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Turkey: Buying, Handling & Thawing

Tips for buying the size turkey you need, handling it safely, and guidelines for thawing it.

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"Sell By" Date

  • Also check for the "sell by" date on the label of a fresh turkey. This date is the last day the turkey should be sold by the retailer.
  • The unopened turkey should maintain its quality and be safe to use for one or two days after the "sell by" date.
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Frozen Turkey

  • If you buy a frozen turkey, look for packaging that is clean, undamaged, and frost-free.

Tip

  • Although not all turkeys are labeled indicating whether the bird is a hen or tom, select a hen turkey if you want more white meat and a tom if you want more dark meat.

Raw poultry can harbor harmful bacteria. To protect yourself and your family from illness caused by these infectious agents, follow these simple guidelines.

Before Cooking

  • Keep it in the fridge. Never marinate or defrost poultry on the counter. Always keep poultry in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook it.
  • Keep it clean. Always wash your hands, work surfaces, the sink, and utensils in hot, soapy water after handling raw poultry, to prevent spreading bacteria to other foods.
  • Cut right. When cutting raw poultry, use a plastic cutting board; it's easier to clean and disinfect than a wooden one.
  • Don't wash the bird. Washing raw poultry is not necessary, and the splashing water may contaminate surrounding objects. In general, the less you handle poultry, the safer it remains.
  • Avoid cross contamination. Never use the same plate or utensils for uncooked and cooked poultry unless you have thoroughly washed them first. This rule applies to basting brushes as well. If you are going to baste the bird, wash the brush each time.
  • Don't stuff it early. If you're planning to stuff the bird, do so immediately before cooking. Never allow the stuffing to touch raw poultry unless you are going to cook both right away.

What Size Bird to Buy

  • When buying a turkey, allow 1 pound per adult serving if the bird weighs 12 pounds or less.
  • For turkeys over 12 pounds, count on 3/4 pound for each serving.
  • For boneless turkey breast, figure 1/2 pound per person.
  • If you want leftovers, buy a bird that's 2 to 4 pounds larger than the size you'll need for serving.

Cooking

  • Heat any marinade or basting sauce that has been in contact with the raw poultry if it is to be served with the cooked poultry. Juices from the uncooked poultry may contain bacteria. Or, before you start basting, set some of the sauce aside to serve with the poultry.

After Cooking

  • Serve poultry immediately after cooking it. Don't let it stand at room temperature longer than two hours, or bacteria will multiply rapidly -- especially in warm weather. Refrigerate leftovers as soon as possible.
  • Reheat wisely. Heat leftover gravy to a rolling boil in a covered saucepan, stirring occasionally, for food-safety assurance.
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