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Tips to properly prepare turkey, store leftovers

November 22, 2006|by LYNN F. LITTLE

The traditional Thanksgiving menu - turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and sauerkraut - hasn't changed much; however, recommendations for cooking the meal have. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service has eliminated the recommendation for washing raw meat and poultry before placing it in the oven. Eliminating this step reduces the risk of contamination from rinse water being splashed around the sink and on the surrounding countertops, as well as on other foods.

The second recommendation is to cook turkey and other poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. The only sure way to tell if the turkey and other meat products are cooked to recommended temperatures is by using a food thermometer.

Frequently asked questions and tips for preparing your turkey and storing the Thanksgiving leftovers include:

Q: Which is better, fresh or frozen turkey?

A: The taste of fresh and frozen turkeys is comparable.

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Q: How much turkey should I buy?

A: The general rule in buying a bone-in turkey is to allow one pound per person. If additional white meat is preferred, consider buying a larger turkey or an additional turkey breast.

Q: Is there a best way to thaw a frozen turkey?

A: To thaw, place a frozen turkey (in its store wrap) in a shallow pan or on a baking sheet (with a lip to catch drips) in the refrigerator. Allow one day of thawing time for each 4 to 5 pounds of turkey.

Q: Is there a faster way to thaw a frozen turkey?

A: If you have forgotten to put the turkey in the refrigerator to thaw, you can use a cold-water method: Submerge the turkey (in its store wrap) in cold water in a clean, large sink or bathtub. Allow 30 minutes of thawing time per pound. Drain and replace cold water every 30 minutes during the thawing process.

Following the manufacturer's instructions, you can thaw a smaller frozen turkey or turkey breast in a microwave oven. Thawing meat and poultry products in a microwave oven begins the cooking process, which will then need to be continued immediately.

Q: What's in the bag in the neck and/or cavity?

A: Turkey parts, such as the neck or giblets, a word that describes the heart, liver and gizzard (edible parts of the turkey), are typically packaged in a paper bag and placed in the neck or body cavity. The bag should be removed before cooking. The neck can be cooked alongside the turkey. The giblets should be cooked separately and can be used in dressing or gravy.

If you forget to remove the parts before cooking, it is possible to save them. Most giblets are wrapped in an oven-safe paper and will be safe to use. If they are wrapped in plastic, the plastic might melt into the turkey and leave an off odor. If so, the giblets should not be used.

Q: Why a hock lock?

A: The hock lock secures the turkey legs after processing. It can be left on, but removing it allows more even roasting.

Q: Is it possible to cook a turkey from a frozen state?

A: Yes, but according to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, cooking a turkey (in the oven) from a frozen state will take at least 50 percent longer than cooking a fully thawed turkey. The giblet pack will need to be removed (with tongs or a long-handled fork) during cooking time. The USDA does not recommend smoking, grilling, deep-frying or microwaving a whole frozen turkey.

Q: Is it possible to roast a turkey without a roaster?

A: Roasting a turkey requires a large, shallow pan (2 inches deep, for example) that is larger than the turkey (to catch turkey juices). Using a V-rack, which can be purchased with a pan or separately, will lift the turkey up from the bottom of the pan and allow air to circulate in the cooking process. Place the turkey in the pan breast side up; tuck wing tips under the shoulders.

An aluminum foil tent can be used in place of a lid during the first 90 minutes of roasting time to help the heat circulate and, toward the end of cooking, to protect the turkey from over-browning or drying out. Adding a half cup of water to the bottom of the pan also will help keep the turkey from drying out.

Q: What is the recommended roasting time and temperature?

A: Set the oven at 325 degrees and allow 20 minutes per pound. Add 45 minutes for a stuffed turkey, and about 15 to 20 minutes standing time on the countertop for a turkey to finish cooking outside the oven after reaching 165 degrees to make carving easier (keep the turkey covered during holding time). Roasting is a slow process, so it's not necessary to preheat the oven.

Q: How should I use a food thermometer?

A: With a whole turkey, insert the thermometer probe into the innermost part of the thigh and wing, as well as the thickest part of the breast, without touching the bone. With a turkey breast, insert the probe in the thickest part of the breast, being careful not to touch the bone. The USDA recommends a cooked temperature of 165 degrees.

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