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Turkey Safety

Our Test Kitchen experts answer the most common questions about safe cooking and handling practices.

Instant (on left) and standard meat thermometers

What is the best way to check for doneness?

Temperature should be your guide to doneness. To assure that the turkey and stuffing have reached a safe temperature, always use a thermometer when you roast turkey. Because there is no visual test for stuffing doneness, the USDA recommends that you not stuff a turkey if you don't have a thermometer.

A meat thermometer measures the internal temperature of foods as they cook. These thermometers can be used for larger cuts of poultry, beef, pork, and other meats. Insert a meat thermometer into the food at the beginning of the cooking time, making sure it is not touching bone. When buying a meat thermometer, look for an easy-to-read dial with a stainless-steel face and shatterproof lens. A meat thermometer can be checked for accuracy by submerging at least 2 inches of the stem in boiling water. It should read 212 degrees F. If the thermometer registers above or below 212 degrees F, add or subtract the same number of degrees from the temperature specified in the recipe and cook to that temperature. Some thermometers have "test" marks at 212 degrees F.

Instant-read thermometers, also known as rapid-response thermometers, measure a wide range of temperatures, typically from 0 to 220 degrees F. These thermometers are not designed to stay in food during cooking. Pull the food out of the oven, then insert the thermometer into the thickest portion of the food, not touching bone or the pan. The temperature should register in about 15 seconds. Instant-read thermometers can also be checked for accuracy with the boiling water test.

What's the best way to thaw a frozen turkey?

The easiest and safest way to thaw a turkey is to place the wrapped bird on a tray in the refrigerator. Plan about 24 hours for each 5 pounds of the bird's weight. Remember not to count the day you will be roasting it. Turkey should never be thawed at room temperature.

Stuffing should reach 165 degrees F.

Can I stuff the turkey the night before I roast it? Can I just make the stuffing and chill it?

It is unsafe to stuff the turkey ahead of time. The chilled stuffing in the turkey will not reach a safe temperature before the turkey is done. To be safe the turkey should reach a temperature of 180 degrees F. and the stuffing in the body cavity of the bird should reach 165 degrees F. It's fine to make the crumbs or bread cubes ahead, but the stuffing should not be completely prepared ahead if it will be used to stuff a turkey. If the stuffing is to be baked in a casserole, it can be prepared in advance and chilled. The baking time will need to be increased by about 15 to 20 minutes.

Do I need to baste a turkey while it's cooking?

Our Test Kitchen doesn't feel that basting today's turkeys is necessary. More importantly, basting tools, such as brushes and bulb basters, could actually be sources of bacteria contamination if dipped into uncooked or undercooked poultry juices, then allowed to sit at room temperature and used later for basting.

I've heard that roasting turkey in a paper grocery bag is really easy and delicious. Is it safe to roast turkey this way?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service, the glue and ink on brown bags are not intended for use as cooking materials and may give off harmful fumes. In addition, brown bags are usually made from recycled materials and are not sanitary.

Can I roast a turkey overnight in an oven set at a low temperature?

No. Roasting a turkey at a temperature below 325 degrees F allows harmful bacteria to multiply. These are the bacteria that can cause food poisoning and may be present on the raw turkey. Fortunately, they are easily destroyed with proper cooking techniques. Roasting the turkey at 325 degrees F kills the bacteria yet produces meat that is moist and tender.

I have lots of turkey and stuffing left over. What should I do with it?

Before carving your turkey, be sure to remove all stuffing. The leftover stuffing can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. After dinner remove all meat from the carcass (this should be done within 2 hours of the turkey's removal from oven). Leftover turkey can be refrigerated and used within 2 days, or frozen in small portions. Be sure to label and date the wrapped packages and use within 6 months. Leftover turkey can be used in any recipe calling for cooked chicken or turkey. Stuffing must be heated to at least 160 degrees F.

How long can I keep leftover gravy?

Leftover gravy should be kept no longer than 2 days. Always bring leftover gravy to a full boil before serving.

Why do recipes say to spoon the stuffing into turkey loosely?

Stuffing will expand as it roasts. If stuffing is too tightly packed, it will not reach a safe temperature by the time the turkey is done.

How to Use a Meat Thermometer

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