Preparing a safe Thanksgiving meal

As families gather for Thanksgiving, it is especially important not to forget food safety. Whether the Thanksgiving meal centers around a turkey, ham, roast or some other dish, cooks should make sure food-borne illness is not an invited guest. By following four basic food safety practices everyone can reduce the risk of food-borne illness.

Keep hands and all food preparation surfaces clean, don’t cross-contaminate food-borne bacteria from one food to another, cook to proper temperatures, and refrigerate perishable foods quickly after eating. These tips are part of the “Fight BAC!” food safety education program to help reduce the incidence of food-borne illness. To help reduce food-borne illness chances you should:

Store the turkey: Buy a fresh turkey no more than two days ahead of the big meal and make sure you have adequate storage space in the refrigerator.

If a frozen turkey is the choice, you can safely defrost it in the refrigerator, allowing 24 hours for every 5 pounds. Check that the original bag is not broken, to prevent raw juices from coming in contact with other foods. Also, the turkey can be thawed in cold running water not more than 70 degrees. Cook immediately.

Cook the turkey: For safety and doneness, the internal temperature of the turkey must reach 180 degrees in the thigh. Set the oven temperature to 325 degrees. Use a meat thermometer to be sure the correct internal temperature is reached and to prevent overcooking. A meat thermometer should be used even in turkeys that have pop-up temperature indicators to ensure a safe temperature of 180 degrees.

To stuff or not to stuff: The safest way to cook the stuffing is separate from the turkey. But whether the stuffing is cooked inside or outside of the turkey, it must reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees. If the turkey is stuffed, mix ingredients just prior to filling the cavity. Stuff loosely to help ensure safe, even cooking. Remember, the turkey must reach 180 degrees, while the stuffing must cook to at least 165 degrees.

Approximate cooking times:

Unstuffed: 8-12 pounds cook for two and three fourths to three hours; 12-14 pounds cook for 3 to three and three fourths hours; 14-18 pounds cook for three and three fourths to four and one fourths hours; 18-20 pounds four and one fourths to four and a half hours; 20-24 pounds cook four and a half to 5 hours.

Angela Treadaway is a regional extension agent with the Shelby County Extension Service. She can be reached by e-mail at TREADAS@aces.edu.