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A plate of Thanksgiving food, including turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, and stuffing.

AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. — At Thanksgiving, the turkey is the star of the dinner table. However, it does no good if it is frozen, burned to a crisp or makes your guests sick. Safely cooking the perfect turkey takes time and planning.

Thawing Takes Time

Several frozen turkeys in a grocery store.If the plan is to pull out a frozen turkey the day before Thanksgiving and have it ready in time — think again. Properly thawing a turkey takes time.

Janice Hall, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System food safety and quality expert, said while it may take a while, thawing your Thanksgiving bird in a refrigerator is the safest way.

“The general rule of thumb is to allow 24 hours of thawing in a refrigerator per 5 pounds of turkey,” Hall said. “If you are cooking a 15-pound turkey, you need to start the thawing process at least three days before you plan to cook it.”

Hall recommends placing the turkey in a pan and placing it on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. The pan will help prevent cross contamination as the bird thaws.

“It is extremely dangerous to thaw meat at room temperature,” Hall said. “The food temperature danger zone is from 41 to 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Thawing a turkey at room temperature would create a perfect environment for harmful bacteria to grow.”

Cook Safely No Matter the Method

Roasting is an established method for cooking a turkey. However, in recent years, other methods have gained popularity. Hall said no matter which method you choose, you must cook a bird to the correct internal temperature.

“Turkeys must be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit,” Hall said. “To check the temperature, you need to have a food thermometer. Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the turkey, either the breast or the thigh.”

Turkey and dressing go hand in hand at Thanksgiving. However, instead of cooking it inside the bird’s cavity, Hall recommends cooking the stuffing/dressing in a separate pan. This will ensure that the dressing is cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

A Quick Cooking Alternative

Need a quicker way to cook your turkey this year? Hall said when you are pressed for time, the best way to cook a turkey is by pressure cooking.

“One Thanksgiving, I realized that I didn’t have room in the oven to cook two turkeys and a ham, so I thought to use my electric pressure cooker,” Hall said.

When using this method, Hall starts by cutting the turkey in half and submerging it in chicken broth. She then adds celery, bell pepper, onion, poultry seasoning, garlic cloves, salt and pepper and sets the cooker on high for 50 minutes.

“Oh, my goodness. It was absolutely amazing,” Hall said. “It was so tender, flavored all the way through and far better than the one I cooked in the oven. Everyone raved over it.”

More Information

For more information on food safety, visit the Food Safety section of www.aces.edu or contact the food safety and quality agent serving your area.