By CARLA Y. BUSH
With Thanksgiving and Christmas rapidly approaching, it is turkey time for many people who are preparing holiday spreads. Yet while the popular poultry may be a delicious addition to the your holiday menu, safety should be your top concern to avoid potential health risks.
"There are five common mistakes people make when cooking a turkey," said Dr. Janie Burney, a nutrition specialist with the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service.
The first mistake, according to Burney, is defrosting the turkey at room temperature. As the turkey starts to defrost, bacteria will grow on the surface of the turkey. Some kinds of bacteria and the toxins they produce are not easily destroyed, even by cooking.
To safely defrost a turkey, Burney says to use the refrigerator. "Allow one day for every five pounds of turkey," said Burney. "For instance, a 15-pound turkey would take three days to defrost in the refrigerator."
In case you forget to take your turkey out of the freezer early enough, you can use the cold-water method, Burney said. This involves submerging your wrapped turkey in cold water and adding ice or cold water every 30 minutes.
A second mistake to avoid is stuffing the turkey the night before. "This is a mistake because the cavity of the bird insulates the stuffing and may prevent it from cooling to a safe temperature," said Burney.
Another common error is cooking the turkey at a low oven temperature overnight. "Cooking a turkey below an oven temperature of 325 degrees F is unsafe because bacteria can grow inside the turkey where the temperature stays below 140 degrees F," Burney said.
The fourth cooking method to avoid is partially cooking the turkey the day before. "Interrupted cooking may increase bacterial growth," said Burney.
Lastly, Burney warns not to cook the turkey ahead of time and leave it whole in the refrigerator. "Cooking a turkey ahead of time is fine," she said. "However, a cooked turkey is too big to cool quickly enough in a home refrigerator."
Instead, Burney recommends cooking the turkey a day or two before the holiday, using a meat thermometer to make sure the turkey reaches 180 degrees F (stuffing should reach 165 F). Remove stuffing immediately after taking the turkey out of the oven. Before carving, allow the turkey to sit for 20 to 30 minutes to let the juices settle, then store the turkey slices in covered, shallow pans in the refrigerator. Reheat to 165 F before serving.