Mitzi Parker: Let’s talk turkey

Published 3:39 pm Monday, November 23, 2015

Turkey is the centerpiece of a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Whether you are cooking a turkey for the first time or are a “pro,” everyone needs to be reminded of proper thawing practices, cooking methods and temperatures to ensure both a delicious and safe bird!
How should I thaw my turkey? How long will it take?
There are three ways to safely thaw your turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave.
• The most recommended way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator. While thawing in the refrigerator, the turkey will not reach an internal temperature above 40 degrees F., so harmful bacteria will not have the chance to grow. Thawing a turkey in the refrigerator requires planning. If the refrigerator temperature is set at 40 degrees F. it will take about 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey to thaw.
• If you don’t have enough time to thaw the turkey in the refrigerator, you can try to thaw it in cold water. Make sure the turkey is wrapped well in leak-proof packaging, as the flesh can absorb water and make a watery product. Submerge the turkey completely in cold water. The water should be changed every 30  minutes until the turkey is completely thawed. It should take about 30 minutes per pound of turkey to thaw. Since temperature conditions are not controlled using the cold water method of thawing, the turkey should be cooked immediately after thawing.
• The third method of thawing is in the microwave. You should follow the oven manufacturer’s instructions for thawing turkey in the microwave. Always cook the turkey immediately after thawing in the microwave, as some parts of the turkey may have reached temperatures where harmful bacteria can grow.
What about basting, brining, and marinating?
There are many methods for preparing turkey so that a more flavorful end product is reached. Three of the more popular methods are basting, brining, and marinating.
• Basting is a process of moistening the turkey with butter, meat drippings, stock or some other type of liquid during the cooking process. Basting helps to prevent the poultry from drying out, while adding color and flavor.
• Brining a turkey involves soaking it in a solution of salt and water to enhance the flavor of the meat and make a juicier, more tender product. Sometimes a sweetener such as sugar, molasses, or honey is added to the brining mixture for added flavor and help with browning. The brine should be discarded after use.
• Marinating turkey is a great way to enhance its flavor and make it more tender. A marinade is an acidic sauce in which the food is soaked. The acid helps to break down the tissues of the turkey. If the marinade is to be used as a sauce, it must be boiled to kill any harmful bacteria that may be present. Marinades should never be re-used. It is best to set aside marinade that has not come in contact with raw meat for basting and sauces.
Should I stuff the turkey?
It is recommended that you cook stuffing separately from the turkey. The stuffing needs to reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees F.  in order to be safe. When the stuffing is inside of the turkey it takes much longer for it to reach a safe temperature. Often, by the time the stuffing reaches 165 degrees F., the turkey has overcooked and may be dry. By cooking the stuffing and the turkey separately you can better control the temperature that each one reaches. If you decide to go ahead and stuff the turkey, do so just before cooking. Make sure that the stuffing is moist and loosely stuffed in the turkey. Take the internal temperature of the stuffing during cooking using a calibrated food thermometer. Keep in mind that a stuffed turkey takes longer to cook than an unstuffed one.
How do I roast a turkey?
For roasting a turkey the oven should be set at a temperature of 325 degrees F. or higher. Place the turkey on a rack in a roasting pan and into the center of the oven. Whole poultry is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees F. as measured with a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. For reasons of personal preference, it is still best to cook turkey to higher temperatures such as 180 degrees F. to remove pink appearance and rubbery texture.
If the turkey is stuffed it must reach a minimum temperature of 165 degrees F. in the innermost part of the thigh, and the stuffing must also be 165 degrees F. If you are just cooking the turkey breast, it also needs to reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. to be safe. Use a calibrated food thermometer to check the turkey for doneness. For reasons of personal preference, it is still best to cook turkey to higher temperatures such as 180 degrees F. to remove pink appearance and rubbery texture. Even if the turkey comes equipped with a “pop-up” temperature indicator, it is important to use a food thermometer to ensure its safety. After taking the turkey out of the oven, let it stand 20 minutes before carving for best quality.

Approximate cooking times
8-12 lbs. — 2 3/4 to 3 hours
12-14 lbs. — 3 to 3 3/4 hours
14-18 lbs. — 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours
18-20 lbs. — 4 1/4 to 4 ? hours
20-24 lbs. —4 1/2 to 5 hours
8-12 lbs. — 3 to 3 1/2 hours
12-14 lbs. — 3 1/2 to 4 hours
14-18 lbs. — 4 to 4 1/2 hours
18-20 lbs. — 4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours
20-24 lbs. — 4 3/4 to 5 1/4 hours

**** These times are approximations for turkeys that are fully thawed and held in a refrigerator that is at or below 40 degrees F. Always use a calibrated food thermometer to determine the doneness of the turkey.
Can I cook a frozen turkey?
Turkeys can be cooked from frozen. Keep in mind that it will take about 50 percent longer to cook a frozen bird than a fresh one. It may be difficult to remove the giblets while the turkey is still frozen. Try removing them once the turkey has been in the oven long enough to defrost. Do not cook a frozen turkey in the microwave because it will cook unevenly and may not reach a safe temperature.
Is pink turkey meat safe to eat?
The only way to accurately test a turkey for doneness is with a calibrated food thermometer. The color of the turkey meat can remain pink even when cooked to safe temperatures. Smoked turkey meat always remains pink. As long as the turkey has reached a safe internal temperature, you do not need to worry about it being pink.
What are hock locks?
A hock lock is a device that secures together the legs of a turkey. Many turkeys that you purchase in the grocery store will come with the legs tied together using a hock lock. The hock locks are most often made of heat resistant materials and can be left on during the cooking process. However, leaving the hock lock on during cooking can make it much more difficult to cook the bird evenly.
What do I do if I left the paper- or plastic-wrapped giblets in the turkey during cooking?
If you mistakenly left the giblets in the turkey during cooking, remove them from the cooked turkey and carefully examine them. If they were wrapped in paper then there is no concern about the safety of the turkey. If they were wrapped in plastic examine the plastic to see if it has melted or been altered in any way. If there is evidence that the heat has altered the state of the plastic, do not eat the giblets or the turkey. If the plastic bag remained unaltered, the giblets and the turkey should be safe to eat.
What do I do if I cooked the plastic pad and absorbent paper that is packaged under the turkey?
If you accidentally cooked the plastic pad and absorbent paper check to see if it has been altered by the cooking process. If it has you must not eat the turkey, otherwise the turkey should be safe to eat.
Thanks to Elizabeth L. Andress, UGA Extension Food Safety specialist, for sharing this important food safety information on cooking turkey. Have a wonderful and safe Thanksgiving holiday.

Mitzi Parker is Sumter County Extension agent/Family and Consumer Sciences, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service. Contact her at 229-924-4476.