Turkey tactics for the holiday season

University Park, Pa. -- With Thanksgiving and the year-end holidays fast approaching, now is the time to put plans into action for roasting the perfect turkey for your family feasts. There are many things to consider when it comes to selecting, thawing, roasting — and saving leftovers from — your holiday turkey, according to an expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

The first question is, fresh or frozen?

"The majority of grocery stores in our region offer both fresh and frozen turkeys," says Mandel Smith, nutrition educator for Penn State Cooperative Extension in Montgomery County. "Fresh or frozen, allow one pound of turkey per person." Frozen turkeys can be selected months in advance and can be kept frozen indefinitely, Smith says, but you should cook it within one year for best quality.

Smith notes that there are three ways to thaw your turkey safely: in the refrigerator, in cold running water or in the microwave oven.

"Thawing the turkey in the refrigerator is probably the most efficient way for most home cooks," she says. "This method does take some planning, because the average time for thawing a whole turkey is three to five days, depending on the size of the bird."

If you thaw your gobbler in the fridge, Smith recommends following two simple steps. First, keep the turkey in the original wrapper. Next, place it on a tray or in a pan to catch any juices that may leak. Once thawed, a turkey can remain in the refrigerator for up to two days.

A fresh turkey works well when you don't have several days to thaw a whole turkey in the refrigerator. Smith advises purchasing it one or two days before you plan to cook it.

"Again, store your fresh turkey in the refrigerator in a pan to catch any juices that may leak from the packaging," she says.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not recommend buying fresh, pre-stuffed turkeys, Smith cautions.

"If fresh, pre-stuffed birds are not handled properly, harmful bacteria can grow in the stuffing," she says."Frozen pre-stuffed turkeys, on the other hand, can be safe if the turkey has a USDA or state mark of inspection on the packaging.

"Frozen, pre-stuffed turkeys should not be thawed before cooking. These turkeys must be cooked from the frozen state. You should closely follow the package directions for handling and cooking."

To roast your holiday bird, you need a few basic pieces of equipment, some simple ingredients and an oven set at 325 F.

"A shallow roasting pan with a rack works well for turkeys," says Smith. "Don't be tempted to stuff the turkey. Cook the stuffing outside of the turkey in a casserole dish. This works better because it allows the turkey to cook evenly, and it's safer."

Remember to remove the giblets from the turkey cavities before you roast the turkey.

There are several ways to season the turkey. "Most seasonings will have little effect on the safety of the turkey," Smith points out. "Generally, simply rubbing the skin with olive or vegetable oil and sprinkling the turkey with salt and pepper works well."

Smith recommends tucking the wing tips under the shoulders of the bird for more even cooking. "Add one half of a cup of water to the bottom of the roasting pan, and cover the turkey during the first 60 to 90 minutes by using the lid of the roaster or by placing a heavy-duty aluminum foil tent over the turkey. This allows for even cooking and browning."

Checking the temperature of the turkey is a key step in making sure it is safe to serve, according to Smith.

"The USDA recommends roasting the turkey to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Farenheit," she says. "Even if your turkey has a pop-up temperature indicator, you still should check the temperature in the innermost thigh and wing and in the thickest part of the breast with a meat thermometer.

"You also can use an oven-proof food thermometer," she adds. "Place the oven-proof thermometer in the turkey at the start of the cooking cycle. For a whole turkey, place the thermometer in the thickest part of the inner thigh. Once the thigh has reached 165 degrees, check the wing and the thickest part of the breast to ensure the entire turkey has reached the 165-degree mark. For best quality, let the turkey stand for 20 minutes before carving to allow the juices to set. The turkey will carve more easily."

Once the meal is over, Smith warns, don't allow the turkey to remain at room temperature for longer than two hours. She recommends dividing leftovers into smaller portions before refrigerating. "It's better to refrigerate leftover turkey in shallow containers because they allow the meat to cool to a safe temperature faster," she says. "Leftover turkey must be used within four days. Plan to use or freeze leftover gravy within two days."

For more information on other methods for cooking a turkey, Smith suggests calling the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at (888) 674-6854 or visiting USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service online at www.fsis.usda.gov.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010