Since Sarah Polk, wife of President James K. Polk, hosted the first traditional White House Thanksgiving dinner featuring a turkey, the turkey has remained as the symbol of our Thanksgiving celebration. Once put forward as our national bird (somehow just wouldn’t be quite the same as an eagle), the humble turkey began in this country as a wild bird is now the main star of holiday dinners. The average American consumes 14.7 pounds of turkey per day, with some attempting to eat their quota on Thanksgiving Day.
The turkey is an affordable, nutritious and delicious addition to our dinner table. It can be used for meals well beyond Thanksgiving Day, substituting for chicken in nearly any dish. Watch for sales on this well loved bird and put an extra one in the freezer for later on! Turkeys store well in the freezer for at least a year without loss of quality. After that time, if remaining solidly frozen, they can safely be consumed but will lose some quality.
As much as we love turkey, those big old birds do come with a few caveats. Safe food handling is critical to enjoying the holiday season without being forced to extend your holiday gathering to include medical personnel. Before our mandatory annual review of safe turkey handling, let us just quickly move past the old, “My mother did it this way for years as did her mother..blah, blah, blah.” Okay, so you all survived Mom’s questionable kitchen habits-good for you! But, why play Russian roulette when we now know better? Set the rationalizing aside and let’s discuss how to keep your holiday dinner something to be thankful for!
If you wish to purchase a fresh turkey–that is one that isn’t frozen at the store and should have never been frozen–purchase it only a day or two before the ‘Big Day’. Add it to your shopping cart LAST, keep it on the bottom rack of the cart and make certain the bagger places Mr. Tom in his own bag. If it is a large bird, have them double bag it so that Tom doesn’t leak on his way home.
Once home, keep the original wrapper on the bird and place in a pan such as a large cake pan. Store Tom Turkey, with his tray, on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator. Keep it there until you are ready to pop it in the oven. Wash your hands thoroughly after you have the turkey safely stowed in the refrigerator.
NEVER buy a fresh, not frozen stuffed turkey. Bad idea! Harmful bacteria can multiple rapidly in the stuffing and transfer to the meat. There are safely prepared frozen, pre-stuffed turkeys but be certain that they are stamped with a USDA stamp of approval.
If you wish to begin with a frozen turkey, plan well how to defrost that bird. The safest method for defrosting is to leave the frozen bird in the refrigerator to thaw slowly. Times for defrosting vary from 1 or 2 days for a 4 to 6 pound turkey all the way up to 6 days for a BIG bird of 20lb or more. A thawed turkey may remain safely in your refrigerator for up to 2 days. SO, if you are planning on serving a big turkey this year, purchase it late this week and settle it into the refrigerator.
NEVER ever leave the turkey sitting out on the counter, on the garage floor or in a bucket to thaw. You can thaw a bird by placing it in water less than 70F, but the water has to be changed every 30 minutes. With a big bird, this can still take more than a day.
Keep your turkey isolated. Think of them as germ-laden shy birds that need to be kept away from all other food products. Clean all surfaces with a disinfectant that the bird is going to touch or does touch. Wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling that raw bird. Do not re-use a cutting board or knife that has been using on a raw turkey.
Don’t cook a half-thawed bird. Remember to check both turkey cavities for packages of ‘extras’ and giblets. These need to be removed before roasting.
Next, we’ll tackle that sensitive subject of stuffing. The cavity of a turkey calls to cooks everywhere to stuff something in it. For generations, Americans suffered post-Thanksgiving stomach ‘bugs’ due to insisting on sticking old bread and assorted stuff inside their turkeys bodies and then eating that innard stuffing. If that doesn’t gross you out, understand that the blood and other fluids of the turkey seep into that conglomeration of old bread, veggies and what-not. Once there, the bacteria rapidly multiple as the rest of the bird cooks. Being buried in the deepest cavities of the turkey, the internal temperature of that stuffing is difficult to raise to much less maintain a temperature of more than 165F which is the point at which most food borne yuckies are killed off. It is much, much safer to just stuff that big old cavity with some cut up vegetables & fruits (try celery, onions, carrots, apples, oranges and some spices) plus some butter and let the turkey cook safely. The flavor will be great and you can even use slightly limp vegetables, the leafy bits off the celery that no one will eat, mushy apples-anything that isn’t rotten. If you want the white meat really moist and don’t care to present your turkey at the table ala Ozzie & Harriet, cook it with the breast down in the pan.
For you hard-headed types who are going to insist on stuffing something you will later eat into every orifice of your turkey, at least use a reliable meat thermometer to be certain that the most interior part of your stuffing is above 165F. Making certain that you are in the middle of the stuffing is slightly problematic, but go ahead if you insist. Any meat or vegetable product used in the making of your innards stuffing must be cooked prior to being included in the stuffing.
You smart folks who would rather sit around your living room than the emergency room, cook your stuffing separately and be thankful that you won’t be utilizing your medical insurance on Thanksgiving.
Do NOT cook your turkey below 325F. Below that temperature, parts of Tom Turkey are going to cook too slowly to thoroughly eradicate the Bad Guys before they have a chance to multiple.
When you think the bird is ready to eat, double check with a meat thermometer at a deep part of the turkey such as in the thigh joint (where the thigh meets the body). Even if the bird has a pop-up “I’m Ready!” button, double check for yourself.
You can safely let the turkey sit for 20 minutes before carving. Depending on the temperature of your home, don’t let the leftovers sit at room temperature more than two hours before refrigerating them. Timing begins the moment you take it out of the oven!
Package leftovers in small packages so that they chill quickly. Too much to be eaten within a few days? Slap some turkey and gravy in ziploc bags to store in the freezer for later meals. Yum!
If you are terribly clever and want to get a head start on a safe and delicious Thanksgiving meal, try this approach to making copious amounts of gravy:
This week purchase a package or two of turkey legs or wings. In a roasting pan, add cut up veggies (such as carrots, onions, celery, etc) to the turkey parts. Sprinkle everything with some salt and pepper, and/or poultry seasoning. Roast until well browned and very nearly cooked, uncovered, at 350F. Remove the turkey parts and veggies temporarily. Add several cups of water and scrape off all of the ‘brown bits’ on the side of the pan into the water. DO NOT THROW AWAY THE WATER! You are attempting to get all of that brown goodness into your stock!
Now, return the meat and veggies to the pan. Add enough water to cover all of the meat and veggies, plus several inches. Return to oven and roast for several more hours. Don’t let the water evaporate, add more if necessary. When everything smells super yummy and the meat is falling off the bones, strain it all through a colander into another container.
Now, cool this liquid and place into a freezer container or freezer bag. Label and stick in the freezer. On Thanksgiving, retrieve this bag and allow to thaw in the refrigerator (this might take over night if you have a big bag).
When it is time to make gravy, add a couple of tablespoons of flour and some cornstarch to your stock. Pour this concoction into the pan in which you roasted your turkey, scraping off the brown bits from the side. Add water and spices to taste. Enjoy really good gravy!
Have a healthy, happy, food poisoning-free Thanksgiving!
P.S. Don’t forget to check the sales flyers from your local grocery stores! Most of the ingredients for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner are on sale and often have coupons. Stock up on staples that you will use throughout the year.