Turkey TV aficionados may recall a scene from a 2001 episode of The West Wing where fictional US President Jed Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, calls the Butterball Hotline in an attempt to settle a disagreement with a member of his staff over whether stuffing can be safely cooked inside a turkey or if it’s a recipe for a food-borne illness disaster: “If I cook it inside the turkey,” an exasperated Bartlet asks the hotline operator, “is there a chance I could kill my guests? I’m not saying that’s necessarily a deal breaker.”
It’s not just funny scripted television. Cooking stuffing inside your turkey can be dangerous if you don’t do it the right way. If you cook stuffing inside the turkey, use a food thermometer to ensure the center of the stuffing reaches a minimum temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Even if the turkey itself has reached the safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit as measured in the innermost part of the thigh, the wing and the thickest part of the breast, the stuffing may not have reached a temperature high enough to destroy bacteria that may be present. If your stuffing contains ingredients that require a higher safe temperature, such as sausage or oysters, cook those ingredients separately ahead of time.
To keep your Thanksgiving guests happy and healthy, check out these five tips for a food safe Thanksgiving, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Tip 1: Don’t wash your turkey. Washing raw meat and poultry can spread bacteria around to other food preparation surfaces up to three feet away. Cooking the turkey to the right temperature will kill any bacteria, meaning washing the turkey is unnecessary.
Tip 2: Use the refrigerator, the cold-water method or the microwave to defrost a frozen turkey. Thawing the turkey in the refrigerator is the safest method because it will defrost at a consistent, safe temperature. It will take approximately 24 hours for every 5 pounds of weight for a turkey to thaw in the refrigerator – so if you’re working with a 20-pound bird, you’ll want to move it from the freezer to the fridge four of five days prior to cooking.
To thaw in cold water, submerge the turkey in its original wrapper in cold tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes, and never use hot or warm water as it will promote bacteria growth.
Refer to your microwave’s owner’s manual for instructions on microwave defrosting.
Tip 3: A food thermometer is your friend. The best way to determine if your turkey is fully cooked but not overdone is to check the internal temperature with a food thermometer. Your thermometer should read 165 degrees Fahrenheit in the thickest part of the breast, innermost part of the wing, and innermost part of the thigh.
Tip 4: Don’t store food outside, even if it’s cold. It’s unlikely this will be a White Thanksgiving for many places in California, but, even with snow on the ground, it’s not a good idea to store food outside. A plastic food storage container in the sun can heat up to temperatures that promote bacterial growth, and animals can get into food stored outside, consuming or contaminating it. If refrigerator space is at a premium, use a cooler with ice to keep extra food at a safe temperature, under 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Tip 5: Leftovers are good in the refrigerator for up to four days. Leftovers should be refrigerated within 2 hours of coming out of the oven and will last for four days in the refrigerator. If you know you won’t use them right away, pack them into freezer bags or airtight containers and freeze. For best quality, use your leftover turkey within four months. Beyond that, the leftovers will still be safe, but can dry out or lose flavor.
There are no statistics on food-related illnesses stemming from Thanksgiving dinner, but the USDA estimates that 1 in 6 Americans – nearly 55 million people! – suffer from a food-borne illness each year. If the worst happens to you, contact your doctor if you show signs of dehydration or if symptoms persist for more than a few days. You can check to make sure your doctor is licensed at the websites for the Medical Board of California or the Osteopathic Medical Board of California.
For more information, visit the USDA’s Thanksgiving food safety page.