ORONO, Maine — Some of our traditional holiday meal practices pose potential food-safety threats, according to University of Maine Cooperative Extension experts. Consumers should know that turkey should never be thawed on the counter, stuffing a turkey is not recommended, and one should not eat food that has been left sitting out for more than two hours.
“Foodborne illness can be an uninvited guest during the holidays,” says Extension Food Science specialist Beth Calder. She offers food safety tips to ensure a safe holiday season:
ä Buying a turkey. Many people prefer the taste of fresh turkeys, but properly frozen birds will maintain good quality for at least one year. Fresh birds should be purchased no more than one or two days before cooking to ensure best quality, and they should be kept refrigerated until cooking. Frozen birds should be purchased early enough to allow time for safe thawing. Calder recommends avoiding fresh pre-stuffed turkeys. Only buy a pre-stuffed turkey if it is frozen and USDA-approved. Do not thaw it before cooking, and follow the package directions, she says.
ä Thawing a turkey. Never thaw a turkey on the counter at room temperature, Calder said, because bacteria can multiply on the surface of the turkey before the inner turkey completely thaws. There are three ways to safely thaw a frozen turkey — in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave oven. Do not pre-thaw turkeys that are pre-stuffed.
To thaw a turkey in the refrigerator, allow plenty of time — up to three days for a 12-pound turkey, four days for a 16-pound turkey, and five days for a 20-pound turkey. A good guideline is 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of frozen turkey. The optimal refrigerator temperature is 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Keep the turkey in original wrapper, Calder advises, and place it in a drip pan to prevent cross-contamination. A refrigerator-thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for another one to two days, but then must be cooked or refrozen immediately.
To thaw in cold water, place the turkey in a waterproof bag — it is permissible to use the original packaging material provided that there are no tears or holes for water to enter. Submerge the turkey in cold water and change the water every 30 minutes. Allow six hours for a 12-pound turkey, eight hours for a 16-pound turkey or 12 hours for a 20-pound turkey. Cook the turkey immediately after it is completely thawed; do not refreeze.
To thaw in the microwave, check the microwave owner’s manual for recommendations on maximum turkey size, power level and minutes per pound to thaw frozen turkey. Remove the outside wrapper and use a microwave-safe dish. Use the defrost cycle if available. Normally, it takes four to seven minutes per pound to thaw a turkey. Once the turkey is thawed, cook it immediately and do not refreeze.
• Cooking a turkey — Calder recommends against stuffing a turkey. Consumers who decide to stuff the turkey should do so right before cooking — no sooner — and use a meat thermometer to be sure that the stuffing cooks to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cook the turkey all at once, she says. Do not start roasting one day and finish the cooking on another day. Place the bird breast-side-up on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Cover loosely with aluminum foil if the pan does not have a lid with the shiny side in. Set the oven at no less than 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Uncover the turkey approximately 30 minutes before the cooking time is up.
The times below are approximate. It is important to cook a turkey until the internal meat temperature reaches at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a meat thermometer in the innermost parts of the thigh and breast.
• Approximate roasting times range from 2¾ hours for an 8- to 12-pound turkey to five hours for a 24-pound bird.
Calder also offers reminders of basic food safety practices:
• Wash hands often with soap and water.
• Keep cooked and raw foods separate.
• Wash and sanitize cutting boards and food contact surfaces when they come in contact with raw poultry, eggs and meats.
• Keep cold foods cold — below 40 degrees Fahrenheit — and hot foods hot — above 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
• Don’t leave food out for longer than two hours.
Call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 888-674-6854 for information or visit the food safety “virtualrepresentative,” www.fsis.usda.gov/food_safety_education/ask_karen/index.asp#Question.