UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Rinsing a turkey prior to cooking — a ritual used by many when preparing their Thanksgiving bird — seems like a good idea, on the surface.
Yet, it's one of several preparation techniques that can increase the risk of food poisoning, according to a food safety specialist in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.
"Unfortunately, some methods of handling and cooking turkey, which have been passed down from generation to generation, may be setting the table for foodborne illness," said Sharon McDonald, senior extension educator and food safety specialist.
"With turkey serving as the centerpiece of the holiday meal table, it's important to prepare and cook it the right way for an enjoyable and safe experience for all," McDonald said.
She emphasized extra vigilance this year as the Centers for Disease Control investigates a multi-state Salmonella outbreak that has been linked to raw turkey. To date, 135 cases have been reported, resulting in 63 hospitalizations and one death.
To keep your guests safe from food poisoning, McDonald recommends using these research-based safety tips for cooking turkey:
Leaving poultry out on the counter to thaw is "old school" — and dangerous. Folks of a certain age will remember a time when it was common practice to defrost frozen meat by leaving it at room temperature for several hours. Nowadays, we know that is dangerous. Still, variations of that practice exist, including submerging a frozen turkey in hot water overnight.
Here's the cold truth about thawing — the safest way is to place the turkey, in its original wrapping, in a refrigerator set at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing for 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds. So, for example, if you have a 20-pound turkey, you should move it from the freezer to the refrigerator four days before Thanksgiving.
If still not entirely thawed, McDonald said, you can place it in cool water to finish, changing the water every 30 minutes. And, she added, if you neglect to thaw your turkey, all is not lost, because you can cook a frozen turkey, although it will take twice as long.
More stuffing, please. While food safety experts recommend cooking turkey and stuffing separately, most traditionalists want to cook their stuffing inside the bird. McDonald said if you choose to do that, be sure to follow some simple recommendations.
"Most stuffing recipes call for eggs and milk, which are foods that are potentially hazardous if not cooked soon, so prepare your stuffing immediately before placing it in the bird," she said. She also advised that stuffing should not be packed tightly inside the turkey because that can slow heat penetration, thereby increasing the chance that bacteria won't be destroyed.
Your turkey doesn't need a shower. Rinsing a raw bird under the faucet doesn't do much to remove microorganisms that may be present, such as Salmonella and campylobacter bacteria, which can cause illness. In fact, it does more harm than good because the splashing water can spread bacteria on hands, clothes, surrounding surfaces and cooking utensils — all of which can lead to cross contamination of other foods.
What does need to be washed are surfaces and items that come in contact with raw turkey, including your hands. "I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to wash hands before, during and after handling food," McDonald said. "This one small action is one of the biggest ways to prevent food poisoning."
The winning number in the turkey lottery is 165. If you are one of those people who determine whether your turkey is done based on the color of its juices or the darkness of the skin, you are taking a food-safety gamble. Another risky practice — cooking a turkey overnight at a low temperature.
"The only proven method of killing bacteria in poultry is by cooking it to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit," said McDonald. To do that, the turkey should be cooked at a temperature of at least 325 F for the recommended number of hours, based on weight.
To be sure that the meat is fully cooked, she advises inserting a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the bird and in two locations. "If it doesn't read at least 165 degrees, it's not ready," McDonald said, adding that the same goes for stuffing that has been cooking inside of the bird.
And, come Thanksgiving Day, if a turkey crisis arises, cooks are encouraged to contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Hotline toll-free at 888-MPHotline (888-674-6854).
In addition to providing education about food safety for consumers and food-industry personnel, scientists in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences conduct research that helps to ensure the safety of the nation's food supply.
For example, researchers are exploring ways to trace foodborne illness outbreaks more quickly so they can be stopped at the source; studying methods to identify and eliminate antibiotic-resistant pathogens; and developing novel processing technologies to kill bacteria without damaging the food they contaminate.
More food safety tips are available on Penn State Extension's website at https://extension.psu.edu/food-safety-and-processing/home-food-safety.