4 Food Safety Mistakes That Could Spoil Your Thanksgiving Turkey

Make sure you avoid these major mistakes when you're cooking a whole bird.

If you're in charge of making the turkey for Thanksgiving or Christmas, flavor and juiciness aren't the only things that should be of concern. You should also be aware of how to safely prepare, store, and cook your turkey to avoid anyone getting sick at your gathering. These are four common mistakes many home cooks make when it comes to making the holiday bird—and what to do instead.

turkey on a platter with herbs
Blaine Moats

1. Washing the Turkey

According to a recent survey of more than 3,000 U.S. adults by the Water Quality and Health Council, 62% of people wash their birds in the sink—but rinsing the turkey can do some serious harm. The U.S. Department of Agriculture notes that when you wash a turkey, the juices that splash off the skin transfer bacteria to surrounding surfaces, utensils, and even food, causing cross-contamination which can make people very ill. The agency says that it's "virtually impossible to wash bacteria off the bird," and recommends thoroughly washing your hands for 20 seconds with warm, soapy water—before and after handling—instead. If your raw turkey or its juices do come in contact with items in your kitchen, make sure to promptly clean and sanitize those areas.

2. Storing on the Top Shelf

Whether your turkey is fresh or frozen, at some point, it will likely need to go in the refrigerator. However, you shouldn't place the bird just anywhere. The best area to store a turkey is on the bottom shelf, and according to the Water Quality and Health Council's survey, 55% of respondents were unaware of this fact. The problem with putting a turkey on a higher shelf is that the juices, which are full of bacteria, can drip down and contaminate other food. Store it low where it can't drip on other food and place raw turkey in a baking dish with sides to catch leaks (especially if you're defrosting your turkey in the fridge for several days).

3. Not Taking the Temperature

No, you should not wing it when it comes to your turkey's temperature. Before you remove the turkey from the oven, check its internal temperature with a meat thermometer. (We recommend investing in a quality thermometer, such as ThermoPro's Food Thermometer, for $18 on Amazon or OXO Good Grips Leave-In Meat Thermometer, $16, on Amazon.) To check the temperature, insert the thermometer in the center of an inside thigh muscle and make sure you do not hit a bone. Your bird is safe to serve once the internal temperature is at least 175°F (the temperature will rise about 5°F while it stands before carving).

4. Forgetting About Leftovers

Perhaps the best part about large holiday meals is all the leftovers, but if you're not putting away the leftover turkey promptly, you could be spoiling all the extra food. The Water Quality and Health Council's survey found 26% of people leave their turkey out for three or more hours before storing the uneaten meat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bacteria starts to grow on poultry about two hours after it's cooked, so make sure you're putting away the leftovers before then.

Although there are dangers to improperly preparing a turkey, as long as you follow these simple tips, your bird will be both delicious and safe.

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