A number of frozen turkeys for sale at Market Basket in Biddeford on Tuesday. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends defrosting turkeys in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave. ALAN BENNETT/Journal Tribune

A number of frozen turkeys for sale at Market Basket in Biddeford on Tuesday. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends defrosting turkeys in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave. ALAN BENNETT/Journal Tribune

BIDDEFORD — Millions of Americans across the country will break out their aprons on Thursday, as they prepare to mash potatoes and bake bread for their Thanksgiving feasts.

But preparing the star of the show, the turkey, can be a daunting task for many home cooks. And, if done improperly, you could be putting you and your family at risk of food borne illness.

“Every year we estimate 48 million people — that’s 1 in 6 Americans — will get food borne illness,” said Marianne Gravely, senior technical information specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “With Thanksgiving in particular, not only is it the biggest meal of the year, but the turkey is probably the biggest thing any person will ever prepare.”

And if you’re already nervous about roasting off the big bird, the risks could be even greater. Gravely, who specializes in food safety, said those not-so-confident cooks can become fazed with making everything perfect that they inadvertently engage in behaviors that could spread bacteria such as Salmonella and Campylobacter, which are harmful food borne illnesses.

Fortunately, Gravely said, there are a number of precautions people can take to limit the spread of bacteria and maximize their holiday fun with company:

  • Don’t wash the turkey. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates about 68 percent of people wash their whole turkeys before cooking. The USDA doesn’t recommend this, because bacteria can be spread up to three feet away during washing.

Gravely also said it’s very important that people wash their hands before and after handling all food — especially meat — with hot, soapy water for at least 20 seconds to rid the skin of harmful bacteria. She said a recent Kansas State University study showed the kitchen towel is one of the dirtiest surfaces in the kitchen, and it’s because people tend to “splash and dash,” instead of thoroughly washing their hands.

  • Use the refrigerator, cold water or the microwave to defrost a frozen turkey.

“Food poisoning bacteria grows rapidly at temperatures above 40 degrees — in fact it doubles every 20 minutes — so thawing food safely is very important,” Gravely said.

The USDA recommends three ways to safely defrost a frozen turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave oven. Gravely said thawing food in the refrigerator is the safest method because the turkey will defrost at a consistent, safe temperature. Most units are kept at or below 40 degrees, she said. When thawing in the refrigerator, you should allow a full 24 hours of defrosting time for every five pounds of your turkey’s weight.

The bird can also be thawed in its original wrapper in a bath of cold water. Submerge the turkey in cold tap water and change the water every 30 minutes; Gravely said this can take about six hours. The USDA recommends referring to your microwave’s owner’s manual for defrosting turkeys.

If you absolutely do not have the time, Gravely said there is hope for you yet.

“You don’t have to panic — you can cook a turkey from the frozen state, just at one and a half times the normal cooking time,” she said.

  • Do use a meat thermometer.

The only true way of knowing your turkey is cooked properly is to take its temperature with a food thermometer. Gravely said home cook methods of knowing when a bird is done, either by touch or seeing when the juices run clear, are not always effective.

“Appearance is not a reliable indicator of doneness,” she said. “The thermometer is important.”

The USDA recommends checking a turkey in three places to check for doneness: the innermost part of the thigh, the innermost part of the wing and the thickest part of the breast. Your thermometer should register 165 degrees in all three places.

Gravely said thermometers also allow cooks to control the doneness of their bird. Often, when the juices run clear, the bird is overcooked; a thermometer allows you to see exactly when the turkey is going to be done. She also said that, sometimes, the dark meat near the thighs can appear to be pink or even red, and that it’s safe to eat as long as a thermometer reads 165 degrees. 

  • Don’t store food outside, even if it’s cold.

Food should never be stored outside for two reasons: animals, wild and domesticated, and temperature variation. Animals can get into your food and ruin your meal, and can contaminate food they don’t eat entirely. Food can also become warmer than 40 degrees and begin to spoil.

  • Store leftovers no longer than four days.

Gravely said food begins to spoil after about four days, and because food prepared for Thanksgiving has been handled multiple times by multiple people, and often sits out, it’s best to toss leftovers after this time.

For proper food storage, the USDA recommends storing leftovers in the refrigerator within two hours of preparation. If you know you won’t use them right away, they can be placed into freezer bags or airtight containers and frozen for up to four months.

The USDA also has a number of resources for home cooks should they find themselves with questions come the big day. Questions can be directed to the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854), and people can chat live with a food safety expert online at AskKaren.gov between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Both resources will be available on Thanksgiving Day.

— Staff Writer Alan Bennett can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 329 or [email protected] 

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