made from tempered glass are safer to use because you don't have to worry about cracks and pores harboring bacteria as you do with wood or plastic surfaces. Tempered glass surfaces are also the easiest to clean. Regardless of the material they are made from, cutting boards should be cleaned thoroughly after each use.

  • The knife that was used to cut raw turkey should not be used to chop vegetables unless the knife has been washed thoroughly first.

  • When serving cooked turkey, do not place it on the plate that contained the raw meat.

Note: Foodborne illness, resulting from turkey that has been improperly handled or undercooked, may not have a similar effect on everyone. Young children, the elderly, and people with chronic illnesses are the most susceptible to foodborne illnesses. The bacteria that cause the illness may not make a person sick until several days after eating the affected food and by that time the illness is usually thought of as being the result of some other cause.


Thawing

The following points should be considered to reduce the risk of contamination when thawing turkey:

  • When thawing turkey in cold water, make sure the water is very cold and if the original wrapper has any punctures or tears in it, the turkey should be placed in another plastic bag and sealed. The water must be changed every 30 minutes.

  • Do not allow turkey to reach room temperature before it is cooked, as this can promote the growth of harmful bacteria. Turkey should be cooked as soon as possible after its removal from refrigeration.

  • Raw turkey that has been thawed should never be refrozen because this increases the risk of food poisoning when the meat is finally used.

  • Turkey that has been thawed in the microwave must be cooked immediately after thawing. Do not place the turkey back in the refrigerator with the intention of cooking it at a later time. The defrosting process in the microwave may create hot spots on areas of the turkey that will promote the growth of bacteria, which requires that the turkey be cooked immediately.

  • A frozen prestuffed turkey should not be thawed before it is cooked because bacteria can rapidly multiply in the stuffing while the turkey is defrosting.

Stuffing

The following points should be considered to reduce the risk of contamination when stuffing turkey:

  • NEVER stuff the turkey in advance. The stuffing may promote the rapid growth of harmful bacteria. Always cook the turkey immediately after stuffing.

  • Stuffing that is placed inside the turkey is often undercooked because many cooks do not allow for the extra cooking time required for a stuffed bird. This increases the chances of food poisoning. Always use a meat thermometer to verify that the temperature of the stuffing has reached a minimum of 165°F.

  • Consider cooking the stuffing separate from the turkey. The stuffing can be placed in a baking dish which reduces the risk of bacterial growth in the body cavity of the turkey and also allows the turkey to cook faster.

  • All of the stuffing should be removed from the turkey after it is cooked.

  • Leftover cooked stuffing should be refrigerated and used within 1 to 2 days and should never be frozen for use at a later date.

  • Leftover stuffing that has been cooked inside the turkey should be reheated to a minimum temperature of 165°F.

Cooking Safety

Doneness

A turkey should be roasted at a temperature ranging from 325°F to 350°F. Higher temperatures may cause the meat to dry out, but this is preferable to temperatures that are too low which may not allow the interior of the turkey to cook to the proper temperature. Roasting a turkey for long periods at a temperature of less than 300°F is dangerous and may cause food poisoning.

Some cooks have the mistaken idea that time can be saved by partially roasting a turkey and placing it back into the refrigerator so that less time will be required for roasting on the day the meal will be served. This is a dangerous practice, which encourages harmful bacteria to multiply at a very rapid rate, resulting in food poisoning. Once begun, the cooking process should be allowed to continue until the turkey is cooked to the proper internal temperature.

A meat thermometer should be used to determine the correct doneness. When the interior of the breast meat reaches 170°F and the interior of the thigh reaches 180°F, the turkey is properly cooked. When the meat is pierced with a fork, the juices will run clear. Some whole turkeys are sold with pop-up timers that indicate when the turkey is fully cooked, but a meat thermometer is still the most reliable tool for determining the proper doneness. If the turkey is done cooking before you are ready to serve it, it is safe to keep it in a 200°F oven for a short period. It is best to cover the turkey with aluminum foil during the holding period to keep it from drying out.

The internal temperature of the breast
meat should be a minimum of 170°F.



Note: The meat near the bones of a turkey (or any poultry) may still look a bit pink even if a meat thermometer indicates that the turkey is fully cooked. This is because younger turkeys have bones that are more porous than older turkeys, which allows red pigment to leach out from the bones to the nearby meat during the cooking process. The turkey is safe to eat as long as the internal temperature of the breast meat has reached 170°F or higher and the thigh meat is 180°F or higher and the juices run clear.


Deep-Frying Safety

The type of method used for cooking turkey may also pose a danger if it is not properly performed. Deep-frying is becoming a popular method for cooking whole turkeys, but extreme care is necessary to ensure safety. Because the required equipment can be cumbersome and the large quantity of hot oil necessary for cooking a whole bird can be dangerous, deep-frying a whole turkey is much less safe than deep-frying food on a smaller scale. It is important to note that Underwriters Laboratories has refused to certify any turkey deep-frying equipment because of the dangers involved. Listed below are some important points to consider when deep-frying turkey:

  • Because of the size of the cooking equipment and the large quantity of oil required, deep-frying a whole turkey should never be attempted indoors. Pieces of turkey meat can be safely deep-fried indoors using using traditional equipment such as a small pot on a stove top.

  • When purchasing a deep-fryer designed for cooking whole turkeys, make sure the model has a solid base that will hold the cooking pot firmly. Models with tripod legs should be avoided because they can easily tip.

  • The pot must be large enough to accommodate the turkey, but not so large that it becomes wobbly on the heating surface.

  • Do not overfill the pot with oil. When the turkey is placed into the pot, the oil may spill over the sides and ignite on the heating unit.

  • The temperature of the oil should be closely watched. If the oil overheats, it may ignite.

  • If the turkey is not thawed completely when it is inserted into the hot oil, it may cause the oil to spill over because of the reaction of the hot oil to the frozen bird.

  • Any utensils and equipment that come into contact with the hot oil must be dried thoroughly first. Moisture on the utensils will cause splattering when brought into contact with the hot oil, which can be dangerous.

  • Make sure the turkey is as dry as possible before it enters the hot oil.

  • The deep-frying equipment should be used a safe distance from all combustible substances. Never place the cooker on a deck, near any building, or on a table.

  • The hot oil should not be left unattended and children and pets should NEVER be allowed near the cooking area.

  • A fire extinguisher and heavy potholders should always be within reach.

  • After the cooking is completed, the oil should not be transferred to another container or disposed of until it has cooled completely. It is extremely dangerous to pour the oil from the cooking vessel until it has cooled. Several hours may be required for the large quantity of oil to cool properly.

Proper Storage

Fresh Turkey

A fresh whole turkey or fresh turkey parts may be stored in the refrigerator at 33°F to 40°F for 1 or 2 days before cooking. It is best to place turkey products in the coldest part of the refrigerator, which is usually the meat drawer or the bottom shelf.

Make sure any juices from raw turkey do not come in contact with any other food items. Packaged raw turkey parts can be placed on a plate in the refrigerator to ensure that none of the juices drip onto any other food items. A whole fresh turkey should be left in the original packaging until it is ready to cook. It can also be placed on a tray or in a pan in the refrigerator in case there are punctures or tears in the packaging.

If fresh turkey needs to be stored longer than 1 or 2 days, it must be frozen; otherwise, it may begin to spoil in the refrigerator before it is scheduled to be roasted. A whole fresh turkey should be left in its original wrapper and may be stored for 6 months in the freezer compartment if the temperature is at 0°F or lower. If the original wrapping is torn or punctured, the turkey should be rewrapped in heavy-duty freezer paper or aluminum foil. Raw turkey parts should be rewrapped with freezer paper or aluminum foil and may be stored in the freezer for up to 3 months. Turkey parts do not keep as long as a whole turkey because there is more surface area exposed to bacteria.

If fresh turkey is improperly stored in the freezer it may become discolored and dehydrated. This is known as freezer burn. Exposure to the cold, dry air of the freezer compartment can cause moisture loss, especially if the turkey is packaged incorrectly and/or stored in the freezer for an excessive length of time. It is best to leave whole fresh turkeys in the original packaging unless it is torn. Turkey parts should be removed from the original wrapping and rewrapped before placing them in the freezer for long-term storage. A layer of plastic wrap followed by a layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil works well as protection against freezer burn. Heavy white freezer paper is another alternative for protecting the meat. It is important to note that freezing fresh turkey may affect the flavor, texture, and appearance of the meat if it is stored too long in the freezer.

Commercially Frozen Turkey

A turkey that was flash frozen by the processor, may be stored in the home freezer and safely prepared up to 3 years after the original freeze date, however storing it for longer than a year may result in reduced quality when the bird is prepared, but it will still be safe to eat. The possibility of freezer burn could affect the moistness, flavor, and texture of the turkey. Turkey that is flash frozen by the processor will have little difference in quality compared to fresh turkey because commercial freezing is a much faster process than home freezing, resulting in turkey that retains most of its original quality.

Cooked Turkey

Leftover cooked turkey meat must be removed from the bones as soon as possible after the meal and refrigerated promptly. Wings and legs may be refrigerated without removing the meat from the bones, but any remaining meat on the body must be removed especially if the turkey has been stuffed. Any leftover meat that has been in contact with the stuffing should be discarded if it is not used within a day or two. If the leftover turkey is to be frozen, then all of the bones should be removed, including the wing and leg bones.

Cooked turkey should not be kept away from refrigeration longer than 2 hours after cooking. Cooked food left at room temperature for more than two hours should be discarded. Temperatures between 40°F and 140°F allow bacteria to grow rapidly, which means that hot foods should be kept hot (above 140°F) and cold foods should be kept cold (below 40 °F). Cooked turkey that is properly refrigerated should be used within 3 or 4 days. If this is not possible, the leftover turkey may be tightly wrapped in freezer paper or aluminum foil and placed in the freezer where it may be kept for 3 to 4 months.

Stuffing and Gravy

Leftover stuffing may be kept in the refrigerator for 1 or 2 days and should never be frozen for later use. If it is not used within 1 or 2 days, it should be discarded. When reheating, the stuffing should be allowed to reach a temperature of not less than 165°F. Leftover gravy may be refrigerated safely for 1 or 2 days and it should be boiled before serving.

Additional Tips

Listed below are additional tips that should be considered when storing turkey:

  • Placing leftovers in shallow containers in the refrigerator allows leftover cooked food to cool more quickly.

  • If you have a large quantity of leftover cooked turkey, it may be best to store some of it in the freezer as soon as possible.

  • Leftover turkey should not be frozen after it has been in the refrigerator for several days because it will have deteriorated in quality beyond the point that is safe for long term storage.

  • When eating outdoors, food should not be consumed that has been without refrigeration for more than an hour, especially in hot weather.

  • In order to reduce the risk of foodborne illness, it is important to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.

  • Poultry products and all raw meat inspected by the USDA will have information on the label regarding proper handling and storage.

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